Gender-fluidity and Sexuality in the National Theatre’s Twelfth Night

Shakespeare had a bit of a thing for mistaken identity plots and cross-dressing characters, never more so than in the always delightful Twelfth Night. Twins Viola and Sebastian are separated following a shipwreck, so Viola dresses as Sebastian and sets off to find employment. Meanwhile Sebastian also sets off in search of work and a place to stay. Hijinks and romantic subplots ensue: Viola (posing as the boy Cesario) is hired by Count Orsino to carry messages to the wealthy heiress Olivia, who is determined not to accept any offers of marriage whilst she is in mourning. Meanwhile, Oliva’s layabout uncle and his drinking companion (another unwanted suitor to Olivia) play a trick on the steward, Malvolio, making him believe that Olivia is in love with him. Viola falls for Orsino, Olivia falls for Viola/Cesario, Sebastian turns up and is mistaken for Cesario, the four main characters rearrange themselves into two opposite-sex pairings, and almost everyone appears destined to live happily ever after. Except for Malvolio, the drunken layabouts, and a slightly mysterious sea captain called Antonio, who blatantly fancies Sebastian, but gets nothing much in return for all the help he offers the lad on his travels. So far, so good…

I first became aware that the National Theatre was staging a new version of Twelfth Night* via posters on the Underground depicting Tamsin Greig wearing a very dapper suit. While I never made it back to London in order to see the performance in the flesh, I did manage to catch the live broadcast at a local cinema, the showing of which was preceded by pre-recorded interviews with various cast members, as well as other luminaries including the ever-lovely Jack Monroe. The play itself, directed by Simon Godwin, didn’t feature Tamsin Greig in That Suit, but it was completely bonkers, with Greig playing a gender-swapped Malvolia and Doon Mackichan playing another traditionally male role: that of Olivia’s jester, Feste. The twins were played by the very pretty pairing of Tamara Lawrance and Daniel Ezra with the modern dress costuming choices making it even easier to believe that one could be mistaken for the other.

While Olivia’s ultimate decision that she is happy to be married to either twin, so long as they present as male, could be seen as problematic, the production did a sterling job of portraying Orsino as ultimately unworried by the gender or presentation of his eventual love object. There was also more kissing (same- and opposite-sex varieties) than I remember from other performances including between Sebastian and Antonio. Malvolia’s realisation that she loves Olivia and her horror when she realises the trick that was inflicted on her, was played out to great effect; however I doubt it would satisfy those who claim to be purists about Shakespearian casting (but would be as horrified by seeing all the female roles played by young boys as they are at any less traditional role reversals in the gendering of characters). There’s a reasonable chance that this performance will hit cinemas again in an Encore screening, and I’m hoping that it may also tour. Catch it if you can.

Stevie Carroll*


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