Review: National Theatre at Home: Twelfth Night

From director Simon Godwin comes a colourful, chaotic frenzy of a Twelfth Night that is choc-a-bloc with laughs, love, music and anguish. As part of the National Theatre at Home’s free YouTube streaming of shows, this week we are treated to Godwin’s vision of the foolish antics of Shakespeare’s tortured misfits and loveable rogues.

If you aren’t familiar with Twelfth Night, it is a classic Shakespeare comedy about mistaken identity. Sebastian and Viola are shipwrecked on the island of Illyria, and Viola assumes her brother’s identity, thinking he is dead. However, things don’t go smoothly for her when she gets caught in a love triangle with the Duke Orsino and Olivia, doting on him while Olivia dotes as much on her.

Photo Credit: Marc Brenner

This production had many merits. For example, Tamara Lawrence as Viola is incredibly convincing and heart-warming. She is earnestly loveable from start to finish, and hilarious when she needs to be. I could see why Olivia falls for her so quickly. Sir Andrew and Sir Toby make a top-notch comedy duo with their joyful hopping across the stage and drunken one-liners.

Photo Credit: Marc Brenner

Tamsin Greig also makes an excellent Malvolia with impeccable comic timing, and the role works well as a gender-swap – a testament to her talent. Her cabaret-esque wooing of Olivia had me in stitches, as did her fits of rage over the disorderly nature of the world around her. However, the implications of making her a lesbian are hard to ignore and cut a little deep. The show attempts to address this through taking her abuse seriously, which I appreciate, but it still feels a little depressing to watch her reach up into the rain, bedraggled and heartbroken, as the hetero-couples dance merrily off into the sunset.

The relationship between Antonio and Sebastian was also made romantic, but their love is consequently side-lined for Sebastian’s hasty marriage to Olivia. The source material has so much potential for exploring queer love; it seemed odd to me to not consider the implications of doing it through these characters.

Photo Credit: Marc Brenner

I think this is my problem with this performance: it didn’t seem to trust the text. In terms of the queer romance, these themes already existed in Orsino’s gradual falling for Viola as Cesario, and yet the character is side-lined. His lines are barked out; he is one-note, pompous and arrogant from beginning to end with little exploration made of his sensitive, romantic side. Olivia, too, feels off. Like many other characters, she is played with over-the-top rowdiness that seems to come out of nowhere and I couldn’t quite get a hold of who she was, and whether she cared about Viola/Cesario or not. Why were these moments brushed over, or played for laughs?

Photo Credit: Marc Brenner

This is my major problem with the production. It feels incomplete, and slightly rushed. The costumes are mismatched in time period, the set is constantly spinning, and the characterisation of these characters often confused me in the choices that were made. The fool is funny in places, and yet strangely low-key compared to how overly comedic the lovers became. Antonio seems to fade quietly and tragically into the background, and his romance with Sebastian feels like an after-thought.

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Photo Credit: Marc Brenner

Do not, however, think that this won’t be enjoyable for you to watch – there are enough laughs to sustain your attention, and it hits most of the emotional beats that it should. Overall, I am glad to have seen it, even if just for the sight of Tamsin Greig doing a striptease in yellow cross-gartered stockings.

Rebecca Warner

Featured Image Credit: Marc Brenner

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