Last night, I went to the National Theatre to see Twelfth Night, starring Tamsin Greig as Malvolia – a gender-switch on the traditional Malvolio role. It was the National, and it was Greig, so it was naturally an excellent performance.
NB Cover photo is not mine. Clearly. From National Theatre’s website.
Tamsin Greig is billed as the star of the show, and she delivers – she draws attention when she’s onstage with her impeccable timing, facial impressions and body language, but she doesn’t overshadow the other actors. Part of that is fellow strong performances, but there’s also a quality to Greig that allows her to settle into a scene. She feels… natural, in every setting. She puts you at ease, and she reflects as much glory as she attracts. Set in a modern-day Illyria with cars, sunglasses and whisky, the gender flip seems perfectly natural. Pronouns are switched to ‘she’, and the ‘a’ rolls off the tongue. It feels very much like a non-issue.
Starting off the performance in puritan culottes and shirt with a blunt black bob, the ‘yellow stockings’ transformation is intense. Having seen a few adaptations of Twelfth Night, it’s not only the most extreme transformation I’ve ever seen produced, it’s also the most extreme transformation that seems humanly possible. There are – the yellow stockings (cross-gartered). And then there is the yellow leotard, with removable frilly skirt (which she does remove, as part of a strip-tease for Olivia). There is the voluminous white floating coat (also discarded, during the tease), and the piece de resistance – the shiny yellow nipple tassels, which she entreats Olivia to switch on at the end of her entrance, at which point – they spin. Her entrance itself is designed to provoke as much theatricality as possible; she’s first seen lounging at the top of a staircase, as Olivia and Maria approach. Her opening speech is delivered in song, as she removes clothing and makes alternatively romantic and lascivious gestures towards her lady. It is excessive and ridiculous, and it also really works.
I’ve read criticisms that this is too far out of character, that such a flip between puritan/stripper is too far of a reach. I’m not sure though – apart from the absolutely delightful image it makes (and the excellent reactions from Olivia and Maria), I feel it goes towards demonstrating just how much Olivia means to Malvolia. From the garden scene, we’re aware that she loves Olivia, that she wants to be next to her, to enjoy her confidences and act as an equal. The fake letter gives her all of this – her wildest dreams are all coming true. Even as Illyria is painted as a sexually liberal place (more on this later), she assumedly is aware that Olivia’s is sexually attracted to men, and so must have thought that this could never happen between them. Adaptations with Malvolio as a man – could there be some greater possibility that he could win Olivia? With complementary sexual orientations, and an established cultural precedent of women marrying older men? Is it that far removed from Sir Toby Belch’s marriage to Mary? My interpretation of Greig’s Malvolia is of a woman who has spent years in pining for a resolution that she knows will never happen; she’s suddenly given assured proof that her mistress – despite all odds – feels the same as she, and then she goes into a sort of madness to prove that love, driven by happiness, pride and desire. I can see it; I can see her transformation being all the more extreme for being a woman, in love with a woman. It’s hilarious and sweet and pitiful, and it’s all enacted beautifully by Greig.
The extremity of the costume also serves to make her humiliation more extreme. In jail, she’s shown as blindfolded, extremely dirty with her hands tied awkwardly behind her back. She’s desolate, and it makes for uncomfortable viewing being mocked by an energetic Feste. Yet, in the variety of Twelfth Nightline adaptations, she’s also depicted as perhaps one of the most deserving victims of punishments. She physically assaults Maria; she grabs her hair after catching her carousing with Sir Toby and the rest, and uses her grip to force her head up and down. Maria’s lack of reaction and the other characters’ non-response implies that this is not an unusual event. Malvolia is a steward, employing a senior position in the household. If she is violent towards junior members who do not abide by her rules (and judging by the positioning of the garden bushes, she has a lot of rules), she could have caused a great deal of pain. Did she deserve her punishment? Not for Sir Toby’s sake, or Feste’s – but possibly for Maria’s?
Her last words promise retribution. It’s a killer ending; “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you”, delivered with bitterness, anger and a touch of reslish. The performance’s closing image is of her; up on the staircase looking out over the audience. She sees you, she judges you. An unfinished ending, there is the definite sense that there is more to come after the curtains close; Malvolia is not yet finished with citizens of Ilyria.
And yet – it’s at the close of the play that she’s at her most vulnerable too. It’s an interesting switch between weakness and strength, which rather than confusing, serves to deepen this complexity of character. On hearing that Olivia did not write the letter, that her last hopes are over – she takes off her wig of blunt black hair. It’s all she has left of her severe persona, and her hair below is cropped and bleached. She looks sad, and vulnerable. Even before her end stance on the stairs (and, after her revenge-promising final line), there’s a view of her crying, mourning the ruins of the life she had lived. Everything about her character is shown to be extreme – her puritanism, her devotion, her yellow-stockinged transformation; it makes sense that the two most prevalent feelings of despair and anger would also be portrayed at their most extreme. I want to hear more from here. I want a sequel: Malvolia Returns. I would so watch that.
The Olivier is known for its revolving drum stage, and I’ve seldom seen a production where it hasn’t been used to good effect. The dominating set feature was a tall pyramid staircase with separating parts which could be closed together to form a wide sweeping stair, or pulled apart to reveal different backdrops as the settings for different scenes. A brick backdrop had several scenes, but most commonly used was the centre screen which had glass doors and windows to reveal green potted plants further behind. It was all white and glass and leafy chique, and it was bland enough that it worked perfectly both as a hospital setting and as Olivia’s grand house. The space behind the glass, and the ability for actors to come through the glass doors there – gave the idea of depth, and of continued space behind the confines on of the stage. The rotating structure also gave the opportunity to revolve the stage to see other parts of the scene; as other perspectives. The scene, for instance, where Sir Toby et al are carousing (an excellent scene – think disco lights and techno dancing) is intercut with a set rotation to reveal Olivia sleeping, with watchful Malvolia being disturbed by the noise. It provides more sense to the scene, and more impetus.
Plus – the physical act of moving the stage around gave the impression of the action moving forwards; of progress in the story. Generally, a really interesting and useful piece of set.
Illyria & Gender Politics
Illryia is liberal. Antonio openly kisses Sebastian; Sir Antony cops a feel of Sir Toby Belch – there is much manly embracing between Cesario and Orsino, and clear attraction on Orsino’s part for his supposed male serving man.
Aside – I love manly bonding scenes through the medium of play-fighting. Here, they were boxing. In other adaptatons, they’re fencing. It’s just the best way of demonstrating manliness – and allowing for some gentle physical contact.
Despite their evident attraction, it is with noted relief that Orsino is told at the play’s end that Cesario is female. Before this revelation, though, is there the idea that he would have taken Caesario as a man, anyway? It certainly seems that they’re about to walk offstage together, before Sebastian comes belting in and the expose commences. Maybe Orsino would have propositioned Cesario as a man, if he hadn’t been told earlier of Cesario’s hidden identity. Indeed, after Viola is revealed, Orsino kisses Sebastian. Supposedly mistaking him for Viola at the play’s close, but it’s possible that there’s something more there; something of a fantasy unfulfilled. He’s spent the play’s duration clearly drawn to his ‘male’ serving man, is there an element of him that wants to explore this, before he settles with Viola? Maybe his kiss to Sebastian is a way of saying goodbye to Cesario. Whether played for laughs or character development, it’s an interesting (and novel) addition into the scene.
Circling back to Antonio – the proposed inn where he and Sebastian are to meet: a club where men openly grope each other and a drag queen sings ‘to be or not to be’. Antonio is very certain on the location of the inn at which to meet. Is he planning on corrupting Sebastian?
In such a setting, Malvolia being sexually attracted to Olivia is so commonplace to be banal; it makes perfect sense with the setting and the assortment of characters. For the backdrop to a play where cross-dressing is the main plot contrivance & comedy formula, Simon Godwin’s Illryia is perfect.
As with most (all?) of Shakespeare’s comedies, Twelfth Night is very much a ‘problem comedy’. This production emphasises this best of all with the ending; which has a vaguely malevolent and decidedly unsettled note. The revolving staircase is used to best effect here, showing all the different storylines wrapped up in turn. The chapel, where Orsino and Viola exchange rings; Maria looking after a plastered Sir Toby (foretellings of her married life, I feel); Antonio being freed from his restraints, and leaving Illryia; Malvolia sat alone on the steps crying.
Everyone is married (Sebastian & Olivia before the play’s end, Maria & Toby offstage and Viola & Orsino depicted in the chapel), but there are no celebrations for it. It’s conspicuous. More celebrations were made of the Duke’s birthday, which isn’t even in the script. Yet, we have three weddings and three couples here, and not so much as confetti. Feste’s final song is the tone we’re left with, a mournful tune lingering on the line ‘and the rain, it raineth every day’ whilst sprinklers come on and characters appear on stage holding black umbrellas. In the midst, Malvolia rises up the staircase; her last image looking out over the audience with her ruined clothes and wilted hair and a stony glare. Nothing in the ending promises future happiness for the couples; indeed, it promises rain – every day. There are dark times ahead for Ilyria, and Malvolia is right in the centre of it.
- Feste is played by a woman; Feste is such an androgynous character anyway, the gender change doesn’t make any difference. But – there’s a problem with Feste. I’m not sure what to make of her; in turn she’s hardened, chipper, bitter and party-loving. She has a beautiful singing voice – and beautiful songs – but going away from the production, I’m not quite sure what I’m supposed to have made of her.
- Orsino’s birthday party – there’s something very sweet about him with his 40th birthday badge, and cohorts with the party hats (one of them wore two at once, it was very cute). Orsino may be a lot older than Viola (she looked conspicuously young throughout), but there’s a childishness to his character which might suit a younger partner. His wooing of Olivia, clutching flowers and a teddy bear, with his manservents presenting him on bended knee, hands outstretched – it’s all fairly adorable.
- I wasn’t wild about Olivia’s interpretation (felt overdone), but I loved her second half dress. The falling, flowing ruffles shouldn’t have worked, but they so did.
- I’ve seen Trevor Nunn’s version of Twelfth Night about 15 times (starring Imogen Stubbs and Helena Bonham Carter – just so good), and could not help the constant comparisons. My absolute favourite scene is Cesario & Orsino on the moors; talking of love, with Viola’s voice tempered in Cesario’s careful speech – “my father had a daughter who loved a man”, “I am all the daughters of my father’s house, and all the brothers too”. Orsino has some great lines too; “for women are as roses, whose fair flower being once displayed doth fall that very hour”. It’s beautiful and poignant and absolutely loaded with subtext. Simon Godwin’s production does it fine, but I missed the emotion. Sitting in the aftermath of Orsino’s 40th birthday party, with each character slyly nudging towards each other, it felt cheapened, somehow.
- Just the best live musicians. That lady who lounged around stage with flowers in her hair playing the trumpet, and sometimes the flute? Epic. I love her.
- I had completely forgotten that the quote, “Some men are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them” is from Twelfth Night. Less, that’s it’s a line from the fake letter Maria writes to Malvolio. Talk about lofty beginnings…