Does any Shakespeare play combine such knockabout comic antics alongside the melancholic and tragic more potently than ‘Twelfth Night’? It has always been one of my favourite works, not only from the Bard’s canon, but full stop. This was the seventh production I’ve seen and will certainly be hard to beat, even though Michael Grandage’s superb effort at the Wyndham’s (with Derek Jacobi outstanding as Malvolio) a few years ago comes exceedingly close. Riotously funny, brilliantly simple, and impeccably acted, this period dress and all-male production has been revived after ten years away – albeit with a slightly different cast – and Tim Carroll returning as director. The result is a sterling evening which leaves you surfing on a cloud of unadulterated joy and one that lingers long in the memory.
So what is it that makes this “very midsummer madness” so unmissable? Well, Carroll’s sensitive and unfussy direction certainly does not go unnoticed. Among the bowers and flowers of the Globe’s impressively vast stage, the action is beautifully fluid and yet never rushed or milked. Relationships are allowed to develop slowly and teasingly, characters gradually flourish before our eyes, farce gives way to tragedy, and desire mingles with malice. The comic moments feel unforced and well-judged, the verse-speaking is exquisite, and the cast resist overplaying, sometimes difficult with such glorious material to play with. But perhaps best of all, it is the tightness and generosity of the ensemble work which raises this production into the top league. Cleverly re-balancing the play by toning down the performances and giving equal weight to both plots, Carroll unleashes a ‘Twelfth Night’ which has never felt more refreshing, exciting, or bittersweet.
Carroll’s vision is magnificently brought to life by a cast that bats all the way down. As Viola, Johnny Flynn may seem too stilted and monotone to begin with but as he gradually warms up, you realise that this is a heavily stylised performance which mirrors the techniques of a cross-gender Elizabethan actor, and he ends up producing wonderful comic moments shot through with a touching girlish vulnerability. Colin Hurley as the roguish, scarlet-cheeked Sir Toby Belch totters, blusters, and farts his way around the court, aided and abetted by the lugubrious Roger Lloyd Pack, who invests the fool Sir Andrew with a naivety that makes him both hilariously pathetic and hopelessly gullible. Together, they make an irresistible double act but are dangerously close to being upstaged by Paul Chahidi, playing the scheming gentlewoman Maria as a mischievious Dot Cotton, sourly reproaching the drunken duo for their behaviour before transforming into a gossipy prankster, giggling with a childlike glee, and fleeing when her antics are uncovered. Elsewhere, Liam Brennan’s Orsino nimbly switches from moody lovesick puppy to confused admirer, James Garnon somehow manages to make Fabian funny and engaging, Samuel Barnett is a baby-faced but spirited Sebastian, and Peter Hamilton Dyer chooses not to portray Feste as a daft, wise-cracking jester or world-weary has-been, but rather pitches him somewhere in the middle, a decision that on the whole, works brilliantly.
As the pompous steward, Malvolio, whose gulling into believing his mistress is in love with him turns from impish joke to shocking cruelty, Stephen Fry (returning to the stage after a 17-year absence) is beautifully understated, sensibly eschewing the obvious and well-worn comic business often employed for the character. Nor does he selfishly make it all about him. Beginning terse, gently mocking, and studious, he turns his nose up at the unsavoury rabble within the court like a bad smell has wafted in from outside, but there is also a streak of danger to his rebukes when he abruptly threatens the raucous foursome when they dare to carouse after dark. However, in both the letter and wooing scenes, Fry manages to bring the house down without overegging the pudding – he snobbishly imagines his future as a Count, paces the stage excitedly, wags his finger at us when we laugh at his innuendo, and skips off lost in his own dreams of love. When he returns, absurdly dressed in yellow stockings, posturing grandly, grinning inanely, and suggestively thrusting towards an outraged Olivia, Fry has completely won the audience over, which makes Malvolio’s subsequent torture all the harder to watch. Although undeniably wretched in this scene, I would have liked a much darker edge to proceedings here, and hope that Fry goes even further beneath the surface to highlight the extent of the character’s mental breakdown. Saying that, when all is revealed in the concluding minutes, there is a poignancy as, lip trembling, Fry shakes with anguish and promising revenge, storms off to wallow in his own misery.
And then there’s Mark Rylance. Back in 2002, Rylance first played the Countess Olivia to universal acclaim, securing himself an Olivier award nomination and now he returns to the role, reminding us why he’s widely considered to be the finest actor of his generation. Ghostly white, gliding across the stage as though being wheeled, and in an overwhelming jet black dress bedecked with flowing veil, Rylance has us wrapped around his little finger before he’s even uttered a word. With a quavering voice, unsubtle manipulative powers, and an intensely quiet and mournful demeanour giving way to sudden explosions of passion and anger, this portrayal could easily be ghastly and excessively showy. However, in the masterly hands of Rylance, the character becomes blisteringly alive on such a scale as I have never seen before. Indeed, as well as his characteristic eccentricity and unpredictability, his innate sense of comic timing is used to maximum effect and sends the audience breaking helplessly into tears of laughter – he can, quite literally, stop the show. If Rylance doesn’t win an award this time around, it will be a travesty.
With the addition of beautifully atmospheric Tudor music and original period costumes, Shakespeare’s Globe is filled with the glorious echoes of pure enjoyment and this is such an event that one feels it could come remarkably close to replicating the Elizabethan theatre experience as it was – and not just the building, which I know is designed to do that – but in terms of the relationship between audience and performer. You feel a sense of collusion; of shared excitement, tension, and hope. Carroll and his actors – all part of the Original Practices company – make you fall in love with the Bard all over again. This is one of his most layered, emotionally complex, and entertaining plays, with spellbinding poetry and heartwarming songs, and the evening feels like a warm embrace.
One may struggle to find fault – as indeed, did I – although I’m sure some will (those who are anti-Stephen Fry, hate long running times, or slightly tacky puns) but if you can immerse yourself in the boisterous and often, daft nature of the production, you discover a rollicking Elizabethan romp with more than its fair share of sadness and longing buried deep within. I just hope it doesn’t lose anything by transferring to the Apollo. It isn’t London’s most cavernous theatre by any means but I hope the intimacy will not be sacrificed. One thing’s for sure: I will be popping along to this outstanding production once again, as it certainly remains one of the city’s hottest tickets this winter. Book now.
AT THE APOLLO THEATRE (FROM NOV 2ND – BOOKING UNTIL 3RD FEB 2013)