by Rachel Beaumont

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Not for purists/grumps: Twelfth Night at the National Theatre

Twelfth Night
National Theatre, Olivier
28 March 2017
Circle G72, £15

I'm going to struggle to sound not like a big fat misery guts here. I know directors who stage Shakespeare's comedies face a dilemma: the centuries that separate us from his audiences damage the comic immediacy of some of his wit. It's still funny, and ingenious and rewarding and all the rest, but on the whole not laugh-out-loud. Shakespeare probably expected that his audience would laugh out loud, and so a director feels justified in simplifying, exaggerating and generally tszujing to elicit those laughs. I'm all for that, or like to think I am. Turns out, though, I have limits, and Simon Godwin's production of Twelfth Night largely left me out in the cold.

I bought tickets for this, probably like everyone else, because I like Tamsin Greig. From one memory of seeing her on stage (all the way back in 2006, as Constance in King John at the RSC) I think of her as a great theatre actor, and of course she's also a superb comedian. What perfect casting for Malvolio! But I was disappointed; perhaps my expectations were too high, or too specific. I was looking forwards to a fresh interpretation of Malvolio, but instead I got a Tamsin Greig comedy character, closely resembling Greig's other comedy characters – none of whom are particularly Malvolian. I wanted something new.

There was the same lack of engagement with the material across other characters. It was all high-energy, funny, silly, attractively and professionally done – but I thought Shakespeare got lost along the way, and with him many of the ambiguities that make Twelfth Night such a joy. Phoebe Fox as Olivia and Oliver Chris as Orsino each play their characters as fairly normal types, if not unusually extrovert and exuberant. Does this make sense with the text – the characters' melancholy and bouts of madness? There's no danger with Chris's amiable bloke, his late threats to kill Caesario bizarre and incongruous. David argues that this way it makes more sense that Viola would fall for him, and maybe so – but by smoothing away the characters' oddities the love story all becomes a touch generic. Similarly drained is Maria, potentially one of the play's most interesting characters, but here nothing more than a minxy serving wench there to move the story on.

There are good things. Tamara Lawrance makes a very touching Viola, and (unlike some of her colleagues) speaks her lines with great sensitivity and elegance. She's well matched by Daniel Ezra as Sebastian, who also speaks beautifully. Perhaps it's easier to be the straight man in Godwin's production. But Tim McMullan as Toby Belch shows it can be done, investing in all the razzmatazz around him while also injecting the disturbing malice this production otherwise so lacks. On the complete other end of the spectrum is Daniel Rigby and Andrew Aguecheek – no pathos, no ambiguity here, and I think that's fine; I'm all for Aguecheek as an energetic pink-socked caper-cutter.

Soutra Gilmour's set is impressive and attractive (if maybe not all that practical – I felt for stage hands trying to wheel props off while keeping clear of the set's sweeping arms). On the whole it creates some great scene pictures; I only wasn't convinced by Malvolio's mad house, but that's in keeping with the tenor of the rest of the production. Somewhat annoyingly the Elephant becomes a major set piece, complete with complex (beautiful) neon signage, transvestite chorus and a drag queen singing 'To be or not to be' – all very impressive, but surely a little extravagant for a twenty-line scene (and also confusing – what's Olivia doing in the Elephant?). Completing these high production values is an excellent band of musicians, particularly wind player Hannah Lawrence – making you realize how rare it is to see a female jazz musician on stage.

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