The Female Malvolio/a: National Theatre & Globe

This year we saw two major Twelfth Night’s open: Simon Godwin’s at the National’s Olivier, and Emma Rice’s final summer production at the Globe theatre/museum. Interestingly – or not, your call – both of the Malvolio’s were played by female actors (*gasp*). The way the character was handled and portrayed in each production was very different, and certainly has the ability to change the entire tone of the production in a way I don’t think any other character could have done.

(As a kind of disclaimer, I’m sort of free-writing this, so these are merely tiny tiny thoughts which have come to mind when thinking about this. Obvs, disagree with me and tell me anything I’ve lacked in thinking about, or if I’m just attempting to be cleverer [is that a word?!] than I actually am. And for the record, I thought both Tamsin Greig and Katy Owen were fab in their roles, respectively).

The first thing I’d like to note is what I mean when I say “played by a female actor”. Both roles were played by females, but Godwin’s production had Greig play Malvolio as a woman: Malvolia. Owen, on the other hand, dons a moustache, keeps the character’s original name, and plays Malvolio, for all intents and purposes, as a man. I wonder if the implications of a female playing Malvolio could have been explored in the Globe performance, though I guess as we already have the Viola case within the text, it’s understandable perhaps why not.

That’s all well and jolly, but the way each production communicated this casting and performance choices with audiences was pretty illuminating. Whilst the Globe simply announced Owen along with the rest of the cast, the National’s entire marketing campaign was centered on Greig as Malvolia. Everything, from the trailer to programme art and posters, featured her and her alone. Greig said she was not a star, and that the show was an “ensemble effort”, but from the marketing’s perspective, she was undeniably the focus of the production. I get it. Greig is perhaps the most commercially well-known of the cast, and we all know that puts bums on seats, especially for Shakespeare, but it does make me wonder whether this is supposedly the Unique Selling Point of the production, a ‘let’s switch things up via gender to make it even more contemporary and show off we’ve done that so we can sell tickets’.
The Globe’s marketing, from what I’ve seen, appears to be based around their Feste, played by wonderful drag queen Le Gateau Chocolat. It’s incredible how a show which is largely seen as an ensemble effort is reduced to one single performer for the sake of marketing and pretty posters.


Changing the name of Malvolio, in the NT’s production, to Malvolia is something I’m not entirely on board with. I don’t love it, but I don’t hate it either. I just didn’t quite know if there was a need, particularly as ‘Malvolio’ is so iconic in itself. Bit of a personal tangent, but I recently played Ferdinand in The Tempest, and the director asked me if I wanted to change the name to something ‘more feminine’, which I declined. I was just going to play the role how I wanted, not focusing on ‘gender-specific’ things such as names. Godwin’s Twelfth Night, of course, opted to feminise Malvolio’s name, favouring an O for an A, like Dench’s Prospera. They did the same for Fabian, too, switching to ‘Fabia’ for Doel’s role. It seems quite a trend to do so, but we wouldn’t dare do so for someone such as Hamlet would we? I didn’t see Maxine Peake lording it up as Hamlette or Hamletta. Hmmm.

What I did enjoy, however, was the extra little snippets given to her – we see her watching (a la Edward Cullen) Olivia as she sleeps, hinting at her being a closeted lesbian, and this adds that extra depth to her character – she has a reason to ask Toby et al to keep it down, rather than doing it just because. She wants to protect Olivia from Orsino, Cesario etc at all costs because she loves her, rather than dreaming of being of a higher social class through marrying her.

Emma Rice’s production, in my interpretation, used Malvolio as a vehicle to laugh at, or make fun of, the critics who have criticised Rice’s reign as artistic director over the past year. Opting for a Welsh accent and repeatedly blasting a PE-teacher’s whistle, Owen makes comments about a dance routine preceding one of her entrances – “What is this, commuity theatre? You’ll be playing ‘Zip Zap Boing’ next!”. Her Malvolio, with lines clearly not by Shakespeare, also draws attention to various cuts to text made in this production:

“Sort out your uniform, this is a warning
Put on your veil, this is a house of mourning.
And yes that was a rhyming couplet thank you very much!”

Much of Malvolio’s text in the ‘gulling’ scene are cut, with the dirtiest jokes, such as “her very Cs, her Us and Ts” line are eradicated. Instead, the production focuses on Malvolio as a stopper-of-fun just because, rather than having the purpose Godwin’s Malvolia does.

Katy Owen as Malvolio

But that doesn’t mean Malvolio/a as a character can’t be fun to watch themselves. Owen’s comedy as M is all physical, taking inspiration from how well her Puck was received last year. She struts, almost gallops, onto the stage, and post-Maria’s letter she leaps onto one of the pillars, thrusting against it, like a dog on a rampage. We laugh raucously at Malvolio, knowing he has been tricked, and even find him being locked up and “notoriously abused” pretty funny. This production relies on physical comedy, as opposed to Shakespeare’s witty language, with almost all of Feste’s dialogue cut entirely. Because of this, and because of Malvolio being set up as a character just to laugh at, and no remorse seen from anyone (though perhaps a hint from Sir Toby?), this production is merely a comedy. There’s no foreboding sense of the rain “raineth everyday”. Instead, Owen gets changed back into her clean costume and jigs with the others in the finale song – before the curtain call.

Greig’s Malvolia relishes more in the verbal comedy, really getting to grips with the text, particularly in the letter-writing scene. Her madness, however, is much more humiliating. Whilst we begin laughing at her Madonna-esque cone bra and yellow and white stripes Pierrot get-up, we cringe a lot, and realise very quickly how badly abused she is being. Whilst we traditionally laugh at Malvolio for attempting to be “beyond his element”, in Godwin’s production it gets sticky. Are we still laughing at Malvolia trying to be so, or for, in so many words, confessing to loving another woman?

Water, a common symbol for sexuality, as well as referred to in the text, is used alongside Malvolia to illustrate her personal story. Discovering “my lady loves me!”, a fountain springs to life behind her (insert innuendo), whilst her threat to be “revenged on the whole pack of you” is met with a storm, pouring down on her. Dressed in her dirty-yellow costume, she is forced to remove her ruler-straight wig to reveal a mop of blonde hair as she climbs to the top of a unsteady, pop-up book resembling set.

But where is she climbing to? Away from everyone? To freedom? Soaked through, is Malvolia coming to terms with herself, plotting her revenge also? Despite the happiness in the revolving scenes below her, the performance definitely ends on a sombre note, as we question the expense with which we turned the conventions of Illyria upside down.


I don’t really know how to end this. Just some thoughts which could be explored more, I suppose. Maybe they were all really obvious. All I know is both Malvolios worked well for their respective productions and in both cases near stole the show and I’ve been thinking about them a lot.

Some related reading: Dominic Cavendish on the “death of the male actor” lol 
 Florence Bell on the state of Shakespeare at the National
   Greig talking about Twelfth Night
 Greig’s response to Cavendish’s article  
Emma Rice’s open letter to future AD of Globe






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