5 January 2013
Following its sell-out run at The Globe last summer, the transfer of this all-male, traditionally-staged Twelfth Night - playing in rep with the equally lauded Richard III - really has been the hot ticket in the West End this winter, and it's not hard to see why. On paper, the combination of stage star Mark Rylance and screen darling Stephen Fry, in his first return to stage for 17 years, is enough to attract the crowds. In practice, it is more than big names that have marked out this performance - this comes close to a masterclass in how to do Shakespearean comedy.
This is the Bard in all his glory - not stuffy, not incomprehensible and certainly not dull. In a similar way to other Globe productions which have toured or transferred, the house lights are never fully dimmed, diffusing that invisible fourth wall and creating an atmosphere of camaraderie between audience and performers. It is one of many signs that director Tim Carroll is harking back to London's golden age of theatre in Shakespeare's own time. While the traditionally designed poster is charming if gimmicky, the lighting, traditional music and seating on stage are far from it, resurrecting a spirit of companionship and riotous fun which so embodied Renaissance comedy. If this all sounds a bit corny and you're beginning to doubt the keenness of my critical eye, I apologise: but this is a joyous comedy which invites giggles and warmth at every turn.
Yet perhaps this works against the performance in an odd way when it comes to the portrayal of Malvolio. Stephen Fry is...well, he's Stephen Fry as we know and love him, complete with adorably pompous manner and Melchett-esque laugh. Capturing Malvolio's affected superiority and subsequent ludicrous behaviour perfectly, he has the audience in hysterics in his efforts to impress Olivia, with levels of leering sycophancy rivalling the great David Bamber in the 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. However, enjoyable as Fry's performance is, it certainly shies away from truly exploring the darker elements of this play. Ostracised, imprisoned in a cell and labelled a dangerous madman, Malvolio is indeed "most notoriously abused", and his plot arc can elicit discomfort as well as laughter. Does he deserve such treatment? Should such cruelty be entertaining? Is his promise of revenge something to be laughed at, or does it throw a gloomier shadow over the closing moments of the play? Perhaps dwelling on these questions for too long is not in keeping with the overall tone this production is taking, but it would have been more satisfying to see a little more nuance and shading in Fry's portrayal. He will always be a crowd-pleaser, but - at risk of repercussions from his army of adoring fans - his Malvolio is excellent, but not exceptional.
At the other end of the spectrum, Mark Rylance succeeds in making a rather dull part seem extraordinary. His Olivia is by far the best I have seen on stage or screen, transforming the role from a fairly forgettable moping mourner into a figure of charming hilarity. Rylance's movement around the stage is fascinating and hilarious in itself: seeming to glide rather than to walk, there is a constant sense of hovering which lends energy to the part, even when silent. This is of course heightened by the wonderful expressiveness of voice and face, often simultaneously mournful and comic. Above all, Rylance's success comes from his ability to appear utterly natural in the role, embodying it whole-heartedly - given he is playing a countess in full Renaissance make-up in a somewhat ludicrous comedy, this is a pretty amazing feat, and a privilege to see first-hand.
Rylance might steal the show, but a regular scene-stealer also comes in the form of Maria (Paul Chahidi). As confusion and farce are milked to their fullest comic effect, Chahidi certainly rivals Rylance in gliding abilities and comic timing. Together with a superb array of frowns, simpers and wicked grins, he is a delight to watch and displays unfailing exuberance for the role. Another surprise of the evening is Fabian, as James Garnon shines in an often rather overlooked role which brings a much-needed dose of solidity into the raucous madness of Sir Toby (Colin Hurley) and Sir Andrew (Roger Lloyd Pack). Garnon however does not fall into the trap of making this straighter role too straight, with an impressively strong performance delivering comedy and thoughtfulness.
Director Tim Carroll must be congratulated on a production which delivers the essence of Shakespearean comedy with lightness, joy and sparkle. The styling may be traditional, but we are a thousand miles away from dusty old books and dry rhetoric. The bard may be known for his lengthy speeches, but with some cunning timing this Twelfth Night demonstrates the hilarity of the Shakespearean one-liner. With music, physical comedy, beautiful costumes (including a truly fabulous array of hats, I might add) and an Olivia who is nothing short of brilliant, this is a superb production proving that a comedy from 1602 really can - and deserves to - stand the test of time.