Rarely has a Shakespeare production startled as many horses as Simon Godwin’s take on Twelfth Night at the National Theatre. The headlines belong to Tamsin Greig, brilliant as a gender-reassigned Malvolia. Like all the best ideas, this re-imagining seems obvious once the initial surprise has registered, being a logical extension of Viola’s cross-dressing; of the boys-playing-girls convention of the Elizabethan stage; and of our modern fascination with identity. Indeed, it is a sign of how far we have come as a society, and as an audience of the play, that the idea of Olivia falling for another woman is not what makes the deceit practised on her steward preposterous. That still relies on the priggish nature of the latter’s personality and on the gulf in status that separates them. On psychology and class, in other words, of which more presently.
Malvolia’s fall from grace has no shortage of contemporary echoes. Deemed crazy rather than disloyal, her imprisonment raises uncomfortable questions about the definition of madness and how we treat those diagnosed as insane. Even more uncomfortably, the sight of a woman bound and gagged, her costume suddenly resembling a state of undress, brings to mind our present-day plague of rape, domestic violence and kidnapping. Greig handles this change in mood quite movingly, the butt of our derision turned into an object of pity. Whatever else she represents, this wretched creature has carved out a position for herself in a predominantly man’s world, the same threat to patriarchy which lone abductors and alt-right movements alike are motivated to repel.
As with gender, so with otherness, a further context by which this production is framed. The appearance of strangers in our midst and what to do with the victims of disaster: we are faced with these challenges almost daily, and Shakespeare dramatizes the responses available to us. Having been rescued from the sea, Viola is immediately accepted, albeit with her true nature concealed, while Sebastian’s initial experience comes closer to the modern refugee’s, although even in his case love finally prevails. These twists and turns may be plot-driven rather than point-making; and the show’s gestation presumably predated the triumph of Trumpery. Yet the parallels are almost uncanny. At a time when progress towards racial and gender equality is under attack, Illyria, one of those Shakespearean dream-places located between reality and imagination, shows us what the world might look like if where you came from mattered just as little as who you fancied.
The origins of the production must also predate Brexit and the death of Martin McGuinness. But, whether by accident or not, it manages to be timely in this regard as well. The sea captain Antonio, besides having his love for Sebastian made homoerotic, is given an Ulster accent, as is his nemesis in the duke’s entourage, their old enmity still simmering. Suddenly we are back in the Troubles, whose return is feared if the Irish border becomes ‘hard’ once again. In those scenes – and those voices – with their hard edges of hatred and violence, the sexual politics feel almost benign. Yet here, too, some kind of truth and reconciliation is achieved, a reminder of how much, in the present climate, we stand to lose.
It has to be said, however, that these nuances are sometimes in danger of being obscured by the production values that Godwin brings to the play. The set design, with revolving spaces that open and close, is dazzling, the flights of stairs symbolic in clever and unexpected ways (contrast the light-footed descents of the privileged Olivia and Sir Toby with Malvolia’s struggle to ascend). But with every innovation something traditional is lost, and the show business razzmatazz detracts from the genius of the words. Performing Shakespeare used to be all about how you spoke the lines. Granted, this could produce wooden or cerebral acting but the text was privileged above all else, an appeal to the intellect as much as the emotions. In recent years we have seen Shakespeare: The Musical taking over, with musicians on stage, dance routines and ever-more garish costumes. These values pander to a modern sensibility, unbuttoned, participative but less exacting, perhaps – witness the cheering from tonight’s audience, which made it sound like a school production at times. Of course, it might equally well be argued that, far from being a modern travesty, this represents a return to the original spirit of Tudor and Stuart performance: rowdy, irreverent and crowd-pleasing. In which case I am cast as the po-faced disapprover, frowning on a bit of innocent fun.
As Malvolio, in fact. It is to him – or in this case, her – to whom our thoughts inevitably return. One should be wary of psychoanalysing a fictional character, but can we agree there is a suggestion of insecurity, even self-loathing in this portrayal, of the kind that is turned outwards into spitefulness towards others? After all, narcissism is a front, a means of hiding or compensating for its reverse. How else to explain being hoodwinked so easily than by a desperate, if sublimated, longing to be loved? When that prospect unexpectedly arrives, with the reading of Maria’s forged letter, Greig’s character is briefly but spectacularly transfigured. In therapy such an outcome would be hailed as a breakthrough, with a softening towards others expected to follow. But to reveal oneself so openly is also to become vulnerable, and the play loses no opportunity to expose her to even greater ridicule. By inviting us to laugh, is Shakespeare shaming our complicity in her debasement, or were these simply the values of his age? Either way, the sight of this once-loathed-but-powerful figure being baited is difficult to take and holds up another mirror to our age, with its revenge porn and demonising of the disadvantaged.
But she is already plotting her revenge, an unusual ending among Shakespeare’s plays, with their timely comeuppances and knot-tying. And who might that payback be intended for? First in line would be Sir Toby and Sir Andrew, her two tormentors-in-chief. The original lords of misrule were pranksters licensed by their aristocratic patrons, although the archetype has acquired a more positive reputation for preventing society from becoming overly controlled. Viewed from another angle, however, they are feckless members of a purely decorative ruling class, exempt from the duties of hard work and solvency imposed on the rest of us. In contrast, Malvolia is a meritocrat raised by her own efforts, a product of ability rather than birth – a heroine, potentially. The trouble is her puritanism, emphasised in most productions by dressing the character all in black. Shakespeare knew all about that tendency, with its hatred of the theatre, and this may have been a means of acting out the artist’s distrust of censoriousness, of ‘visualising’ his fear by defeating it on the stage. Of course, he was too subtle and wise for single dimensions, for cardboard cut-outs with no life of their own. Olivia’s household would not function without her steward’s brand of punctiliousness and sense of duty. It represents, if you like, a kind of management style. But it is meanness of spirit we are intended to remember – and beware. Those words at the end of the play, threatening ‘the whole pack of you’, may express Shakespeare’s premonition of the killjoy’s triumph one day, in which case he was right, given what happened after the Civil War. In fact, the figure of Malvolio, dark-clad and implacable, returns throughout history. Murderous Jacobins, regicidal Bolsheviks – even fanatical Islamists: all have gone for a non-frivolous look in the service, as they see it, of remaking the world.