Twelfth Night, theatre review: Tamsin Grieg is brilliant in this gender-bending spin on Shakespeare

Identity muddles: Doon Mackichan as Feste and Tamsin Greig as Malvolia: Marc Brenner
Identity muddles: Doon Mackichan as Feste and Tamsin Greig as Malvolia: Marc Brenner

Malvolio is Shakespeare’s most memorably joyless character, a social climber who’s the sworn enemy of frivolity. In this gender-bending take on a play that’s already fixated with muddles over identity, he's reimagined as Malvolia, a prim fantasist with a taste for starchy outfits and a startlingly severe helmet of jet-black hair.

Tamsin Greig is brilliant in the part. Every gesture is full of attitude. She walks daintily, as though obliged to step over a series of tiny hurdles, and the briefest glance conveys acres of disdain. It’s a performance of wit and immense poise, which perfectly captures the character’s neuroses about rank.

Tim McMullan is a gloriously louche Toby Belch, a middle-aged boozehound desperately clinging on to his hipster style, and Daniel Rigby as moneyed nincompoop Andrew Aguecheek has a sublime daftness and very nasty man-bun. A tuneful Doon Mackichan makes a slinky Feste, who looks as if at any moment she might kick off her sparkly high heels and start to lead a particularly naughty aerobics class.

There’s also plenty of dazzle and technical wizardry. Soutra Gilmour’s ingenious folding design creates a succession of striking triangular patterns, which reflect the plot's concern with skewed relationships and confusions over gender. Other details are more obviously geared to mirth — a plunge pool enables some splashy antics, and there’s a nightclub scene that’s droll, sleazy and bizarre.

The emphasis on comic verve means that the play’s melancholy notes are muted. But its romance isn’t lost. Tamara Lawrance brings a subtle air of wonder to shipwrecked Viola, and Daniel Ezra has an easy charm as her twin brother Sebastian. Phoebe Fox’s Olivia mixes petulance with elegance and pertness with self-obsession, while Oliver Chris’s Orsino is a dashing, decadent playboy.

The main shortcoming of Simon Godwin’s well-cast production is that, running at a whisker under three hours, it sometimes feels slow. Yet it’s inventive, makes smart use of the resources of the National Theatre’s Olivier stage, and above all has a rich sense of fun.

Until May 13, National Theatre

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