There’s a lot going on in Simon Godwin’s production of Twelfth Night at the National Theatre, not least a sequence that involves a drag queen in platform boots singing ‘To Be or Not To Be,’ shortly before threatening one of the characters with a bottle of whiskey during a bar fight, and vanishing through a hole in the ground. It sounds a bit ridiculous, but is an illuminating microcosm of this production’s attitudes towards sexuality and gender. It’s fluid and playful, explicitly so. The comedy is played up, the verse matched beat by beat with physical buffoonery. It’s Acting with a capital A.
That is, with a few exceptions. The first is Phoebe Fox’s Olivia, who is wonderful to watch, genuinely delightful. The other is Tamsin Greig’s Malvolia. They are the exceptions because both actresses play their characters dead straight. This, of course, is what makes them the funniest things in the show. Fox makes no attempt to reconcile the torment of her character has gone through with the elation of the ending, there is no immediate happy marriage for her. Rather, it has dawned on Olivia that she has been played for a fool, and perhaps her encounter with Sebastian offers a new beginning.
It is much the same for Malvolia.
Twelfth Night is a play that relies on the ambiguities and artifice of gender. We watch an actress playing a girl playing a boy, and know that originally a male actor would have played a boy playing a girl playing a boy. It seems fitting then, and indeed fairly obvious, that the genders of the characters are malleable and could be played by any actor. When you have an actress with the comedic skill, physical swiftness and emotional capability of Tamsin Greig, of course you’re going to have her play Malvolio. It seems obvious.
To an extent. Before seeing the play, I got to hear her talk at an NT Platform, where she described the process of moving from Malvolio towards Malvolia. Apparently, the production arose in part due to Greig wanting to return to the National after 2008’s Gethsemane and all the other roles Greig wanted were already claimed (of note, on her wish list: Lady M and Cleopatra) and she wanted to know why they wouldn’t offer her Viola (Cue laugh from audience.) Malvolio (as it was -o at that point,) was their counter-offer.
In the first instance, Greig read the play through with Godwin without changing a word, just to see. Then she considered Albert Nobbs-ing it, that is to say a woman living as a man to hold a particular job. It was only when Godwin changed the -o to -a, the pronouns, and subsequently Malvolio’s references to his masculinity that the thing started to work. Not changed, notably, is the word ‘steward,’ as ‘stewardess’ was deemed to have the wrong implications. Also, Godwin has taken “[Olivia] hath abjured the company and the sight of men” (1.2) literally, also having Feste, and Fabian played by women, the latter now known as Fabia.
So what does this mean in performance? Well, Malvolia’s puritanism manifests itself as a complete aversion to revelry of any kind whatsoever. She is also as much a steward in the verb sense as in the noun; she keeps people on a leash, and is totally controlling. We completely take her seriously and we’re even on her side, until she threatens the revellers – throwing an impromptu party – led by Maria that Olivia shall know of their revelry “by this hand.” (2.3) She grabs Maria’s hair and yanks her head back, and a chill settles over the audience. Malvolia looks less humorously authoritarian, and slightly more fascistic. This incident also suggests that Malvolia’s distaste for revelry comes not from a place of pride (a very un-Puritan quality in the first place,) or narcissism, but rather a place of self-loathing.
Greig compared Malvolia to a popcorn kernel. A tight, hard, unknowable thing that totally transforms after the application of a little heat. That heat is the letter Malvolia receives from Olivia (in fact it is Maria playing a trick,) in which she discovers her love for her mistress is reciprocated. Malvolia suddenly becomes giddy, utterly unrecognisable. It’s a miracle any actor could make it work, but Greig can. The next time we see her, after the interval, Malvolia has fallen hook line and sinker.
To add to Malvolia’s humiliation, Maria has suggested she should wear yellow stockings in the cross-gartered style, knowing Olivia hates both these things, so it works not just as great comedy but also demonstrates just how little Malvolia knows about Olivia. The problem is, while yellow stockings on a Puritan was profoundly shocking to an audience in 1602, it doesn’t hold much weight today. To drive home Malvolia’s humiliation to a contemporary audience, Godwin has Malvolia descend a staircase in an enormous yellow dress, then perform a sort of striptease while she sings. It finishes with a sort of Madonna-bra with spinning windmill type things. Because we take Malvolia seriously, it’s like watching a dentist tap dance – it’s just wrong, but it bizarrely works because Greig sells it with everything she can muster.
Olivia is horrified – understandably – and the next time we see Malvolia she is in some sort of dungeon, her torment continued. She is tied up and blindfolded, and is clearly distressed; this is Twelfth Night at is most brutal, where a character we don’t really dislike is being tortured apparently for our amusement. It’s also where the politics of making Malvolia a lesbian become most (ugh) problematic; this woman, whose only crime is to be a little bit creepy and controlling is being brutalised by a group of total bastards for our enjoyment. Really? I will say that this interpretation only occurred to me afterwards. I suppose within the context of the narrative, Malvolia is being punished for being an idiot, as opposed to being a lesbian. But is it worth swapping the gender of a character if it then means an under-represented sexuality is brutalised as a consequence?
If Twelfth Night ended here, and we heard from Malvolia no more, I might be inclined to agree. But it doesn’t. When Malvolia joins the final scene, she cannot bear Olivia’s touch. She flinches away. Greig plays it with a blankness, as if Malvolia no longer cares who is to blame for her treatment. She’s made up her mind before she even leaves. She removes her wig, revealing the spiky blondeness underneath, and swears her revenge “on the whole pack of you.” (5.1) But there’s an emptiness to it, not that she doesn’t mean the threat – she does – but it’s not physical. Her revenge is not to hurt them, it’s to give them no more pleasure in her torment. She leaves the stage, Olivia the only one watching for any substantial length of time. During the final song, we scroll through snapshots of what the characters do afterwards; Olivia giving Sebastian very tight shorts to wear, Viola and Orsino’s wedding, Aguecheek with his suitcase. But it is the sight of Malvolia, finally free, climbing the stairs into the raineth-ing rain that lingers. Her revenge is that she is the only one who is done with the bitter, brutal fantasy world of Illyria. The rest must linger, the question who’s next to torment is left wide open.
Malvolia becomes the clearest representation of the revelry/puritanism dichotomy in the play. This is of course in Shakespeare’s text, but is heightened by Greig’s portrayal. Its biggest success is that it continues to legitimise women claiming these roles on national stages, so I suppose it’s an experiment that has worked. But what it does remind us, is that it is never as simple as switching the pronouns.