Twelfth Night, National's Olivier Theatre review: Tamsin Greig shines in a production otherwise at sea

Judged on the basis of the number of lines alone, you could account Malvolio a slender role. In terms of comic impact and cultural significance, though, the part is as meaty as a fatted goose. In modern times, the likes of Donald Sinden, Derek Jacobi and Stephen Fry have all tackled what is surely the epitome of puritanically reproving and daftly deluded manhood. 

Well it ain't necessarily so: last night comic actress Tamsin Greig stepped into the breach to give us a female spin on this party-pooping steward who reaps richly deserved humiliation after being duped into believing the mistress of the house reciprocates her servant’s adoration.

Greig makes the part – rechristened Malvolia - her own, wearing an attitude of a forbidding school ma'am, a joyless array of black clothing and a severe Cleopatra bob that would give a child nightmares. She is, hilariously, impassivity on a monument, fussing over the garden topiary, doing tai chi moves to calm down and with possessive eyes only for her mistress (Phoebe Fox’s Olivia). The letter planted by her tormentors (Sir Toby Belch, Sir Andrew Aguecheek and waiting-woman Maria) has her sploshing in a fountain and practising a smile that puts the leer into Illyria.

Did I sit there bristling at the consequent liberties taken with the text? No. The feminine pronouns don’t sound like a major sacrilege. And there’s a fresh dollop of comic value added when this kill-joy materialises in those famous yellow-stockings plus pierrot costume too, perilously traipsing the vertiginous stairs of Soutra Gilmour’s pyramidal set-design in heels, with spinning breast tassels the toe-curling finishing touch. This may not, as her Much Ado Beatrice did, win her an Olivier award but on the Olivier stage Greig is the business, unlocking the pathos of her incarceration and final abject retreat. 

The gender switcheroo works well, then. I wish I could be as praising about the rest of Simon Godwin’s production which begins with a mighty evocation of a tempest but thereafter remains largely at sea. The period is indeterminate – a spot of La Dolce Vita, a dash of art-deco, but also up-to-the-minute club sounds too. What country, friends, is this? Who knows? Tamara Lawrance’s Viola wakes in a hospital (prior to her plot-essential Shakespearean sex-change) but the revolve is forever a’turning, creating a hazy sense of palatial surrounds. 

Oliver Chris gives a blandly hearty rather than melancholy-amorous Orsino, oafishly wooing Olivia with a teddy-bear and bunch of flowers. Tim McMullan as Belch and Daniel Rigby as Aguecheek, loiterers chez Olivia, look the dandy-dissipated part and have an interesting homo-erotic thing going but don’t seem sufficiently past-it to warrant scorn or pity.

It’s hit and miss - or hit and mister (whatever suits); more a straightforward romp than a strange tragicomedy of unrequited love and mistaken identity. Doon Mackichan’s Feste the clown is surprisingly low-key but then she’s upstaged by the confused whirligig of larkiness around her. Recommended then? Yes, just, sure, but to my mind it’s six of one, half a dozen of the other.

Until May 13. Tickets: 020 7452 3000;

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