[REVIEW] Twelfth Night, dir. Simon Godwin, National Theatre

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Doon Mackichnan as Feste, Tamsin Greig as Malvolia. (c) Marc Brenner.

Appropriately for a play that begins with a shipwreck, Simon Godwin’s Twelfth Night at the National Theatre left me with a lingering sinking feeling. The production is a watershed (I’ll stop) in cross-gendered casting, with Tamsin Greig’s Malvolia creating a mannequined Miss Hardbroom that kicks over the traces of Sir Donald Sinden, Richard Briers, Sir Nigel Hawthorne, et al. Less prominently, Doon Mackichnan plays Feste as a principal boy-turned-raver, and Imogen Doel carries equal opportunities to its logical conclusion by having to make the best of Fabia[n] – which she does very well, despite dialogue like ‘Sowter will cry upon’t for all this, though it be as rank as a fox’, a line so bad it merits mention in The Art of Coarse Acting. My problem is that this production, lauded for its celebration of race, sex, and gender, inadvertently uses cross-casting to tell a deeply homophobic story.

 

twelfth-night-doon-mackichan-as-festeimage-by-marc-brennerOn the surface, there’s much to like. Soutra Gilmour’s inventive set unfolds from a ship into an endlessly rotating pyramid that’s somewhere between Illuminati shout-out and a tomb by Canova. There’s a jacuzzi in which Phoebe Fox’s Olivia becomes a floozy (mourning garb replaced by a red bathing suit), any number of zooming cars and motorbikes, and a salmon-pink fountain that delights the audience by spurting symbolic jets on cue. The costumes are similarly witty, with Mackichnan’s Feste flaunting a sea-green tribute to Princess Beatrice’s pretzel-themed millinery.

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Daniel Rigby as Sir Andrew Aguecheek and Tim McMullan as Sir Toby Belch. (c) Marc Brenner.

There are also some excellent performances. Excluding Greig, chief of these is Daniel Rigby’s pink-suited Andrew Aguecheek, who, as Bertie Wooster with a manbun and an energetic vogue for disco, overshadows Tim McMullan’s Sir Toby, a rat-bitten roué.

Oliver Chris’s Orsino is the first truly loveable one I have seen, a superhero Prince Charming whose spoilt temper is sublimated into boxing, and who takes the audience into his confidence with winning ingenuity. He tussles readily with Tamara Lawrence’s Viola, an unusually even-tempered, cheerful heroine whose tendency to take all the verse at full pelt robs her bittersweet dialogues with Orsino of all their self-concealing pathos. She calls her situation a ‘barful strife’ but laughs her way through the first two acts, until the joy of being mistaken for a still-living Sebastian (‘Prove true, imagination, O, prove true’) yields the first moment of emotional connection.

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Oliver Chris as Orsino and Tamara Lawrence as Viola. (c) Marc Brenner.

This is a production where love electrifies and mobilises: Olivia gyrates to the onstage musicians’ elevator music, while Viola wriggles and hoots after Orsino gives her a kiss to deliver to Olivia. Ultimately, these are twins whose highest priority will always be each other; Daniel Ezra’s pugnacious, sexually opportunistic Sebastian (an excellent performance) seems bemused by both Antonio and Olivia’s devotion, but adores his sister.

 

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Tamsin Greig as Malvolia and Tamara Lawrence as Viola. (c) Marc Brenner

And then there’s Greig’s Malvolia. Every time she takes centre-stage, she brings with a consummate skill in verse-speaking that is sometimes absent elsewhere. Godwin’s production seems uneasy about the text: switching pronouns and honorifics in line with gender leaves characters ‘lady’-ing each other in the manner of vintage Coronation Street, but more important is the overriding feeling that the text is an impediment to the evening; a struggle to be overcome. Monologues are largely galloped through, Belch supplies ad-libs (Maria is a ‘dirty little girl’) but loses lines that illuminate, including Olivia’s revealing reluctance to ‘match above her degree’ by marrying the count Orsino. This is key to the psyche of the only Shakespearean heroine who uses her last line to insist she pays for her own wedding. Greig gives an electrifying performance, beginning as an obsessive-compulsive spinster, all angular bob, geometric gestures and gym shoes.

Every sympathetic Malvolio incurs tragedy when his passion is mocked; Greig intensifies this, partly by being pitched against an unusually unlikeable gang of ruffian sots, and partly through her bewitching incredulity when she believes her love for Olivia is returned. Her cross-gartered yellow stockings are tights with a pierrot jacket, the latter removed to reveal a primrose bodice and hot pants. Blindfolded and bound, her bare skin increases her vulnerability, and the denouement completes her humiliation – worse than her imprisonment is the realisation that her employer does not, after all, share her feelings – something this single-minded Olivia reveals with remarkably little sympathy.

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Oliver Chris as Orsino and Daniel Ezra as Sebastian.

Greig is an accomplished comedian, whose wit and timing provide all the necessary laughs before the swoop to tragedy: she is an hilarious and heartbreaking Malvolio, and this Olivier production a worthy forum for her talents. Simply making Malvolio’s desire for Olivia same-sex does not necessarily make Twelfth Night a homophobic production, or even a more homophobic play: poor old Antonio must necessarily watch his beloved pair off with Olivia. And there are some genuinely gender-queer moments of light-hearted comedy – Orsino, on his last lines, accidentally snogs a cheerfully acquiescent Sebastian.

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Tamsin Greig as Malvolia and Phoebe Fox as Olivia.

The wider tone disturbed me. Antonio is probably textually gay; this Malvolia pines for her mistress. But Twelfth Night stages a third great losers in love: Antonio, Malvolio, and Sir Andrew – and in Godwin’s production, Sir Andrew is also queer-coded, from his pink clothes and long, frizzy hair to his penchant for cuddling up to both Sir Toby (much to the latter’s disgust) and to the teddy bear Orsino gives Olivia. This is troubling not because it queers a Shakespearean icon, but because it does so via unimaginative stereotypes, as if Agucheek’s incompetent flirting and cowardly duelling mean only one thing. Rigby is an accomplished comic, but the net result is a production with three queer characters, who are also the three to end up humiliated and alone.

Also disconcerting is Orsino’s suddenly-averted gay panic when Viola turns out to be a girl, not a boy: a common moment in productions, but especially jarring when Oliver Chris’s Orsino had shown so little sign of desire for his page. In a production more sensitive to queer identity, the denouement might feel more ambivalent, but clichés abound. The Elephant (an Illyrian tavern, and Antonio’s intended lovenest) appears as a gay nightclub, in which understudies for The Village People hear a black drag queen perform Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be’ speech as a torch song. This showcases Emmanuel Kojo’s considerable singing talent, and provides an enchantingly funny moment when Rigby’s Aguecheek instantly corrects his ‘Now, sir’ to an ad-libbed ‘Sorry, miss’. But the interposition of another play’s text only reiterates this production’s discomfort with its own, and the gratuitous, glamorous drag queen affects an inclusivity the production doesn’t really possess. Elsewhere, the straight characters’ homophobia is largely played for laughs, and despite Greig’s brilliant, innovative performance, this ‘genderfluid’ Twelfth Night ends up feeling straighter than ever.

 Twelfth Night will be broadcast live as part of NTLive on 6 April. For more information, including the programme of education events, see the National Theatre website.

 

Red Velvet at the Garrick

Back in 2012, I was historical advisor on the original production of Lolita Chakrabarti’s Red Velvet, the theatrical biopic of Ira Aldridge. Aldridge was the first African-American actor to gain fame in Europe, and the play tells the turbulent story of his 1833 Othello at Covent Garden. My job was to introduce the cast to the world of 1830s theatre, and (the best part of all) help them recreate the melodramatic acting style that gives Red Velvet’s play-within-a-play sequences both humour and power. I drew on my expertise in the history of acting style, and images I’d worked with both at Oxford University and in the collections of the Garrick Club. The play ran at the Tricycle & has since toured to Brooklyn. Now, brilliantly, it’s part of the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company’s season at the Garrick Theatre. I was delighted to be invited back  to work with the new cast, who are absolutely lovely, and full of curiosity about the characters and their world.

Working with theatre companies is one of the very best parts of my job: play in the truest sense. Red Velvet has taken me places I never expected to go, and it’s enriched every aspect of my research. Even completely unconnected activities somehow link back – for example, as part of the final throes of Shakespeare’s Women and the Fin de Siecle (out soon!), I was watching a 1988 film of Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies (1891–1992) giving, as a nonagenarian, a masterclass for young Juliets. One of them was Lolita Chakrabarti herself – and thus I was able to get a first-hand account of the intergenerational mentoring that’s so crucial to my book.

I’ve also written academically about Red Velvet in Staging the Other in Nineteenth-Century British Drama (ed. Tiziana Morosetti, and published by Peter Lang, 2015). My chapter is entitled ‘A Progressive Othello: Modern Blackness in Chakrabarti’s Red Velvet (2012)’ and examines intersectional politics, race and biography. I talked about my experience as an historical advisor in Oxford and London, and you can read more about my work on Red Velvet in Guardian article which Adrian Lester wrote at the time.

Theatre and theatre history have different priorities. As a rehearsal-room advisor I constantly strike a balance between historical enthusiasm and encouraging the company I’m with to jettison anything that’s only historically, rather than artistically useful. Actors, directors and designers are always meticulous and their enthusiasm is so rewarding – never more  than on Red Velvet, where Indhu Rubasingham, the director, has been especially generous. I’m so proud the show now has its West End transfer. Go and see it, and on your way in, pay particular attention to the statue just opposite the theatre. Ira Aldridge [as played by Adrian Lester] now faces the Irving Memorial, D.F. Cheshire’s statue of Sir Henry Irving (1838–1905). Irving was Britain’s first theatrical knight, and the most powerful actor- and actor-manager on the late Victorian stage. It’s great to see two ground-breaking nineteenth-century actors in such proximity, and even better when it comes as a sign that Aldridge is finally getting the recognition he deserves.

[REVIEW] Much Ado About Nothing, Wyrd Sisters Theatre, Drayton Arms, London

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It’s increasingly clear that, for the new generation of Shakespearean actresses, the world of girls is not enough. Whether it’s Jade Anouka’s Hotspur at the Donmar, Pippa Nixon’s Bastard at the RSC, or Maxine Peake’s electrifying Hamlet at the Royal Exchange, women are building their careers by reinventing Shakespeare’s heroes. This is also the case for Wyrd Sisters, an emerging theatre company who, pleasingly, take their cross-casting policy in both directions. Thus, their production of Much Ado About Nothing, currently running at the Drayton Arms’ studio theatre (Old Brompton Road, SW5), we have a steely Leonata, played by Christina Balmer; a pugnacious Dogberry (Wendy Morgan), a skittish Ursule (Stuart Murray), and, most strikingly, a Claudia whose flowing hair and maroon beret make her look like she’s stepped straight out of Our Girl (Freya Alderson).

This contemporary, Anglicised Messina is somewhere between stately home and pub garden, where the returning soldiers booze on Somerset cider, strum guitars and plan the odd lesbian wedding. Leonata is a middle-aged hippie, poshly relaxed about her daughter’s sexuality, and then all nails and teeth when her wedding-day shames the family. Don Pedro, Claudia, Benedick, Don John and co. remain in fatigues, boots and berets for much of the play: the programme stresses that they are just back from Iraq. This is perhaps a poor fit for this cheerful gang of youths, who are prone to skinny playfighting and seem more like teammates than scarred veterans. The military background to Much Ado has, after all, never born too much scrutiny (the soldiers seem more Austenesque militia than Band of Brothers, and the emphasis on Operation Telic casts a chilly shadow over Balthasar’s carefree announcement that the combat has killed ‘But few of any sort, and none of name’ – Iraq or not, the subtext remains ‘So that’s all right, then’.

Charlie Ryall’s Beatrice, with her short, ruffled hair, baggy t-shirts and uncompromising stance, seems more like a soldier than Claudia: which is just as well, because of the two, it’s clear which woman lives in a state of constant warfare. This is a scornful, angry Beatrice, simultaneously world-weary and dramatically childish. But she wheels from attention-seeking brat to kind woman, especially when Nicholas Oliver’s Don Pedro claims her hand.

She is ably matched by David Paisley’s Benedick, a sweet-faced teddy bear of a soldier, whose cruelty is cheek and whose doting affection is very readily summoned by the gulling scene. Ryall and Paisley head the cast very effectively; Paisley, in particular, pushes the story on through his soliloquies, and got the biggest laugh of the night in his muffled ‘Fuck off’ to the Boy who returns to expose his hiding place as he eavesdrops on Claudia, Leonata and the Prince.

But the show’s great surprise is Hero. A conventional Hero switches from happy dolly to sad dolly and back again: an inevitable step on the dismal downwards path to Desdemona. She has more to say than Mariana, but less to do than Celia; she is married off worthlessly without having the opportunities of a Helena or an Isabella first, and in all of the Shakespearean canon, there can be nothing less appetising than playing second billing to Beatrice, who is worth a play on her own. Lucy Green transforms a thankless role, giving Hero all the wit, pugnacity and intellect you’d expect of Beatrice’s cosseted cousin. Hers is the great succession of the church scene, when Hero’s long and difficult silences are filled with the emotion of a young woman who’s seeing hell before her eyes. As each new blow falls, Green’s distress grows, as we realise with her what this betrayal of love, loss of family, and wretched humiliation means.

When removed from Renaissance dress, it’s harder to believe that Hero could really be seen ‘dying […] Upon the instant that she was accused’, but Green’s alternately white and flushing face, and step-by-step panic, make the possibility horribly real. Hers was the only convincing collapse I have seen. Leonata, the doting mother who rejects her daughter, is nastier than any father could be, reminding the audience why Lady Capulet’s rejection of her daughter is, in a few words, always more devastating than Lord Capulet’s long harangue. Beatrice’s response also accentuates the horror. Rather than ranting, shouting, or forcibly dragging Hero away from her tormentors, Ryall huddles down beside her cousin in silence. Leonata’s savagery can’t be stopped. Beatrice and Hero bow their heads, curl together, and, like children under violence, wait for it to be over.

Ryall also gives the scene one further moment of tragicomedy. Benedick’s sudden declaration of love once the pair are left alone in the chapel can be played with joyful effervescence, the revelations pealing out in relief after the agony of the preceding moments. This is not like that. After witnessing Claudia’s cruelty and experiencing Leonata’s brutality, when love seems the most poisonous thing in the world to Beatrice, Benedick thinks it’s choice and appropriate to present her with his heart. A deadened, exhausted Beatrice stares across the stage, learning in her dissociated mind two things: first, that the person she loves most in the world loves her back, and second, that he doesn’t understand her at all. This is the loneliest Beatrice I have ever seen, and thanks to Ryall, it will be impossible to forget that quality in the character.

That chilling revelation aside, this is not an especially dark Much Ado. The physical comedy is sometimes very sharp, with spilt drinks, spit-takes and pratfalls underpinning the wittiness of the words. Stuart Murray, doubling Ursule and Friar Francis, justifies his existence a thousand times by turning the Friar (outside the history plays, Shakespeare did not excel at writing clerics) into a pitch-perfect imitation of Blessed Miles Jupp. Biased as I am, writing this admidst the flower crowns, Corinthians, and Natural Tan hosiery that comes from being twenty-eight and permanently on the wedding circuit, but dear Lord, that was funny. As Murray’s excellence suggests, this production has a stunning supporting cast. One disconcertingly good performance comes from Louise Goodfield, who, in the best cross-casting of the night, has made the startlingly turned Don John’s lackey Conrad from a standard stooge to a fully-fledged Lady Macbeth. Hers is a stunningly evil little Machiavel, in sexual thrall to Don John, but equally happy to make mischief for Claudia long after Borachio’s conscience cracks.

Some pacing issues hamper the speed of the piece, particularly in the notoriously difficult sequences with the Watch, and the instrumental music occasionally prolongs the scene changes, rather than covering them. But the final scrap between Beatrice and Benedick, respectively nauseated and gooey over each other’s poems, is tremendously satisfying, and the final rendition of ‘Sigh no more’ as sunny and bittersweet as one could wish. This is a company worth watching, in one of London’s best studio theatres. You don’t need to be in Edinburgh to see excellent theatre this summer – catch Much Ado About Nothing at the Drayton Arms, on stage now until 4th September.