I wasn’t the only one who missed her step on the London Underground, when the screens switch one poster to another even faster than the escalator pulls you down, because Tamsin Greig was standing in a tuxedo and high heels. One louche hand on hip and a champagne bottle by her feet, a couple of inches of black hair swept back, posed on the marble staircase she was about to stalk as Malvolio gender-swapped into Malvolia in the National Theatre’s new production of Twelfth Night.
Greig is already a queer woman’s George Clooney, fourth or fifth in the seven ages of lesbian, a salt-and-pepper sign that there are archetypes to aspire to after thirty-five. You throw her name into the ring when the question of a female Doctor Who comes up because it’s the next best thing to imagining that you could be, yourself.
Malvolia, when you see her, comes from a different queer heritage. I’m not sure, opening a cardboard tube of sugar-coated eggs in the cinema for the National Theatre’s live feed, whether it was the contours of her plot itself that made someone on social media feel like they’d been queerbaited or simply that the pleasure of the woman on the poster isn’t there.
Greig’s Malvolia is the dominatrix of between-the-wars, hard-faced and buttoned up in black; who’s kept her Louise Brooks bob years past the time when it might have made her look like she was in the cabaret, but never once dared to pair it with a monocle, glance into the mirror and lift her eyebrow high. The ring of keys that might swing from her housekeeper’s belt would come from an age before a ring of keys meant “Ring of Keys,” before a lady châtelain could know “Miss Chatelaine”. She belongs in DuMaurier. She’s been, ever since Shakespeare’s time, the opposite of joy.
You’ve known the story since the third year of secondary school, what any normal place would call Year 9, when you were already learning what girls and teachers said about the signs that anybody was that way inclined and also learning there were women you noticed because they looked like other women, the way you’d almost always notice Viola as someone like that at Twelfth Night.
The grieving Olivia (Phoebe Fox) has shut herself away from men, so her suitor Duke Orsino (Oliver Chris) woos her through his page Cesario, the male identity Viola (Tamara Lawrence) adopted after being shipwrecked on the Illyrian coast and separated from her twin Sebastian (Daniel Ezra). Malvolia’s below-stairs story is their counterpoint. I’m glad to know the plot so well not to be shocked when Olivia’s wastrel uncle Toby (Tim McMullan), her servant Maria (Niky Wardley) and her carpenter Fabia (Imogen Doel) play their trick, propping Olivia’s letter in Maria’s hand on the rim of designer Soutra Gilmour’s pink wedding-cake fountain. They persuade Malvolia that Olivia loves her, when an unrequited, private passion for Olivia is the only intimacy that even the audience have ever seen this supercilious steward express; they persuade her Olivia will love her more if she appears in the very garments Olivia hates, yellow stockings, ‘ever cross-gartered’. It’s meant to be funny enough even in a man. The promise of her fall sustains the interval.
One tweet said changing the character to Malvolia had made her look like a predatory lesbian. I braced. The excess of desire and violation of consent, against whose mould you police your own passion so as not to be thought like her. I collect those tropes like spent arrows now, ready to throw them back across the lines. And yet, knowing it’s coming, you’re still there as she reads the letter, hardly believing that each last new line is true. ‘M O A I,’ inside Olivia’s coded handwriting, ‘doth sway my life,’ until you sense how this Malvolia might have come to this closed house. You’re still there because we were all there. If you were there before, you’re there again.
You tried to decode the signals from the woman you’d noticed anyway, and hoped and longed for it to be true but of course your gender and your class at the same time meant it never could be; and there it is, ‘soft!’ You break your recitation of the letter off every few words, sounding out Olivia’s cipher, because you know these things are never what they seem to be. You read signs wrong before, in that first villa, where cicadas hummed on the far side of Illyria and you held no more standing than quick-witted maid Maria, psychedelic Feste, or Fabia in her jumpsuit and tool-belt; all these women from different niches of style Olivia keeps around. She *must* be. Now she is. No wonder M O A I should take the length of the world to sound, when the horror on that other young woman’s face that hot night still stings the fingertips you never dared stretch out again till now. You won’t believe it. Yet you must. You’ve been there, viewing this, and you know it ends in humiliation, from when exams had you highlighting the script until it fluoresced. You know how easy it would have been to be gulled exactly the same way. A confidante says, ‘——— would really like it if you ———’ and you wonder no-one thought of it, the drama teenage girls invent. I’d have been so excited, even I might not have thought. She dances in the fountain, she’s so happy, and the water soaks right through her prim white blouse.
We watch, and wait, in case we see ourselves.
The payload, in every production, is the entrance. The director Simon Godwin’s entrance is a set-piece of a folly. Malvolia capers like a pierrot undoing her white cape, yellow windmills spinning from her bodice and black garters crossing over her legs like Asterix’s Gauls would wear as bees. That bob makes more sense, in cabaret: she looks like Sally Bowles meets Grayson Perry. Olivia thinks she’s mad. I appeared before an Olivia once, who wasn’t called that, and I heard she cried. No one else’s trick had even brought me there, just my own certainty.
The Elephant, where Sebastian meets half of Illyria but not his own erstwhile lover—the gay pirate Antonio (Adam Best)—is a neon-lit drag bar: improvising extras, when the camera picks them out, might be dressed in eighties/seventies leather, and a drag queen in silver robes serves Jacobean gaga realness with a hi-NRG disco ‘To be or not to be’. The pre-show interviews filmed for the live stream had clips of Perry and Conchita Wurst, interviews with Jack Monroe, all embodying the play across gender boundaries we like to think is so much of our time.
We’re inside a brick cell, Malvolia blindfolded and bound. We were still locked up in asylums in living memory, for nothing more than what she did, or less. All the more likely if we were the class who went into domestic service, or fell out of it. Other things in love’s madness are yellow: the stars that shine for you; wallpaper; kings. ‘Sir Topas the curate’ ties on his beard, to further frighten her. In some of our lifetimes he brought electrode wires, and still we tried to scream that we were sane.
Comedy contrives, eventually, to put the four requited lovers in the same street at once. The first phrase of Shakespearean criticism I learned was the ‘golden circle’: the pairs whose plots are reconciled, while others stand outside. Twelfth Night‘s other setpiece is the resolution: Olivia can be with Sebastian, Orsino with Viola, and both can take the same aesthetic pleasure, even if some productions—of course this one does—still hint Orsino loved Cesario as much or more. Malvolia has to be brought, to vouch for the captain who helped Viola transform, and so that Feste—Doon Mackichan, here, from Smack the Pony—can read out the letter she finally let Malvolia write down. Patriots worked out they could post fake dating profiles, and when we answer them they make us disappear.
They bring her up, down to her vest and stockings, and her garters, and the belief the first letter was in Olivia’s hand. Fabia confesses; Maria and Toby are married; Feste chants back Malvolia’s insistence that she wasn’t mad. Malvolio has one of Shakespeare’s capital-E, fist-shaking Exits. Malvolia puts her hand to the crown of her head, mussed from the blindfold and captivity; she pulls back her parting from the scalp, and underneath her bobbed wig is a flattened crop of ash-blonde hair.
We know the screen trope of this disordered woman, bent on vengeance, mascara smeared into a shadowed mask. I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you! The remnants of her yellow bodice and stockings, still cross-gartered, just as she’d learned the Olivia of her desires had commended, tell you how much she’d have replayed the stages of her revelation and Olivia’s thrill. This secret would have been the last surprise, inside the chamber. It would have been proof and promise all at once. On stage, she’d be the same distance away; the camera frames her tight.
Maybe only someone whose desires have run that course can hear what lines are spoken in the sudden colour. A long game of design might have put this whole process on rails, from the posters to Malvolia on the surface to Malvolia underneath.
The overload of her abjection means that by the time I notice that this relieved Orsino has still turned to kiss Sebastian and not Cesario, while Olivia hasn’t yet let go of Viola, the twins are already crossing the stage, back where the golden circle that never extended to us says they ought to be.
The set is built around a double staircase, steep as Gibraltar. Its skeleton of a revolving pyramid sections the stage into streets and courtyards, or, now, wedding-chapels, while queers and servants sprawl over the stairs, drinking sack or strumming a guitar. Feste delivers her last song, ‘When that I was a little tiny boy,’ with something Bowie in it. She glances back at Malvolia, on the steps alone, as she revolves. I’m sure she does. Who are all these people who thought this production was about joy? And last of all we’re with Malvolia, in her vest and stockings, stripped down to her folly and stripped of her façade: her cropped blonde head is the first sign of her desire and the first seal of her shame. She crawls up the stairs towards a fine rain she’s never close enough to touch, when it ought to pour down as heavy as a fountain. It roared, when she was under her illusion, so loud it almost drowned M O A I. Against impossible distance, with her back to us, Malvolia in yellow and in vain still stretches her fingertips towards the light.
She is the queer art of failure. She is the cruel optimism. Marked by her attraction, bleached by her desire, she embodies everything we fear we’ll turn out to have been.
I race to be first out from the theater, snatching coat and programme from the seat beside me, clutching a tube of sweets which ought to blaze bright yellow through my hand.