Do you remember pop-up books? In an age of pop-up bookshops, they’ve probably been largely forgotten. But treat yourself to a really good one about, say, The Night Before Christmas, and soon you’ll be acquainted with the singular joy of seeing entire Victorian houses springing into empty space and chubby Santas that you can manoeuvre up and down a cardboard chimney. Soutra Gilmour’s set design for Simon Godwin’s production of Twelfth Night is the theatrical equivalent of a pop-up book.
Making the most of the Olivier Theatre’s revolving stage (because, hey, if you’ve got it why not use it?) a giant pyramidal structure starts out as the bow of a ship before being folded and unfolded like origami to become, variously, a 1970s style conservatory papered in geometric patterns, an Italianate formal garden (complete with working fountain) and the illuminated interior of a church. Each new reveal courtesy of this set design a la Mary Poppins’ carpetbag brings with it another new setting until you start to feel borderline dizzy watching it shapeshift and morph into another incarnation.
Which of course, is really the point of Twelfth Night. It’s a play about switching between genders, personas and even time periods, in that its one-night-only name is set at odds with the passage of time depicted within it. This theme of switching is foregrounded more in this particular production with the puritanical Malvolio morphed into Malvolia. As it happens, I started 2017 with the past trauma of Year 9 Drama and English lessons making me unable to hear the words ‘Twelfth Night’ without involuntarily wrinkling my nose like a dog being pestered by a fly. But with both the National Theatre and the Globe performing it this year, I decided that now was the time to get with the programming choices and see if I was wrong. That’s slightly disingenuous. I actually specifically decided that if there was one woman who could convince me to like a play I’d written off in a teenaged strop, then it was likely Tamsin Greig. And if not her, then Emma Rice. As a spoiler for the rest of this review, Greig most certainly did (or rather, she was great and I’ll blame the rest on Shakespeare).
She arrives on stage looking like a mixture of a buttoned-up governess crossed with a Nick Knight photo for Yohji Yamamoto in the 1980s. It’s a great advert for culottes (now there’s an under appreciated piece of clothing) if nothing else. She speaks with a level of distain that put my own lip curling towards Shakespeare’s comedies to shame, adding in a particularly delicious shudder after the words “mother’s milk”. She’s so hellishly pleasing to watch that it makes concentrating on the flaws of the performance (of which there are at least a few) quite hard to do. I would rather just sit here and write my own love letter on lavender paper to Grieg in all her scene-stealing cross-gartered glory.
If it seems like the focus here has been largely on the visuals of the production, then that’s because if you place faith in costume and scenery design, then there’s plenty to enjoy with Twelfth Night. Olivia (Phoebe Fox) and her ladies stalk the stage in Cos-does-goth black dresses, hair plaited and twisted as carefully as the topiary in the garden. Sir Anthony Aguecheek (Daniel Rigby) is in Mr Toad’s spare tweed, but dyed fluoro-pink. And opposite him is Sir Toby Belch (Tim McMullan), a washed-up and aged Rock-n-Roller in a particularly nasty lilac snakeskin blazer. The two twins (Tamara Lawrence as Viola and Daniel Ezra as Sebastian) are in androgynous houndstooth, with slightly hipster canvas rucksacks and Pemberton vintage bicycles.
Where the production falls down, then, is in shapeshifting both too much and not enough. As with the pop-up scenery, the play itself throws up a great variety of ideas, images and tonal shifts. It feels like some of them, particularly the actual point of switching the gender of Malvolio, aren’t massively explored. But then it is a Shakespeare comedy designed to be viewed to lift the post-Christmas gloom of January, so maybe a sustained interrogation of gender identity is too much to ask here. As the miniature striped tents around the edge of the stage suggest, this play is a bit like a night out at the circus, it’s full of a million revolving, rotating scene changes, colourful and glittery costumes and, at the centre of it all, one person whose performance firmly secures them the position of ringmaster.
Twelfth Night is on at the National Theatre until 13th May 2017. Click here for more details.