Gender-bending in Shakespeare is nothing new. We have had female Hamlets (Frances de La Tour, Maxine Peake), Lears (Kathryn Hunter, Glenda Jackson), Richard IIs (Fiona Shaw), Henry IVs (Harriet Walter), Prosperos (Helen Mirren), and even Horatios and Poloniuses on film. Last year I saw a gender-flipped Taming of the Shrew with the male roles played by women, and the female roles by men.
Twelfth Night itself has been played by an all-male cast before, and here we have women playing the roles of Malvolia (Malvolio), Feste, and Fabia (Fabian), together with an obviously signposted gay Antonio (Adam Best – his suggested meeting place for Sebastian is a bar which has leather types and a Kinky Boots Lola-lite drag singer). It gives a freshness to the story of the twins who believe each other lost at sea, and the choice of Viola to assume a male identity as one Cesario, in which guise both Olivia, and Orsino, fall in love with her.
Tamsin Grieg and Doon Mackichan, image by Marc Brenner.
Tamsin Greig is top-billed as Malvolia, who spends most of the early part of the play as a Mrs Danvers-type of overbearing lesbian housekeeper, with a severe hairstyle which befits her station. As the plot progresses we have a delicious piece of comedy with the letter scene, where she ends up cavorting in the garden’s fountain, a dark interlude where she is imprisoned and tortured by Sir Toby and cohorts, and a final reveal and climb during ‘The Wind and the Rain’. Greig gives life to the often-thankless role of the steward, and we feel truly sorry for her at the end.
The set design of this production (Soutra Gilmour, James Farncombe, Christopher Shutt) is truly inspired, dominated by two staircases which move and morph, utilising the Olivier’s drum revolve beautifully, and by water features which appear and disappear (the fountain, a swimming pool into which Olivia hauls Cesario, and an eventual fall of rain). The lighting and the sound are both excellent, from the chandelier which comes down to signpost an opulent living space, to the distant thump of the beatbox to which Toby and his drunken friends carouse while Malvolia watches Olivia sleep.
Orsino (Oliver Chris) is largely played for laughs, although his maturity is signposted by a 40th birthday party scene in which Viola/Cesario first realises her love for him (and he for her/him?). Sir Toby (Tim McMullan) is a bawdy drunk, but not a Falstaff-like one – he cuts a fine dash in his swimming trunks and in a certain light might even be called attractive. Sir Andrew (Daniel Rigby, who was so memorable as the young Eric Morecambe on television), is a hipster who shows both his active side (raucous dancing moves), and his softer side (hugging the teddy bear Orsino gave to Olivia at the bus stop in the closing scene of the play).
Daniel Ezra and Adam Best, image by Marc Brenner.
Viola and Sebastian don’t really look like each other – she’s smaller and slighter – but Tamara Lawrence has a youthful swagger that might pass for a young man trying out his muscles, and Daniel Ezra does well in the scenes with Antonio, and where he recognises his thought-dead sister. Phoebe Fox is a fine Olivia, nominally in mourning for her brother but given to boogieing when she thinks no one is looking, and her anger at the deception which has cruelly wronged Malvolia feels real. Niky Wardley is Maria, with her nose and cheeks coloured by red lipstick in the drinking scene, and she’s good.
Imogen Doel is Fabia, Doon Mackichan has the tricky role of Feste, and although she has a great singing voice, the comedy of the part is lost (I don’t think the gender change is a successful one here). Simon Godwin directs, and this adaptation goes on for three hours, but feels less.
I’d call it a definite success, which brings out the emotional heart of the play as well as the broad comedy underneath.
Daniel Rigby and Niky Wardley, image by Marc Brenner.
Twelfth Night runs at the Olivier, National Theatre, until 13th May 2017.