Voilà! Viola and Olivia Upstaged by Malvolia

Guest writers for the Shakespeare ZA blog, Carole Godfrey and Adriaan Venter, review National Theatre Live's recent production of Twelfth Night.

 Tamsin Greig in National Theatre Live's  Twelfth Night. Photo credit: Marc Brenner

Tamsin Greig in National Theatre Live's Twelfth Night. Photo credit: Marc Brenner

Simon Godwin’s production of William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night opens with a devastating scene of shipwreck. The twins Viola (Tamara Lawrance) and Sebastian (Daniel Ezra) clutch at each other’s hands through the railings until they are eventually torn away from one another, and the stage itself splits in two (credit for this clever design goes to the stage designer, Soutra Gilmour). From this point until the final scene of the play, each twin believes the other dead. The stage continues to divide and revolve throughout the rest of the performance, showing how the broken relationship between the two grieving siblings is the catalyst for the multitude of confusions that abound throughout the rest of the drama.

However, those who know the play will not be surprised to hear that the action soon returns to a more comedic bent. And quite a bend it is, with Tamsin Greig playing a gender-swapped Malvolia (Malvolio in the original) who gets the audience laughing with her take on this Puritan narcissist. Another favourite of ours and the rest of the audience was Daniel Rigby as Sir Andrew Aguecheek, whose adorable stupidity and entertaining dance moves (which we are still attempting, unsuccessfully, to emulate) kept us chuckling until well after the play’s end.

One criticism of the production is that there are perhaps too many chuckles and not enough tears. The play itself ends with the sound of the clown, Feste (Doon Mackichan), singing the refrain ‘the rain it happens every day’, but when the curtains closed, most of the audience were still crying with laughter. In the beginning of the play the Lady Olivia (Phoebe Fox) is supposedly grieving for her recently deceased brother. This grief is clearly exaggerated a bit to keep her unwelcome suitors at bay. Yet when Olivia meets a potential mate whom she is actually attracted to, Cesario (who is actually Viola dressed up as a man), this grief dissolves so quickly that one might question whether Olivia ever cared for her brother at all. These are not the only instances of fickle affection in the play. At the end of the play, another major character, Duke Orsino (Oliver Chris), swiftly drops his supposedly deep devotion to Olivia in order to marry Viola, at the moment of discovering that Viola is really a lady and not Cesario, the young page. Olivia accepts Sebastian as a husband, despite having been desperately in love with Cesario/Viola moments before. The fact that Sebastian looks like Cesario seems to be enough to satisfy her. Many of the characters seem to exist in a happy whirlwind of shallow devotion which can easily be transferred.

A notable exception is Greig’s Malvolia. After a scene of cruel (but hilarious) deception, she is fooled into believing that her mistress has a romantic interest in her. She blooms at this unexpected news and screams ‘I AM HAPPY!’ while her face splits into a painfully awkward grimace, her best attempt at a smile. As funny as this moment is, it is also a tender scene that shows the awakening of a Sapphic love that is unfortunately doomed. Other reviews of the production have sometimes complained that the lengths to which Malvolia goes to woo her mistress stretch the limits of plausibility (and yes, the rotating nipple tassels might have been a bit much), but the achingly sincere exuberance that Greig brings to the role left us convinced that an individual so repressed might very well be gulled into behaving the fool when she is shown the love she has not dared let herself hope for.

The deception exercised on Malvolia is made all the more terrible by the fact that the modern audience can empathise so well with Greig’s portrayal. In Malvolia, the off-putting pride and condescension of Malvolio become necessary defence mechanisms against those who would mock Malvolia for her unconventional sexuality. One can also empathise with Malvolia’s dislike for Sir Toby Belch (Tim McMullan), a man born with all the privilege of high class and heterosexuality, and who has no idea how difficult life for Malvolia may be and never pauses his revels and cruel jokes long enough to think about it.

At the end of the production, Viola and Sebastian are reunited, the various misunderstandings of the play are resolved, and the brokenness caused by the shipwreck appears to have been healed. However, one might wonder if the ending of this production deliberately questions the play’s alternative title, ‘What You Will’. Few of the characters seem to get what they really want, and the audience do not necessarily get what they want either. We would certainly have liked Olivia and Viola, who have by far the most convincing chemistry in the production, to end up together. We were also rooting for Antonio (Adam Best), who serves Sebastian loyally and is clearly besotted with him, to win his young friend’s heart. Instead, Viola ends up with the rather uninteresting Duke Orsino, while Olivia marries Sebastian.

The character with the most dissatisfying and troubling ending is undoubtedly Malvolia. The production ends with the image of her sobbing on the split steps of the shipwreck. Malvolio is usually portrayed as a character who is opposed to everyone else’s happiness. However, in this adaptation Malvolia is far more the victim of malice than a malevolent character herself. This final image of a woman broken because she dared to allow herself to love leads us to question whether Olivia and Viola are in fact more deserving of having their love returned. Are these two characters’ fates happier simply due to society’s willingness to approve of their choices? Though Malvolia does not win Olivia’s affections, her character tugs at our heartstrings much more than those of the traditional heroines.