Gender-Bending Shakespeare?! Twelfth Night at the National Theatre

A couple of weeks ago I went to see the National Theatre’s production of Twelfth Night in London. It’s one of my favourite Shakespeare plays – as a twin myself I’ve always been drawn to it – so I was pretty excited to see what the National would do with it (and wow, it did some very interesting stuff!).

The big selling factor for this production was the decision to change character’s genders: specifically, making Malvolio female – played by Tamsin Greig. In a play that is already fascinated with gender and sexuality, this seemed an interesting, but not foolish, decision. (Well at least, I think so, since its a part of my dissertation topic for next year!) They even changed the character’s name to ‘Malvolia’ for the female inflection, and referred to her as ‘madam’, rather than ‘sir’. Naturally this had quite a big impact on the play and production as a whole; I was especially hit with the realisation that by using a female Malvolia, it changes the humour of the play that comes from gender and sexuality confusion.

Malvolia (Tamsin Greig)

Malvolia’s belief that her mistress could be in love with her brings with it a suggestion of Olivia as not heterosexual – that she could have feelings for the ‘male’ Cesario or a female Malvolia. It was still funny nevertheless, particularly Olivia fanatically pining after (as well as physically chasing and falling over) for her unrequited lover, Cesario/Viola. I did still find the comedy reduced a bit as a result of the change in gender but I think that’s the result of my own curiosity.

Malvolio was not the only male character changed to female in this production though: Fabian, Feste, and the chorus of Olivia’s household were all female. I really liked this, as it emphasised the unwanted presence of Sir Toby and Sir Andrew, as the only men in a powerful female’s home (also yay, girl power!).


Olivia and her female gang (Phoebe Fox and co.)

As can be expected from the NT, the performances were all pretty strong. Tamsin Greig has been the focus of much of the production’s acclaim, and I agree that she was great – her contrast between the uptight lady to the exuberant and mad outcast was impressive (and all the more hilarious). However, I don’t think she was the only stand-out performance: Andrew and Toby were also brilliant. They were super funny, and I thought their characterisation, as both individuals and a double-act, suited the production perfectly.

A beautiful, modern yet timeless setting filled the stage, which was very cleverly designed to be versatile and fluid between the many changes in setting of the play – despite the relatively busy set.

Overall, I really liked this production and I’m so glad I got to see it live onstage for myself (thanks mum!).

Cesario vs. Sir Andrew (Tamara Lawrance/Daniel Rigby)

Photos by Marc Benner, from National Theatre website:



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