Monday, May 8, 2017

Unexpected Treasures: Twelfth Night at the National Theatre

Doon Mackichan and Tamsin Greig in Twelfth Night at London's National Theatre. (Photo: Marc Brenner)

The finest production of Twelfth Night I’ve ever seen was by the Théâtre de Soleil at the Olympic Arts Festival in L.A. in 1984. It was as leisurely as a conversation with good friends that trails late into the night. Visually it was plush: every new scene was signaled with a quilted backdrop that tumbled down in front of the previous ones. The director, Ariane Mnouchkine, embroidered the big comic moments so they were like inspired vaudeville or silent-comedy routines, but the play paused to frame the melancholy ones, too, so the cumulative emotional effect of the evening was rich and overpowering.

I thought of Mnouchkine’s Twelfth Night at several points during Simon Godwin’s staging of the play for the National Theatre, which the invaluable NT Live series has been sending out around the world in HD. It’s a banquet of a production, and startlingly fresh. Godwin has given it a contemporary setting – Olivia (Phoebe Fox) and her female staff, led by Maria (Niky Wardley) and the clown Feste (Doon Mackichan), live in a sort of girls’ club environment, while Orsino (Oliver Chris, whom I admired in One Man, Two Guv’nors) helms what feels like a fraternity for the rich and entitled. One of the rooms in his castle is a gym where he spars with Cesario, the male persona Viola (Tamara Lawrance) has adopted, spar, and Godwin has turned one of his scenes into a fortieth birthday party, complete with balloons and party hats, that points up how slow he’s been to attain maturity. (The emphasis on gender division links the play to Shakespeare’s earlier romantic comedy, Love’s Labour’s Lost.) Even Malvolio, Olivia’s steward, is a woman: Malvolia (Tamsin Greig), though unlike the other females in the house, she most emphatically does not party. The twenty-first-century setting allows for her infatuation with Olivia, of course, and it lends a tender quality to the love that Antonio (Adam Best) exhibits for Viola’s twin brother Sebastian (Daniel Ezra), who is so grateful to Antonio for his many kindnesses, after the shipwreck that separated the siblings, that we see how much he wishes he could reciprocate – but he just can’t. It also permits a lightly homoerotic flavor to Orsino’s friendship with Cesario that enhances this comedy of sexual confusion.

Malvolia, with her shoulder-length razor-cut bangs, is so fastidious that she can’t stand it when the box trees in the garden are askew by an inch. Greig is the funniest performer I’ve ever seen in this part, and the more ridiculous her character becomes once she reads the letter Maria writes in her mistress’ hand professing love for her, the more hilarious she becomes. (The letter scene is a comic symphony.) Greig keeps us in touch with the human side of her folly, like Fiona Shaw as the duped love object in Clare Peploe’s great movie of Marivaux’s The Triumph of Love; the problem is that – even though Godwin carefully stages the moment when she makes Maria angry enough to provoke her to take revenge – in its last stages the gulling of Malvolia becomes cruel, as it sometimes does in modern productions. (It did in Tim Carroll’s all-male version for Shakespeare’s Globe.) Godwin does everything he can think of to showcase Malvolia’s response to her treatment, even giving her the final moment of the play, which is beautifully staged and acted. It does everything but work.

Daniel Rigby and Tim McMullan in Twelfth Night. (Photo: Marc Brenner)

But I respected Godwin for trying to honor the play’s (potentially) darker side. This Twelfth Night is full of imaginative comic ideas (the gifted Tim McMullan plays Sir Toby Belch as a superannuated Sloane Ranger, too soused to realize he’s too old to be the hipster he pictures himself as), but it’s also seeded with moments of surprising emotion. After the shipwreck, Viola awakens in the hospital, hooked up to an IV; when she asks the Sea Captain (James Wallace, doubling as the Priest) if he thinks Sebastian might have survived, he hands over her brother’s jacket, and she wears it as a talisman for the next few scenes. Though the Viola-Olivia exchanges are playful, Olivia’s head-over-heels affection for Cesario turns into anguish when she tells him, “A fiend like thee might bear my soul to hell.” Antonio’s disappointment when Viola-Cesario – whom he has mistaken for Sebastian – refuses to recognize him smacks equally of real heartbreak. And when he calls her by her brother’s name, she looks transported with a joy she hardly dares to believe in. Lawrence (who gives an entrancing performance) and Ezra (who has a charming romantic-comedy lightness), are both Caribbean and both compact, and they look just enough alike to make the final scene, when they’re together on stage for the first time, rhyme exquisitely. I’ve never seen a Twelfth Night before this one in which the reunion of the siblings made me cry. (Interviewed during intermission, Godwin mentions that he has recently become the father of twins.)

Soutra Gilmour clearly had a great time designing outfits for the actors (I particularly loved Sir Toby’s lavender jacket), and her set, a marvel, is dominated by two long staircases that make the playing area between them look like a cross-section of a some enormous wooden fruit. Godwin has used the revolve in the Olivier Theatre – the biggest of the three houses at the National – to help make the production both fluid and kinetic. Orsino makes his first entrance in a car (with his attendant Curio, played by Emmanuel Kojo, riding alongside on a motorcycle), while Sebastian makes his way through the city on a bicycle; Antonio saves him when, unfamiliar with its neighborhoods, he’s mugged en route.

The cast, which also includes Daniel Rigby as a topknotted Sir Andrew Aguecheek, performs with an ease that amounts to elegance; the only actors who seemed to me to be trying too hard were Wardley and Imogen Doel as Fabia (formerly Fabian). At the center of the show Greig, Lawrance and Fox are superb, and in her musical numbers Mackichan, who plays Feste as more of a general entertainer than a clown, rises to their standard. Michael Bruce has set Feste’s three songs to music in three different styles, but it was the first – “O Mistress Mine” rendered in the form of a jazz ballad – that won my heart. The production is a chest from which Godwin and the cast keep pulling out unexpected treasures.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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