Worth watching for the comments thread alone: NT's Twelfth Night livestream reviewed

2 May 2020

9:00 AM

2 May 2020

9:00 AM

Twelfth Night

Olivier Theatre, via YouTube

Bound; Wasted

Southwark Playhouse, via YouTube

‘Enjoy world-class theatre online for free,’ announces the National Theatre. Every Thursday at 7 p.m. a play from the archive is livestreamed. I watched Twelfth Night, from 2017, starring Tamsin Greig as a female Malvolio. What a handsome, absorbing and brilliantly staged production this is. Greig’s comically petulant Malvolia won the plaudits, rightly, while the underrated Tim McMullan turned Sir Toby into a wry, wobbly, loveable drunkard, like a rock star enjoying a month on the lash. Having seen the original, I preferred the online experience, not least because of the noisy comments thread beside the screen.

‘How do you get Russian subtitles?’ ‘When’s the interval?’ ‘Why a female Malvolio?’ ‘Watching from Brussels.’ ‘Why they talk weird?’ ‘I’m also in Brussels.’ ‘I’m doing this for english alevel.’ ‘How long does it go on for?’ ‘Can I watch Treasure Island?’ ‘Just tuned in what’d I miss?’

A business-like viewer asked: ‘If everyone here donated 1 pound how much would they earn?’ The answer was £36,523 according to the audience total at its peak. The National preferred to invite donations and raised more than £7,000. After the interval, new viewers arrived, some uncertain which play was being broadcast.

‘No q for the toilet, AWESOME.’ ‘Love Olivia’s outfit.’ ‘Anyone see the globe theatre show of Macbeth?’ ‘I never thought Shakes could be soooooo funny.’ ‘Anyone else having violent 90s flashbacks?’ ‘When does he turn into an ass?’ ‘Why do you insist on transposing Bard to present day, never works.’ ‘The guy who plays Macbeth is gorg.’ ‘I’m gonna watch some paint dry instead.’ ‘I am here watching with a 6 yo, NOT appropriate.’ ‘When is Frankenstein, ooh yes Cumberbatch please.’

The last comment is relevant because Twelfth Night has already been supplanted by Frankenstein starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller. After seven days, this will also be uprooted from the NT site and replaced. The idea is to funnel an audience into particular time slots and to increase charitable donations. But the NT could make far more money from a rolling pay-per-view system, as requested by numerous viewers worldwide. Too bad. Anyone who missed Twelfth Night can no longer see it. Even the stupidest YouTuber makes all his videos available permanently. And this is happening at a time when every theatre in the English-speaking world is dark. The NT has responded by locking up its Shakespeare archive and fending off the public with pitchforks.

Southwark Playhouse is offering two plays online, for free. Bound, a drama about Cornish trawlermen from 2011, is filmed on a single lens with inadequate sound. The static camerawork stiffens the drama, and the actors, without individual mics, are hard to understand. Doubtless the show was chosen because of its lockdown themes: eight fearful, angry and badly paid men are trapped in a vessel adrift in uncharted seas. The show’s brutal tone never varies and the irascible hearties spend every waking moment screaming and bullying each other. An escapist frivolity might have been preferable.

Further to its lockdown motif, Southwark offers Wasted (nicely shot with excellent sound), which is set in an isolated parsonage where four siblings are struggling to win artistic fame. Yes, it’s the Brontës. So why is the word ‘Brontë’, recognisable all over the world, not in the title? Carl Miller, who wrote the book, has done his research and discovered that ‘Bront-ee’ is the correct pronunciation and that ‘wuthering’ is a dialect word for ‘wiwld’ or ‘in tumult’.

Branwell is over-prominent, and yet he’s a fascinating character, well worth a play in his own right. He fancied himself as a painter, composer, novelist, poet, flautist and pugilist and he expected to achieve great things in every field he entered. But he was a quitter. ‘Artists must experience things. I am currently in the experiencing phase, not the finishing phase.’ A line that could have come from Withnail. His true talent lay elsewhere. ‘The only thing more tedious than living in Haworth is living in Haworth without sixpence for a drink.’ Jilted by a lover, he set fire to the family home. Evidently this inspired the climax of Jane Eyre which Charlotte is shown diligently writing. Before the sisters succeeded as novelists, they invested their life savings of £1,000 in a collection of their poetry. It sold two copies.

The show’s sparky first act succumbs to gloom and despair in the second. Emily croaks. Charlotte, boringly married to a clergyman, takes out her frustrations on Branwell. ‘You’re nothing but a self-obsessed, social-climbing, talentless, provincial nobody. And your painting was crap.’ This verbal style doesn’t quite square with the earlier, more poetic Charlotte, who admired a portrait of Wellington. ‘So broody and distant, with lips like wine.’ But the show deliberately mixes modernity with antiquity and delivers a snappy, energetic and entertainingly chaotic portrait of four fascinating characters.

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