With theatres around the world closed, stage productions are now entering our homes, via the internet. The fourth streaming performance from Britain’s National Theatre, Twelfth Night, takes its audience on a rollicking journey of mistaken identity and besotted love. By Peter Craven.

National Theatre Live’s Twelfth Night

Tamsin Greig as Malvolia (left) and Phoebe Fox as Olivia in the National Theatre’s Twelfth Night.
Tamsin Greig as Malvolia (left) and Phoebe Fox as Olivia in the National Theatre’s Twelfth Night.

In the year of the plague strange things happen to the idea of theatre. Alec Baldwin live-streams a reading of Orphans. People cleave to some of the great films of plays – from The Philadelphia Story to Long Day’s Journey into Night – and two million people watch the British National Theatre’s production of One Man, Two Guvnors. The National has always kept close guard over their multi-camera transcriptions of their productions – which have been shown in cinemas around the world but never released on DVD – but world-destroying and world-transforming viruses make strange bedfellows.

One Man, Two Guvnors, Richard Bean’s dexterous adaptation of Goldoni’s The Servant of Two Masters, was a crowd-pleasing rib-tickler by Nicholas Hytner, the former head of the National. Its streaming success probably bore some relation to the fact James Corden, who Hytner cast in The History Boys a few years earlier, has become a huge star in his own right. The National followed up their knockout classic farce with Jane Eyre and plan to stream another screaming success, Fleabag.

Earlier this week they were streaming a 2014 version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s ripping yarn Treasure Island, and from Thursday, April 23 – the anniversary of the Bard’s death, and likely his birthday as well – they have been streaming Twelfth Night, one of Shakespeare’s greatest happy comedies. This one is Simon Godwin’s 2017 production with Tamsin Greig in an arresting bit of gendershift as Malvolia, a female version of the humourless steward who is made the gull of all the roisterers.

Treasure Island, with its one-legged pirate Long John Silver and cabin boy hero Jim Hawkins, and its collection of grotesque and sinister old seamen from Billy Bones to Blind Pew to the marooned Ben Gunn, is a kind of tremendous wave of adventure magic that just keeps on giving.

Polly Findlay’s 2014 production sees the old romance go pretty much out the window, unless you’re willing to hold on to your hat and simply cop the gale of the plot together with a lot of shouty acting and a sort of relishing reversal not only of gender but of pretty clear-cut histrionic typology. In Bryony Lavery’s script we get the schematics of Stevenson’s story, but Patsy Ferran, playing Jim Hawkins, makes it clear nobody should care if she’s a boy or a girl – she’s patently the latter – and shrieks and rants, as does everyone else. Doctor Livesey is also played as a woman (by Alexandra Maher) but the acting is deliberately rough, broad gestured and folksy. It’s possible kids and… I don’t know, perhaps stoners… might warm to this rather eccentric attempt to make a jewel-like children’s classic into something that looks as if it’s an improvisation by a group of luvvies who can’t stand the constraints of belonging to a big-time company. There are various brilliancies of design by Lizzie Clachan and atmospheric moody lighting by Bruno Poet, but Arthur Darvill’s Long John Silver is so lightweight it looks like a deconstruction of the role.

Twelfth Night is in a different category – both in terms of ambition and achievement. This is one of the greater plays Shakespeare wrote for an ensemble. And although the National Theatre may look as though it’s dabbling in the black arts of fashion by again giving us gender-bending in terms of the characters, turning tragicomic lead Malvolio into a Malvolia, it is also a serious act of reversing expectations. Malvolio is the key role because he becomes the object of everybody else’s hilarities. This is the role Laurence Olivier played, as did Alec Guinness in a 1970 British TV version that had Ralph Richardson as Sir Toby Belch, that Cockney songster Tommy Steele as Feste, Joan Plowright as Viola and Adrienne Corri as Olivia. This recent National Theatre Live production is not in the same class, nor does it compare especially well with the Royal Shakespeare Company production of Twelfth Night by John Barton, which came to Australia in 1970 with Judi Dench as Viola and Donald Sinden as a grandly over-the-top Malvolio. But it is discernibly in the same tradition. And it will, for instance, hold its own with Simon Phillips’ 2018 production for the Melbourne Theatre Company with Christie Whelan Browne as Olivia.

In the Twelfth Night from Simon Godwin, the director who gave us one of the National’s best productions in recent years – Ralph Fiennes in a 2015 version of George Bernard Shaw’s most ambitious play, Man and Superman – Soutra Gilmour’s set, with a comprehensive vertiginous staircase writ magical by a revolve that conjures up a world, has all the razzle-dazzle of big-time theatre at its most high-tech and audacious. This is a Twelfth Night that takes Shakespeare’s romantic comedy masterpiece – other happy comedies may equal it but none could seriously be deemed its superior – and gives it the maximum vroom and shock value. Ian McKellen loves to quote his Cambridge tutor saying he was only interested in seeing Twelfth Night performed by archangels. Would Godwin’s production pass this test? Not quite, but Tamsin Greig’s performance as a lesbian Malvolia is something else. This is an audacity – a distortion if you like – that knocks the familiarity of the play for six. In the process it highlights its singularity, its sheer symphonic strangeness, even if you have known Twelfth Night from childhood.

Elsewhere the production is at once rough and slack. Phoebe Fox, by the grace of God, has touches of reticence and inwardness as Olivia even as she’s leaping on Tamara Lawrance’s vivacious but pretty ordinary Viola. The bum-slapping, momentary hand-holding bonhomie of Oliver Chris’s Orsino is a viable enough reduction of that lovelorn lord, and there is good knockabout stuff with Sir Toby Belch, Sir Andrew Aguecheek and Maria (though the name should be pronounced “Mariah” rather than the Italian or Sound of Music way). Doon Mackichan is a sleek-but-authoritative female Feste, the clown, the corruptor of words, the showman who sings “With hey, ho, the wind and the rain” and intimates the world of sorrow at the heart, or near it, of love.

But this is Greig’s show and she brings to it a dour, humourless authority that metamorphoses into the full lunacy of besotted love. Somehow this state of apparent madness releases and throws into high relief the sheer dizzying bewilderment of Shakespeare’s tragicomedy.

We’re used to the way he can take a character such as Shylock, who at first looks like an anti-Semitic sketch of a villain, and allow him to say, “Hath not a Jew eyes?” in the midst of a romantic comedy – albeit a problematic one. But Malvolio is such a familiar prototype of puritan sourness. And to turn this joyless character into a gay woman in a state of outrageous and belated erotic and affective frenzy uses Shakespeare’s own paintbox in a pretty viable and fascinating way, even if the conception is brewed in madness.

Twelfth Night is, after all, the supreme “master/mistress” play of Shakespeare’s comprehensive sexual gaming and badinage. Olivia falls in love with the shipwrecked Viola thinking she’s the boy Cesario, while Viola is in love with her adoptive liege-lord Orsino, who has eyes only for Olivia. Meanwhile there is Viola’s twin brother, Sebastian, who exactly resembles her apart from his gender. Sir Toby refers to Maria as “a beagle and one who adores me” and Sir Andrew in his fey sad way says, “I was adored once too.” And, yes, he’s in love with Olivia as well. But Malvolio, the denier of a world of cakes and ale, stands apart from all of them. The trick here is in the brilliance of zapping the play so much into a contemporary range of reference by making the character a lesbian, and this highlights the cruelty of the world and the capacity of humankind to inflict pain unfeelingly. Greig’s retreat into yellow stockings and cross garters is a transformation of this Malvolia into a kind of burst flower of lurid lust and lovelorn pain. It is bizarre, it is besetting, it is mind-boggling.

Godwin’s production is not very flash with the verse. It is quicksilver smart with the camping around and physical jerks but not strong on the beauty of the language or the generalised heartache of which it is the poetic expression. But Greig’s performance is like a road accident that hurls the play into the fullest, most spectacular intensity. Its representation of love as desperate damaged frailty gives this Twelfth Night a haunting distinction.

We should be grateful for these streamed plays. My hunch, though, is that we should go less for things that can highlight the faiblesse of the stage. A large captive audience deserves to see Carey Mulligan, every inch as impressive as the young Judi Dench, in Skylight, Johnny Flynn and David Morrissey in Hangmen, Billie Piper in Yerma for Australian director Simon Stone, and Ruth Wilson in Ivo van Hove’s production of Hedda Gabler.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 25, 2020 as "Back on stream".

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Peter Craven is a literary and culture critic.

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