Monday 17 April 2017

Twelfth Night at the National, or, Played Too Much For Laughs

Note: This is a slightly belated review of the performance on Tuesday 11th April 2017.

This is a production that finds its groove after the interval. Director Simon Godwin at that point seems to realise that this is not a pure comedy. The melancholy and uneasiness which exist throughout are allowed to properly emerge and moments of real power result. But the effect, with one notable exception, is less than it should be because it doesn't emerge from a sufficiently complete reading of the piece.

Quite where Godwin's Illyria is never comes into focus. Elements of the new (a buzzer entry to Olivia's house, motor vehicles) and old (swords for the duel) are juxtaposed. My partner identified various references to current popular culture which passed me by. The show gets away with this on the whole, but I think a more concrete sense of place could have added depth.

Much more concrete by contrast is the set. This is dominated by a large staircase, which can be either combined (forming the ship at the beginning or a set of steps centre stage to potentially dance down) or form two side stairs (to action on the floor below) on which observers can drape themselves. Sometimes these levels add something, but on the whole I was unconvinced of their merits. Between them, at ground level, rooms revolve carrying us from Olivia's house, to the streets, church and the Elephant pub. Overall the settings are solid enough without being especially insightful, an exception being Malvolia's imprisonment where the room is unconvincingly open. After too many weak examples of incidental music in recent times at the National it's a pleasure to hear Michael Bruce's fine settings of the songs (though the interpolated Hamlet soliloquy in the second half is over the top, and Malvolia's sung address of love to Olivia seems to have wandered out of a different show altogether contributing to a reading of the character which is too silly).

When it comes to movement and delivery, this is a frustratingly mixed show. In the first half Godwin seems to be straining after laughs at every turn. While there are some lovely moments (Sir Toby (Tim McMullan) and Sir Andrew (Daniel Rigby) swapping dance moves), too often it just isn't funny enough to compensate for what is lost. Fundamentally, the darker aspects of some of the lines here don't resonate as they need to for the later revelations to really punch home. A particular problem here is the portrayal of Malvolia by Tamsin Greig. It's very obvious that this production has seized on Maria's line that she is a bit of a Puritan. But the production makes her, to my mind, too ridiculous from the outset. There's never any real sense of threat or powerful anger about Greig's performance in the first half. Her dismissal of Feste hardly registered so that when the clown recalls it as the basis of her part in the gulling it doesn't carry the weight it needs to.

The gulling itself struck me as odd. Greig starts too loudly and didn't seem to me to have far enough to go. I also felt that here, and elsewhere (until her disgrace) she was playing it all far too directly to the audience – of course Shakespeare monologues, or near monologues like the gulling scene are to an extent doing that, but for real impact, not just laughs, they also need to reflect the character speaking with themselves and Greig's delivery was just too much in my face here to achieve that, although the fact that I also didn't find any of it particularly funny probably didn't help (I found myself recalling the much wittier use of water in the gulling scenes of Hytner's Much Ado About Nothing a few years back). The hiding places of the trio were unconvincing. Overall the section particularly suffers from the determination to play it for laughs which is fine up to a point, but if you do that you inevitably diminish the impact of the mockery of Malvolia later.

In the second half, things shift. The most striking moment to me of the whole evening was Olivia's reaction to the unmasking. I don't think I've ever seen it played to suggest so forcefully that Olivia's whole world has suddenly crumbled under her. This reading really brings out the idea that she is no longer sure who she has married. While the Orsino/Viola revelations were playing out I was watching Olivia and Sebastian seated next to each other to one side – not touching. It's a shame that, in the last glimpse we have of them, Godwin can't resist another cheap laugh – their fragile relationship deserved better than that.

Phoebe Fox's Olivia was my standout in the ensemble. For me she was the performer who came closest to finding that consistency of character through the whole play. She has a wonderful energy, a fire which again makes that silence that strikes her at the end the more powerful. McMullan and Rigby's knightly double act is often very fine – they manage to make many of their exchanges nicely conversational and they catch some of the critical moments – most notably Belch's terrible dismissal of Aguecheek. But I have seen versions that got still more out of the former's attraction to Maria and the latter's suit for Olivia's hand. Daniel Ezra's Sebastian sadly isn't given much to do by the work, but acquits himself well, and I'd like to see him again in a larger part. Oliver Chris's Orsino suffers from the determination to go for laughs in the first half, and, ironically is much funnier because it's linked to more thoughtful characterisation in the final scene. Doon Mackichan often sings beautifully as Feste, but doesn't quite find the authority the character ought to have as the most perceptive person on stage. But my largest doubts were, I'm afraid, about Tamara Lawrance's Viola. Her thin voice certainly fits the description given of it in the text and I can also accept the various teenage gauchenesses as a legitimate interpretation. But the trouble is the character is more than that – often possessed of perception, of a wisdom beyond her age. We should see two persons – the invented Cesario, and the true Viola, and Lawrance hasn't found enough distinction between them. There's also a problem of presence – there are places were Viola needs to absolutely command the attention and Lawrance hasn't yet quite got that knack – something which contrasts with many others in the company.

The pity of this show is that, as the second half makes clear, this is an ensemble capable of finding depths in these characters and relationships, and a director who is alive to that. If only Godwin had been willing to allow that nuance throughout instead of too often demanding we laugh this could have been a much stronger show. Overall, another mixed evening at Norris's National.

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