The National Theatre’s 12th Night is Fabulous

Malvolia in the Teaser Trailer

– But why did they use that publicity photo?

I absolutely love the National Theatre’s current production of 12th Night, featuring Tamsin Greig as Malvolia. It’s one of the best productions I’ve ever seen. But I was slightly thrown by the pre publicity. Great images, but depicting quite a different version of Greig’s Malvolia. Or is that just me being picky?

Yes, the photo tells us the basics:  in this production Malovio is Malvolia, a woman. But it does much more, depicting Malvolia as an attractive, trendy feminist. A gay girl with a glint in her eye. She is confident and compelling. The notion of seeing Malvolia in this light was indeed compelling and I was thrilled to get tickets.  Which is, after all, the purpose of publicity photos.

There has been a recent spate of women playing the lead in the Shakespeare classics: Glenda Jackson as Lear and Maxine Peake as Hamlet. I haven’t seen Jackson’s Lear but I did see (thanks to Live on Screen) Peake’s great Hamlet at the Manchester Royal Exchange. That production had another gender bender: Polonius became Polonia. This bossy business-woman was, for me, also a star in that production. Her bossy self-confidence was exactly what I expected from Malvolia. (Thanks to the pre publicity.)

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Meeting Malvolia

Malvolia is certainly bossy; she even lines up pot plants with an air of supreme authority. But Malvolio was a puritan and so is this female version.   Her every word and action is prim, proper and precise. And she looks exactly that part: dour and frumpy, dressed all in black with a long skirt and stern hair cut.  This is far from the stylish suit and high heels of the champagne-drinking balloon-popper in the Teaser Trailer. (Take a look at the full trailer here:

Malvolia as seen on stage

Having met our version of Malvolia on stage, we watch the story play out. Malvolia is smitten with her boss and is the ultimate loyal – and loving – servant. She falls for the trick of the letter declaring Olivia’s love, and delivers all its demands, much to the delight of everyone. The scene of the yellow gartered stockings, plus a couple of extra props, is pure comedy. But the laugh is never at Malvolia’s sexuality but at her underlying character. Tamsin Greig plays the part perfectly; from high humour to deep pathos, as Malvolia descends to that ‘dark place’, broken and sad.

An Excellent Ensemble

The rest of the ensemble are equally excellent as they make us both laugh and think. 12th Night is all about identity, reversals, questioning of gender and social constructs. As well as having Malvolia and Feste played by women, we see various same-sex encounters. Being gay is taken for granted, and one of the wonderful touches in this modern-day production is the scene in a gay club. Going beyond the script (but sticking to the author) we have a cross-dressing singer performing ‘To be or Not Be’.  A key question indeed, yet in a context quite different from the one Hamlet usually faces!

But despite all this brilliance I was still haunted by that photo. I kept expecting Malvolia to come out (literally) and evolve into that image. Even in the final scene I thought she might reappear, confidence restored, with suit and champagne to celebrate her new-found status.  But no such happy ending. Malvolia remains broken. When she takes her wig off, this shift in appearance offers a hint of someone else, but she is still far from that photo.

12th Night is a truly memorable production. Every single cast member, the set, the music, everything about it is 5 Star. (Except perhaps for the accuracy of the pre publicity.)

© Allison Hill, 2017 (excluding images)

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  1. Great – looking forwards to seeing it even more after reading this. Thanks Alli.

  2. This was probably the best Shakespeare production I’ve seen at the National, apart from Othello. Loved it, and agree with you re the poster. I was expecting her to climb those steep stairs, triumphant in her evening suit, and belief in herself. The promotion photograph makes no sense at all and is inauthentic.
    5 star production though – have a word with the PR department!

  3. Vicky Wellington

    May 4, 2017 at 6:21 am

    Thank you Alli – maybe the trailer did its job – teased!

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