Twelfth Night @ The National Theatre

Time and again, I have heard more than one Shakespeare sceptic question whether the bard’s work is relevant in modern society and culture. The playwright’s supporters all hastily run to his defence, crying out about his powerful themes and incisive understanding of human nature. A better answer, I feel, would be to have those same cynics sit through the latest adaptation of his much loved comedy of reversals, Twelfth Night. Similarly to the National Theatre’s 2011 production of A Comedy of Errors, where the Dromio twins sported Arsenal shirts and Adriana became a stiletto strutting wag, Simon Godwin’s Twelfth Night is full of modern twists. True to form, the National again challenges our expectations with its fresh take on a play concerned with shifting sexuality and fluid gender identities.

On a stage which saw men dressed as women masquerading as men, Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night boldly intimates the complexity of gender and sexual identity.  In Godwin’s 2017 production of the same play, a daring choice has been made to extend this discourse with the introduction of ‘Malvolia’.  Tamsin Greig’s female interpretation is seamless; she wonderfully reincarnates this much performed character without losing sight of Malvolio’s crucial role in the play. With a pinched face faintly redolent of a much peeved Severus Snape, and a rather severe cropped black bob, Greig maintains the air of austerity which defines the character. Having seen Stephen Fry’s 2012 performance, however, Greig’s Malvolia seems to undergo a much more interesting character development. In this incredibly light-hearted play, there are a number of more sinister moments. After Maria (Niki Wardley) is found cavorting with Sir Toby and his crew she is pulled aside by Malvolia and upbraided for her disorderly conduct. The revelry is ended, despite Maria facing the audience like a naughty child with a marker pen moustache. Malvolia grabs her knot of hair and wrenches her neck backwards, like some kind of back alley thug, as a warning to get back in line.

Malvolia’s transformation, cross-gartered in yellow stockings, is all the more shocking as she becomes a gushing, thrusting cabaret figure, complete with novelty nipple tassels. She struts onto the set wearing a Pierrot shirt, intimating that she is regarded as little more than a pantomime figure. While productions sometimes brush over Malvolio’s cruel embarrassment at the end of the play with a traditional Shakespearean jig and much merriment, Godwin’s adaptation takes pains to show how the outsider is left damaged by their abuse. Malvolia removes her wig as if to unveil her true self and in a desperate final scene stumbles up the steps of a large staircase, still wearing her dirtied yellow leotard (tassels having mysteriously disappeared) like a burning scarlet letter betraying her humiliation. While the ingenious rotating stage shows the characters pairing off, getting married and moving forward, Malvolia is left standing alone in the rain.

The ambiguity of Viola’s (Tamara Lawrance) gender identity is also interesting. At times she embraces her masculine persona, comically pretending to take another man from behind in a show of laddish banter and quite literally sweeping Olivia (Phoebe Fox) off her feet like Prince Charming. However, her timidity in the organised duel with Sir Andrew (Daniel Rigby) and self-conscious touching of knees with Orsino (Oliver Chris) remind us that she is unable to hide her female self. Her costume is perhaps the greatest indicator of this collision of identities. Dressed for most of the play in a long white tunic with black ankle length trousers, her image is a decidedly androgynous 21st century look. This styling serves to remind us that it would be naïve to fall into the trap of accepting the play’s heteronormative ending.

These modern references in clothing are continued by other characters with comedic effect. When Cesario visits Olivia’s house she dons her ‘veil’, aka a pair of black sunglasses, posing with her posse of ladies in waiting like Victoria Beckham ready for the paps. Sir Andrew’s self-conscious fiddling of his edgy top knot similarly triggered a few more audience laughs (perhaps as they touched their own top knots) when he asked of Sir Toby ‘But it becomes me well enough, does’t not?’ Michael Billington has argued that the flagrant sexuality of gay bar the Elephant Inn is a touch excessive, as leather clad men with dog leads around their necks rub each other suggestively and a drag queen stands centre stage, belting out a tune. However, in a production which also sees Sir Toby and his crew of degenerates dancing to rave music and Tamsin Greig strutting about with nipple tassels, it seems strangely fitting.

5 stars.

The Glass Menagerie @ Duke of York’s Theatre

Nominated for a string of Olivier Awards and guided by the sensitive direction of John Tiffany, this latest adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ memory play is a triumph in more ways than one. Set in 1930s America, on a stage saturated with images of reflection, The Glass Menagerie is a breeding ground of unfulfilled hopes and restless anxieties. We are introduced to the world of the play by its discontented narrator, Tom Wingfield (Michael Esper), a young man bound by inherited duty to his interfering mother Amanda (Cherry Jones) and crippled sister, Laura (Kate O’Flynn).  Concerned that Laura’s prospects of finding a male suitor are inhibited by her ‘difference’ from other girls, Amanda makes it her aim to secure a gentleman caller. With the addition of this fourth character, however, the characters’ futile hopes of a happier future are laid bare. Caught between memories and broken dreams, Tiffany has ensured that this adaptation remains very much of the play’s period.

Tiffany, however, is not the only director to take on this play in recent months. Last year, I saw another adaptation at Nottingham Playhouse under the guidance of creative director Giles Croft. Although, ostensibly, the productions shared several key similarities – in costume, set design and loyalty to the period – a striking difference revealed itself in the depiction of Laura. Modelled on Williams’ own mentally ill sister, the scope for interpretation of her character is clear in the directors’ alternative approaches. Croft’s Laura (Amy Trigg) was wheelchair bound throughout the performance, exaggerating the physical implications of her identity as a ‘cripple’. Whilst the presentation of Laura’s disability was arguably a little heavy handed, it added to the play’s feeling of entrapment: not only imprisoned in its single setting, Laura is also confined to her chair. Kate O’Flynn in the more recent production, however, is allowed her moment of blissful escapism. Swept off her feet – quite literally – by Jim (Brian J. Smith) in an endearing puppy dog love scene, the audience temporarily forgets the limp which has haunted her since high school. Insecurities are banished as she is held in a lover’s embrace. And perhaps this is why Tiffany’s direction of this scene is so striking. He builds up our expectations and encourages us to temporarily forget the fears and anxieties which characterise this play. With the brutal revelation that Jim is promised to another, the reality of Laura’s bleak situation is impressed ever more deeply upon the audience. The decision to reduce Laura’s glass menagerie to a single lone unicorn in this production is yet another indication of the isolation which makes it impossible for the characters to see beyond their own private worlds.

Despite the vein of tragedy which runs throughout this play, the actors cleverly negotiate a number of comedic moments. On most occasions, this is expertly led by Cherry Jones, her perfect caricature of the faded southern belle (complete with trembling southern lilt) offsetting much of the tension on stage. When the family receive Laura’s gentleman caller, she makes a grandiose entrance, posturing and displaying her new threads for her on-stage audience. Dressed head to toe in ruffles, with baby blue silk clinching her waist and a tiny blue bow delicately wrapped around her wrist, Amanda’s visible attempts at reviving her youth are made all the more ludicrous by her comparison with Laura. Had she been holding a staff and sporting a bonnet, you would have been forgiven for believing Little Bo Peep had walked on stage.  Yet, it would be a mistake to underestimate the value of Amanda’s character as simply comedic relief. Tom himself appears to learn this lesson when he cruelly imitates his mother’s wistful reminiscences, childishly mocking her ‘Blue Mountain Blue Mountain’. Silence descends upon the stage. The audience quickly abandons its laughter. Amanda stands stock still: the play’s garrulous entertainer shocked into silence, wounded by her son’s cruel taunts.

The stage itself appears to be suspended in space. Sounds of outside life are audible from the railings beyond the Wingfield home and the fire escape leads into the sky indefinitely, like some kind of stairway to heaven. Characters are constantly catching their own reflection; in the mirroring of movements and, more overtly, when Laura peers over the edge of the stage, beyond the restrictive parameters of her home, and is confronted by her watery reflection in a midnight pool. Nico Muhly’s nostalgic score and Natasha Katz’s cool blue lighting, which envelopes characters lost in recollection, serve to heighten this tension between reality and memory. In the closing scene, however, the stage is reduced to the light of a burning candle as Tom recites his final monologue. The characters withdraw to the corners of the stage and like some kind of contortionist creature, Laura squeezes her body into the crevice between the cushions of the sofa, escaping reality and returning to the comfortable darkness.