Twelfth Night at The National: yellow stockings and crossed garters like you’ve never seen them before

Simon Godwin’s contemporary adaptation of Shakespeare’s comedic classic Twelfth Night is disguise, deceit and droll dramatics at its finest.

The play depicts the hilarious love quadrangle formed after twins Viola and Sebastian are separated at sea. Under the guise of Cesario, Viola becomes page to Duke Orsino. Orsino is enamoured with Olivia, but she rejects him and falls in love with Cesario. Cesario in turn is taken with Orsino, whom Sebastian rivals for Olivia’s affections…

The audience’s consistent laughter is an indicator of the production’s success. The most pleasure is found in the play’s lesser characters: the pathetic and impressionable Sir Andrew Aguecheek, and Steven-Tyler-lookalike (circa 70s/80s), Sir Toby Belch. Unfortunately the protagonists seem to fade in comparison. Oliver Chris’ Orsino is lacking in despondency and comes across instead as a little annoying, leaving Viola-turned-Cesario’s affection for the Duke unconvincing. Other duos shine however; we witness the unspoken adoration and love between Sebastian and Antonio and await a sequel to their passionate romance.

Tamsin Greig also delivers a standout performance as a female Malvolio. Finding a love letter from her ‘mistress’, Grieg’s once draconian and humourless puritan is transformed into a histrionic, smitten fool, overcome by the response to her previously unrequited love. Malvolia’s return in a shocking yellow corset with well-placed tassels (let the imagination wander) imprints an image that is both farcical and irresistible; her profession of devotion for Olivia bashes heteronormative boundaries and leaves us in fits of laughter. Greig’s fantastically executed slapstick and masterful ability to provoke emotion provides a perfect marriage of comedy and tragedy. We see her frolicking in a water-fountain, bursting with ecstasy, only for such bliss to be cruelly turned on her in a rain-soaked scene of rejection. Greig’s portrayal wins both our mirth and our pity.

Simon Godwin’s use of music and dance maintains a lively air, with the characters doubling up as conductors onstage, regulating crescendos and wonderful jazz solos in the midst of the action. ‘The Elephant,’ originally intended by Shakespeare as a lodge in Illyria, is transformed into a nightclub for drag queens and other enigmatic figures. The revolving stage is excellently utilised to transition between the impressive sets and scenery, which include a garden, an on-stage swimming pool and other whimsical designs.

Contemporary props are used to keep the play nouveau. There are no archaic handkerchiefs for knights in armour; instead flowers and a teddy are used to woo the fair Olivia, while she and her maidens don dark shades instead of veils. A female jester and instances of unmistakeable homoeroticism further test the boundaries of gender and sexuality. The twists and spins on the conventional details of Twelfth Night keep this adaptation fresh and engaging.


Twelfth Night runs at The National until 13 May. Tickets can be found from The National’s website.

Featured image: Marc Brenner for The National.

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