THE WHIRLIGIG OF TIME AND BENDING OF GENDERS..
It’s a grand thing to be seduced and succumb. To suspect a director of vainly messing about with a Shakespeare play too close to your heart, updating it into trendily symbolic revolving triangles made of stairs, casting with deliberate perversity, and rollicking irreverently with the bits you associate with the melancholy beauty of hopeless love (I met this play first at seventeen. Enough said). But the suspicion recedes inch by inch as you are led, by seemingly frivolous pathways, to the true right end of the play with all its meaning. darkness and unanswerable mystery of pathos. T o the place where happy redemption is not for everyone, and the rain it raineth every day.
I should have trusted director Simon Godwin more, and expected honesty in his innovative take on the play. Admittedly, when I first heard that the NT was adding extra gender-bending to Shakespeare’s already complex line – girl-dressed-as-boy loves Count, who loves Olivia, who loves boy-girl and is sought by the deceived prim steward but settles for cross-dressed girl’s identical presumed-drowned male twin – I thought he might as well go all the way and turn drunk Uncle Toby and his mate into Auntie Tib and Edna Aguecheek. Why not? But he’s simply made the proud steward Malvolio into Malvolia, with a lesbian passion for Lady Olivia. Which, come to think of it ,would have been even more interesting in the last Globe production because Olivia was actually Mark Rylance.
The transformation, even without buying in to the fashionable gender-bendy-agenda of the day with a programme note by Jack Monroe, works perfectly. Tamsin Greig’s Malvolia is very funny, well over the top for a long time, but tipping with full and terrible courage into the the darkness of her final humiliation: hard to watch, a bully turned victim whose collapse neatly exposes the nasty futility of all comeuppances. Her end is all wrecked dignity and unbearable grief; but we have seen her at first striding around at first in black culottes, with a Richard IIII coal-black fringed bob ike Claudia Winkelman gone to the dark side, giving it all she’s got of comic excess and prim rage. It takes a lot to steal scenes from a breakdancing Tim McMullan as Sir Toby and Daniel Rigby’s fool Aguecheek in a pink check suit and ginger man-bun, but Greig can do it. So indeed can Phoebe Fox’s unusually sprightly Olivia, especially when she lures poor Viola – in her Cesario disguise – into a home spa, proffering gold pool-boy trunks and hauling her prey into the hot tub where Viola panickingly disguises her breasts under the wet shirt.
I worried at first about Tamara Lawrance’s Viola (a very neat match for Daniel Ezra’s Sebastian, give or take a couple of inches) because to me Viola’s grief and unrequited love are poetic expressions of the greatest melancholy in the language. There is an unquenchable valiant merriment in Lawrance which seemed to belie it. But she charmed me before long, and her unbridled physical expressiveness is a joy, reminding you that she is supposed to be very young indeed. Adam Best’s Antonio – the other unfulfilled character – is impressive, the straightest of the characters. And as for Doon Mackichan’s Feste, another gender-bent casting, she prowls the stage in shorts and tights as one of the most effective Fools I have seen for years. Insolent, contemptuous, a sullen competent wit in her Feste makes deep sense of the “whirligig of time bringing in its revenges”. Sings wonderfully, too.
You could see it just for the treats: Tamsin Greig’s Malvolio crossgarter strip with revolving nipple-tassels, a top brawl in the Elephant tavern while a 7ft tinfoil drag queen belts out To Be Or Not To Be in torch-song style, the ridiculous duel, the drunks. But it adds up, as it should, to far more than that .
box office 020 7452 3000 to 13 May
shown in cinemas on NT Live 6 April