Doon Mackichan and Tamsin Greig in Twelfth Night.
Photo: Marc Brenner / National Theatre

Some of Shakespeare’s plays drifted into posterity like orphans of undated birth, saved only by their last-chance inclusion in the 1623 “First Folio.” Others come to us in multiples, their variant texts, additional passages, and documentary certification suggesting plural rebirths. The birth of Twelfth Night seems to have been a straightforward delivery. There are relatively few textual problems—the version in the First Folio may have come from a scribe’s copy—and its first confirmed performance date fits its position in the canon.

Twelfth Night was performed at the Middle Temple, one of London’s law schools, on February 2, 1602. It was probably written in 1601, not long after Hamlet, and the death of Shakespeare’s twin son Hamnet. Twelfth Night is a comedy and is perfectly constructed; Hamlet boasts neither of those qualities, but the plays share structures and themes. Both begin in bereavement, both develop through the insanity of love, and both resolve in the only way they can—one fatal, the other only fated.

Twelfth Night begins with Olivia mourning her dead brother and Viola—the name is almost an anagram of “Olivia”—believing that Viola’s twin brother Sebastian was drowned in the shipwreck that has cast her on the shore of Illyria. When Viola takes on male dress as “Cesario,” she takes on her dead brother’s form in sisterly piety, just as Hamlet adopts his father’s cause out of filial piety. But Sebastian is not dead, merely lost. At the play’s end, the twins are reunited with their other half—a resolution and a wholeness that Shakespeare’s surviving twin daughter Judith could not know.

The biographical tragedy is overlain with an elaborate comedy of cross-dressing, boozing, lechery, and the tormenting of the puritan Malvolio. It is overlain so well that the immediate pleasure of Twelfth Night, the whirl of costume, wit, and romance, masks the sorrowful foundations—right until the last moment. After the confusion is unraveled and the lovers are paired off, Malvolio and Feste, the conscience and the clown, remain single and singular—an odd couple like Lear and the Fool. (In particular, Feste’s last song—“When that I was and a tiny little boy”—is an orphan’s lament in the rain, and an anticipation of Lear’s geriatric rage against the flood.)

London’s National Theatre has a rain machine, a rotating stage, and a big budget. Simon Godwin’s clever and engaging production (on view through May 13) uses all of these. The prow of the sinking ship turns to reveal a staircase. The walls of the scenery turn over like pages in a book. A live band plays amiable Latin jazz. Yet the busy rhythms of the music and scene changing are precisely calibrated to the evolution of the plot.

The ambience is interwar house party with a dash of London media. Orsino drives a sports car, and his sidekicks wear checked plus fours. Phoebe Fox hosts her Saturday-to-Monday guests with the brittle grace of a dynast. Andrew Aguecheek’s costume resembles that of a Pierrot. Viola and Sebastian, like comic turns in Firbank or Waugh, are played by black actors. Instead of playing Sir Toby Belch as Falstaff, Tim McMullan delivers an uncannily accurate rendering of the kind of film and television producer familiar to anyone who, by some terrible accident, has found himself in a Soho drinking club at either three in the afternoon or three in the morning.

Feste and Malvolio are played by women. As “Festa,” Doon Mackichan is randy, rangy, and splendidly vulgar. Tamsin Greig is even more superb as “Malvolia.” The pious steward becomes a repressed lesbian, a black-clad PA who supervises Olivia’s all-female household in a Louise Brooks bob and much poignant frustration, even when her yellow gaiters are augmented with a yellow corset and a pair of spinning nipple tassels.

The program notes claim that Twelfth Night is Shakespeare’s “most progressive play,” despite its “somewhat heteronormative conclusion,” but there is nothing especially progressive about it. The “misrule” of the Twelfth Night festivities was a temporary state, whose resolution confirmed the endurance of the social and religious order. And while substituting lesbianism for puritanism may be a consummation devoutly to be wished, the plot still mocks and punishes Malvolia’s desire: not very “progressive.” Neither is the implication that sexual desire is a form of madness related to narcissism; Orsino falls in love with his own reflection, and Olivia diagnoses Malvolia as “sick of self-love.”

When Shakespeare’s contemporaries saw Twelfth Night, a young man played a woman (Viola) who dresses as a man. Today, a woman plays a male character as a woman. Either way, the comedy derives from the inversion of fixed ideas of maleness and femininity. And either way, the comedy of “misrule” resolves in heteronormative marriages (Orsino and Viola, Sebastian and Olivia, Sir Toby Belch and Maria the servant). All of them affirm the social hierarchy, too: Malvolio, who hopes to climb the class system by marrying his mistress when he should be serving her, ends up ridiculed and degraded. It would be no less futile to call Twelfth Night a “conservative” play, for directing the energies of misrule and desire toward the pragmatic transactions of marriage, class, and property.

Tamsin Greig is a tremendous actress. In the television comedy Friday Night Dinner, she manages to play that most challenging of characters, the North-London Jewish mother, as a recognizable type, but without falling into caricature. Her Malvolia is a joy, always comic but never thoughtless. She exploits the laughs but sustains an undercurrent of loneliness and neediness, so that her torture in the outhouse feels unjust, as well as funny. Her final words—“I’ll get my revenge on every last one of you”— are spat at the audience, shaming the voyeurs as much as the tormenters.

The entire cast renders Festa’s final song as a jazz waltz in the rain. Behind them, Malvolia crawls up the stairs, as if reaching for the prow of a sinking ship—or an object of desire that she cannot attain. After the comedy of drag, a tragedy of being dragged under.

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