Tamsin Greig on Twelfth Night: ‘The self-judgment of women is awful’ – The Guardian

Posted: April 20, 2020 at 10:49 am


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I need to be really picky Tamsin Greig. Photograph: Dave J Hogan/Getty Images

What was your reaction when asked to play Malvolia? I was offered Olivia but she wasnt on my list of must-play roles. Theatre is such a commitment I need to be really picky. Its a big deal, being out every night and away from family. The National came back with the idea of Malvolio and my interest was piqued. The director Simon Godwin and I read the play a lot together, just the two of us, and then with Ben Power, deputy artistic director at the NT, and then with a group of actors. But part of me was quite resistant. They said what about making the character Malvolia so youre playing a woman? We did more workshops. I was very nervous of making Malvolio a woman and therefore a lesbian, considering what happens to the character in the play, which is monstrous.

How did you balance the elements of comedy and cruelty?I wanted to find out more about the ridiculousness in Malvolia. Sometimes people develop coping strategies that make them foolish. Malvolia is a deeply wounded human being who becomes OCD and bullies the other people in the household in order to cope. She meets her match in Feste. I thought it was a brilliant idea to invite Doon Mackichan to play Feste and to make Fabian become Fabia. Youve then got two more women who are the authors of the cruelty against Malvolia, alongside Maria. I thought that was interesting there is so much cruelty against women perpetrated by women themselves. The self-judgment of women is awful. We started exploring what it was about Feste that enabled her to be so calculatedly and comically cruel to Malvolia.

As Malvolia, you use precise hand gestures that tell us much about the characterIts an outward expression of her need to create order out of chaos. Hand gestures are often so much about threat and control. I trained as a dancer and am interested in what the whole body does. The way we express ourselves goes right to the very tips of our fingers. There is a moment when Malvolia comes on and tells Olivia there is a boy at the door who wont go away. I started to use a repeated gesture of pushing him towards her. Then Phoebe Fox, as Olivia, says to tell him to go away and she repeats the gesture back. Malvolia gets rather confused about why Olivia is using that gesture so does it again. It became a beautiful moment.

Malvolias judgment of the other characters extends towards the audience. How was that idea developed?I was overwhelmed by the size of the Olivier theatre, particularly in the letter scene which could be seen as a monologue. But I dont think Shakespeare ever allows monologues to be internal. Its a process of working out what you think about something in the company of 1,000 or so people in the audience. Who those people are is up to the actor to decide. I felt that Malvolia had a lot of internal voices which were powerful and controlling. So the audience embodied those internal voices and during the letter scene she is engaging with them to help her work out what this all means. I was afraid of it but the stage is so well designed to hold all of those people that it became weirdly intimate. The audiences delight in the comic thrust of that scene encourages Malvolia. No internal voice stops her there is no voice of reason.

When I was reading the script I didnt know how to pronounce flough in the letter. I said it in different ways to Simon and he laughed. Later he said: lets keep that in maybe Malvolia doesnt know how to say it? Then I thought suppose one of the internal voices can help her pronounce it. Each night I elicited someone from the audience to tell me how to say it, so they are effectively egging her on in her belief. When, at the end, she says she will be revenged on the whole pack of them its Malvolia realising that no one was courageous enough to stop her and tell her shes being ridiculous.

For the NT Live filming, how do you modulate your usual stage performance?When we rehearsed for the NT Live version we did it without an audience and I fell apart I couldnt remember the lines. Malvolia works when she is in relationship to the audience rather than many of the other characters. A large part of the stalls was filled with camera equipment and it becomes difficult to engage with a body of people. Its a bit like when I did Black Books, which was filmed in front of a live audience. Its hard to know whether youre playing to that number of people in the room or in a quiet way to the camera. You find a balance between the magnitude and the intimacy.

In every Twelfth Night we await Malvolios yellow stockings scene. Yours becomes a cabaret-style showstopperIts such a hot moment in the play. At the time, a puritan coming on in yellow stockings would have been unbearably shocking. I thought in this hyperreal world, where shes a woman, what would be shocking about her wearing yellow tights? So we needed to push it to find ultimate embarrassment. And because I have teenagers I thought what would upset them most to see me doing? I said to the designer Soutra Gilmour that this moment reminded me of popping corn: you have a dry kernel and you cook it in the pan with butter and it pops. Soutra created this amazing costume she wanted Malvolias pierrot cape to look like a piece of popped corn. The composer Michael Bruce had written all this beautiful smooth jazz for the production cool, melancholic, quite sexy. I told him well need something for Malvolias number when she comes down the stairs in yellow stockings. I just meant a piece of music but Michael came in the next day and hed put a Shakespeare sonnet to music. In one evening! He said: Yeah, and youre going to sing it! Well, it would have been rude not to!

What other Shakespeare parts are on your to-do list?I always used to say I didnt want to play Lady Macbeth because I find it too frightening. She really faces the darkest part of herself. But Id love to give that a go. I dont want to be the go-to actor who plays traditionally male roles. But I do think Simon Godwin is on to something about the need to re-envision Shakespeare plays. You know how they did Frankenstein at the NT with two actors swapping roles? Wouldnt it be interesting if you had male and female actors swapping Macbeth and Lady Macbeth?

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Tamsin Greig on Twelfth Night: 'The self-judgment of women is awful' - The Guardian

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April 20th, 2020 at 10:49 am

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