There aren’t many bright sparks for theater lovers in the gloom that has descended since theaters closed around the world. But Tamsin Greig might just provide one.
She is the star of a gender-bending version of Twelfth Night, the latest National Theatre at Home production to be streamed, starting today—the birthday of Shakespeare, a man whose working life was punctuated by the closure of theaters due to the plague—and continuing, on-demand, for a week. The National Theatre’s first digital outing, a month ago, was a rip-roaring version of the Carlo Goldoni comedy One Man, Two Guvnors, adapted by Richard Bean. Powered in part by the fame of its star James Corden, this production accumulated more than 2 million views.
Simon Godwin’s production of Twelfth Night might not reach those giddy heights, but it’s a work surprisingly suited to our current moment, with its delicate balance of high comedy and deep cruelty, its understanding of human isolation and the longing for community. And it does not lack in inventive appeal. Godwin, who is now based in Washington, D.C., where he is artistic director of the Shakespeare Theatre Company, changed the role of the puritanical household steward Malvolio to a woman called Malvolia—and offered the part to Greig. “We did a few readings, testing the idea. And we felt the terror and the curiosity and eventually decided to push the button,” he says.
Greig’s performance, which I saw at its premiere at the National in February 2017, ignites this constantly inventive and revealing production, which also stars Phoebe Fox as Olivia, Tamara Lawrance as Viola, and Oliver Chris (so wonderful in One Man, Two Guvnors) as an unusually raffish Orsino. She turns Malvolia into a woman who imposes order as a way of controlling her life and takes the audience into her confidence in ways that are both funny and ultimately heartbreaking. “It’s very interesting how someone can be so universally disliked and not realize it,” Greig explains.
Over the years, Greig has become an extraordinary actor. Best known to audiences in Britain for a long-running role as Debbie Aldridge in the eternally popular radio series The Archers, she made her name with wider audiences as a comedian, in shows such as the hospital drama Green Wing and the wickedly funny Episodes.
Her instinctive comic timing is one of her gifts—even a conversation with her is funny—but it can disguise her range. Currently one of the best things in Julian Fellowes’s new series Belgravia, she also has a distinguished career on the stage, including an award-winning performance as Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2006. Last year, in a season of short Pinter plays at the Harold Pinter Theatre, she revealed an astonishing ability to find the nuance and stillness in his words. In many ways, she is a similar creature to Laurie Metcalf, an actor famous for comedy yet capable of performances of tragic, searing greatness.
Both qualities are to the fore in her portrayal of Malvolia. “She’s an iconic figure in all kinds of drama and theater,” says Godwin, “so it was really thrilling to have her deliver this role. She speaks to a large cross section of the world.” Greig herself does not doubt the value of presenting Shakespeare in a new light. “At a dinner party, it is always a delicate balance of who is talking next, and is the story you tell of value, or are you just doing it to be present in the room?” she says. “So, we have to ask, is it of value for these words to be spoken now, with these people listening? With Malvolia, I believe we have something to say.”
For all the terrible effects of this crisis—entire professions plunged into uncertainty and financial hardship—the fact that more people will get the chance to see Greig’s performance has to be a bonus. Lockdown has forced theaters to occupy the virtual space as never before, and productions streamed online have become beacons of hope and communion.
U.S. audiences have been able to watch productions from the U.K. Sitting in my London home, I have been able to see productions by German, French, and American theater companies. On Sunday night, I will tune into the Sondheim 90th birthday gala being streamed on Broadway.com; on Wednesday, April 29, there’s a date in my diary with Richard Nelson’s latest addition to the Apple family saga, What Do We Need to Talk About? which is being streamed from the Public Theater. (The Public has presented installments in this saga over the course of the past 10 years.)
It’s not the same as being there on the night, with that sense of anticipation and mutual engagement, but it does reveal the strength of performance and production in theater across many countries. Being there to watch is also an act of support: Donations are both a practical help and a symbolic gesture, an assertion that theater matters, that it can entertain and enliven, even in a time of plague. Which is something Shakespeare knew all about.
Twelfth Night is available via YouTube for seven days from Thursday, April 23. The next National Theatre at Home productions, are Frankenstein, directed by Danny Boyle and starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller on April 30 (parts reversed on May 1) and Antony & Cleopatra, directed by Simon Godwin and starring Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okonedo on May 7.
Originally Appeared on Vogue