The State of Shakespeare at the National Theatre

[A disclaimer: not only do I not own the above book cover but I haven’t read it either so don’t expect any striking parallels between this blog post and what I’m sure is Billington’s finest masterpiece]

Shakespeare at the National: bland bland bland bland bland.

But, for starters. A couple of reasons why I didn’t love Twelfth Night:

  1. Several people working in the NT must have given a thumbs-up for a white actress, Imogen Doel (Fabia) to wear bantu knots. If you don’t understand why this is wrong, just google ‘cultural appropriation’. Obviously this isn’t Doel’s fault but needs to be rectified. The NT can’t expect to attract black audiences if they are part of the ruthless appropriation of black culture (but only when it’s perceived as ‘stylish’).
  2. I’m aware that Tamsin Grieg has stated that she personally preferred Malvolia to Malvolio. But when we change the names of characters to reflect gender-flipped casting, it feels like a special case. We’ve been allowed to act in a Shakespeare play! Wow! Playing men’s roles! How exciting! Given that there are seven times as many roles for men as there are for women in Shakespeare’s plays, repurposing a couple of male roles to female is the very least we should be doing. I’m not against switching up pronouns but changing names feels a little naff. Julia Caesar has a nice ring to it but I’m not sure about Hamletta or Coriolania.
  3. The blocking is clearly pretty poorly rehearsed and unnatural to the actors. You can literally see them thinking through their movements in their heads.
  4. The music is drab and uncatchy. And in the long scene transitions, it doesn’t fade out quickly enough so we lose the first couple of lines of every scene. Occasionally there’s a sense that actors don’t know what their lines mean. Almost all the comedy is physical, not based on Shakespeare’s play, which is actually, in my very humble opinion, pretty funny. The same physical jokes (Aguecheek dancing, Malvolia’s curt movements) are repeated and repeated so that even if you thought they were funny at the start, you’re not laughing by the interval.
  5. There was a half-thought out water metaphor that was majorly overdone.
  6. The production seems to think it’s being intensely witty by taking the piss out of Shakespeare. While also spending a lot of money on a very elaborate set and over the top costumes in order to perform Shakespeare (more on that below). At one point there’s a cabaret version of ‘To be or not to be’ and Malvolia dreams of what it would be like ‘To be…(longest pause in the history of theatre since Pinter)…countess Malvolia’. I love taking the piss out of Shakespeare but I’m not really sure a) what Godwin’s trying to achieve here and b) whether it’s actually funny.
  7. Every time there’s a phallic joke or reference in the text, the actor saying the line does a thrusting or hands-over-crotch movement. Cringey and reminiscent of the worst of the Globe under Dromgroole.
  8. The whole thing is so trying to be a film that I wish Simon Godwin could have made it into a film instead. That way I could have fastforwarded through most of it.
  9. *WEIRDLY NERDY OBSESSING OVER TINY DETAILS* Like loads of Shakespeare productions, this borrows quite a few of its laughs from other productions. I get the attitude of ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ and I’m not usually really antsy about borrowing. But this production borrows bits and pieces so badly. The way Phoebe Fox as Olivia says the line ‘What’s your parentage’ in exactly the same way Mark Rylance did: head in hands, regretful at sounding stupid and overly keen in front of Viola, pausing before finishing the line. And during the Malvolia/letter/box tree scene in the garden, there’s a moment when Malvolia looks over to the weird potted plants Fabia, Toby and Aguecheek are hiding behind and the trio make all the bird sounds to make it sound like whatever Malvolia heard was just birds. Not only has this been done a million times before, but the joke is repeated over and over again till it was so unfunny I wanted to eat my own lips off. *END OF NERDY BIT*

There were one or two good bits. There was an attempt to portray Olivia’s house as an ordered place of stylised mourning that they almost managed to pull off (in a very naff way). Godwin adds in a little snippet where we see Malvolia watching over the sleeping Olivia, concerned about noise from the drunk Belch and Aguecheek downstairs. It’s a nice touch given that it explains why Malvolia storms downstairs to tell everyone to shut the fuck up in the next scene. It makes Malvolia seem a little less like a Puritan stormtrooper.

I think there might have been one other good bit: there’s a line in the text where Maria is planning the trick of Malvolia, and says ‘let the fool make a third’. But in the garden, Feste the fool is nowhere to be seen. Instead Shakespeare shoehorns Fabian in. Simon Godwin changes the line to ‘let Fabia make a third’. It doesn’t make much of a difference to anything but I appreciated it.

Those were the good bits. I haven’t even talked about the worst thing about this production yet.

Godwin is unable to direct actors to use the words of the play to convey an atmosphere or to create a sense of character. He can’t even use the script to show the audience what’s going on. The actors say their lines but they could be saying lines from any Shakespeare play and this production would still work in the way Godwin intended it to. He is totally reliant on the set and costumes to show the audience what is going on.

The set of Twelfth Night is this angular staircase with frames that can be pulled out to become backing walls of various settings. It looks a bit like one of those pop-up children’s books where structures fold out with each page, and is about as stable (every time an actor shut a door, the way the door clacked into the door frame and made the walls around it shudder sounded so cheap). Generally, I have no problems with shows that are reliant on their sets. The Red Barn would have been shit without the sliding frames. But Twelfth Night is reliant on its set to convey everything and the set isn’t particularly magical. This might as well be a piece of silent theatre.

I know I sound like a bit of a puritan (hawhaw) but this isn’t just a problem in Godwin’s Twelfth Night. It stretches back to productions of Othello (2013) and King Lear (2014) when Nick Hytner was artistic director. There seems to be a pervading attitude at the NT (under both Norris and Hytner) that however good the acting and direction is, the audience won’t get Shakespeare unless there’s a massive set that’s the equivalent of a big sign with flashing lights saying: ‘We’re in an army camp’ or ‘This man is in love with a woman who doesn’t love him back’.

In fact, what’s remarkable about the last four Shakespeare plays to be staged the NT (Othello, King Lear, As You Like It, Twelfth Night) is that at surface level they have all been uncannily similar in their approaches.

The last four Shakespeare plays at the National (Othello, King Lear, As You Like It, Twelfth Night) have been staged in the Olivier, which is a difficult place to start with. It’s tricky because you have to have a massive set to fill the space. As a theatre it’s so big and OPEN. There’s all this empty space from the stage up to the heavens and if you don’t have a tall set (cf The Captain of Köpenick or Othello) to anyone further back than row F the set looks drowned out by the sheer amount of space.

And when you get really good actors cast (Paul Chahidi in As You Like It and Rory Kinnear in Othello), 80% of the audience is too far away to see their faces and actually be able to appreciate their performances.

I don’t understand why the NT isn’t staging Shakespeares in the Lyttleton or the Dorfman. I know I sound a bit like David Hare but it is possible for Shakespeare to be intimate and subtle. For years the National hasn’t been experimenting with different settings for Shakespeare. Four major Shakespeare productions. All staged with an identical approach to the production. I wouldn’t feel so averse to the occasional Shakespeare production staged like this if Norris was prepared to do something different once in a while.

It’s nice to know that Norris’ Macbeth (coming spring 2018) and Godwin’s Antony and Cleopatra (coming late 2018) are also going to be in the Olivier. I’m feeling hopeful.


UPDATE: Since I wrote this I’ve started reading Hytner’s book Balancing Acts which is a massively self-congratulatory account of all the plays Hytner made at the NT with all his male friends, with the occasional reference to a woman. Anyway, the whole of the National’s ideas towards Shakespeare seem to be based off this:

‘I couldn’t shake my conviction that the National needed to be the big, public alternative to the studio theatres. Its response so far to the success of the superb classical work at the Almeida and Donmar theatres had been to produce superb small-scale classical work of its own in the 300-seat Cottesloe, which only added to the growing reluctance of actors and directors to rise to the Olivier and the Lyttleton. So I issued a self-denying ordinance in the Cottesloe: no more famous classics – new and experimental work only.’

So all of this stems back to Hytner’s early struggle to fill a slot in the Olivier’s Rep. Great. Would be nice to see Norris doing something a bit different from his predecessor. Or just doing anything that doesn’t involve Carol Ann Duffy.


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