I’ll happily make the confession straight off: Twelfth Night is by some distance my favourite Shakespeare play. It’s a beguiling but tantalisingly elusive blend of genuinely funny comedy (never a given – look and weep at the Dogberry scenes in Much Ado) and downright unhappy endings, with some of the most dubiously embarked-upon marriages in the canon. Add to this a mercurial through-line of sophisticated sexual and gender confusion in a purportedly heteronormative world, and the possibilities for daring directors are endless. Unfortunately I’ve never seen a production that comes close to encompassing even some of the above. The National’s last stab at this play, from Peter Hall in 2010, was just one of many sub-standard accounts.
Simon Godwin, one of the National’s most reliable pairs of directorial hands, does notably better here. It’s not my perfect, Platonic rendition of this play, as the full complexities of those act-five "resolutions" remain unexplored, but Godwin gets so much right in a notably nimble-footed modern-dress production. What he and his high-calibre cast consistently offer is a sure sense of a repressed society that has love – and, above all, desire – bursting out all over the place just where they shouldn’t.
The headline news is the gender-switching of Malvolio into Malvolia. Some hoary old traditionalists may carp, but female takeovers of male roles in Shakespeare is the new normal. The cherishable comic actress Tamsin Greig makes fine work of the uptight steward, hell-bent on banishing any hints of cakes and ale revelry from her mistress Olivia’s household. Greig has a delightful line in sour-faced disdain and mirthless laughter, as well as physical comedy. She walks like a drone on a deadly mission. The cross-gartering, always tricky to pull off, doesn’t work, but the cruel imprisonment of Malvolia adds exactly the right discordant note to the supposed "happy" ending.
Godwin has done clever things with Olivia (Phoebe Fox) too. No longer repressed and uptight, Olivia is now a sexual predator in a stylish black mourning dress, hungry for the physical side of life but just not with Oliver Chris’ unappealingly blustering Orsino, who speaks as if he’s narrating a Boys’ Own adventure story. Fox, one of the finest of the upcoming generation of stage actors, revels in this freedom, at one point donning a swimming costume to try and lure Tamara Lawrance’s emotionally honest Viola/Cesario into a luxurious indoor plunge pool.
The expansive Olivier stage, with its much-loved revolve, offers a lot of possibilities to designer Soutra Gilmour. Occasionally things feel unnecessarily bigged up to fill the space available, but a flashy shipwreck at the start is a strong anchor for the story. As ever, the comic characters provide the best value, with Niky Wardley a real find as a clever, straight-talking Maria. It’s salutary, too, to remember that she and Sir Toby (Tim McMullan, wry but cruel) conduct the only proper love-match in the entire setup. Godwin scores again with a clever little hint that Aguecheek (Daniel Rigby, charming in his foppery) really has the hots for Toby. Not perfect, then, but pretty damn good.