Review of the National Theatre’s ‘Twelfth Night’
Simon Godwin’s playful and borderline anarchic production of the classic Shakespearian play ‘Twelfth Night’, was an intricate, huge success. All aspects of this production, especially the exploration of gender and sexuality within the original script, allowed a new perspective into many of the characters and also brought new realisation into Shakespeare’s own ideas of the fluidity and societal expectations of gender and sexuality.
The breaking of the societal expectations and the idea of identity politics is explored with a 20th century and loose 50’s, 60’s and 70’s feel really brings to light and highlights the identity politics within the show. This is one of the themes that really separated this production from other ones I have seen. Although many of the character interpretations were different from the originally intended ones, most were executed incredibly and allowed different sides of the characters to shine through unapologetically.
The set, designed by Soutra Gilmour, was intricately made, with multiple naturalistic spaces being created on a revolve, which rotated to show the backdrop and props for that scene. Two sets of stairs were also present at the meeting of the multiple sets, which allowed actors and musicians to watch or look in on the scene that was taking place. These stairs also were used as an effective separate performance space in two specific moments: during Malvolio’s (Tamsin Greig) yellow stockings performance, and during ‘The rain it raineth’ where the rotating stage presented all of the characters on their own in separate locations on stage, almost like a contemplative montage of where the end of the play left all of the characters.
The costume designs, by Soutra Gilmour, also were very effective and played an important role within the concept of identity politics in the show. Sir Toby Belch (Tim McMullan) and Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Daniel Rigby) were presented as slightly more feminine than they have been in other interpretations of this play. Their pink and purple costumes, especially Sir Andrew’s kitsch and clashy checked suit, suited their characters perfectly, and added slightly gay overtones to their comical duo, something which I believe added more depth into their characters.
I also liked how sexuality and freedom were explored through various other costume ideas: Olivia wore a low cut, black swimsuit in the scene where she tried to seduce Viola, which would never have been used as a costume in the past. I loved how rather than sexualising and judging Olivia for this, the costume was designed in order to empower her and her raunchy character in this scene. Another example is the character Feste (Doon Mackichan) who wears a metallic turquoise swimsuit during the play. The costume designer and directors chose to put a slightly older woman in a swimsuit was also extremely empowering and isn’t something that is usually done, even in the modern-day. The way the costumes apologetically showed the intelligence and sexuality of the women in the play was truly wonderful.
Lighting and sound were used during the play, however, unlike many other plays, it wasn’t overly bold or representative. The lighting director, James Farncombe, chose to have lighting that wasn’t noticeable, and just lit up the stage, apart from during the final song, where a dark blue wash allowed a more contemplative and thoughtful mood to be created through the lighting. The jazz style music that was used throughout added to the 20th Century feel of the play, and was a very good choice in order to add to the relaxed atmosphere of this comedy.
Even when Shakespeare wrote this play, the ideas of gender fluidity, sexuality, and identity politics were very apparent and certainly ahead of his time. With the idea of Orsino falling in love with Cesario/Viola, a girl dressing up as a boy, and Olivia wanting to be with Cesario/Viola, the idea of sexuality has always been apparent. However, in this production, the idea of Malvolia wanting to be with Olivia was a bold change to make. I thought it worked wonderfully, and as many plays do in today's society, added much-needed representation to an older play. The breaking of stereotypes in this play is another bold concept that was definitely ahead of its time when Shakespeare wrote this play. A puritan, two very rich heavy drinkers, a countess, and a jester living under the roof is something that goes against the societal ‘norm’ of the time. I love how all these different characters merge to form one story and break the stereotypes of not only Shakespeare’s time but also of today’s societal expectations.
Overall, this interpretation was a huge success and allowed the audience to leave the theatre (or indeed our living rooms in our current COVID-19 situation) with a smile on their faces, and new ideas of the interesting characters, and themes of this play.