Shakespeare’s Globe has had such a momentous year that it took one hell of a production to stand out in a season that covered everything from a blood-pumping Henry V to an Afghanistan re-telling of Comedy of Errors. But the company’s Twelfth Night inched its powdered head slightly above the rest, vying for attention as the show of 2012 with its other all-male production of a very different play, Richard III.
As brilliant as Shakespeare is, his woeful female characters are always a challenge to modern female minds. They are, with the exception of Much Ado About Nothing’s Beatrice, spineless and one dimensional, always in thrall to their master or father (which may explain why I will always prefer Rogan and Goneril to drippy Cordelia). Of course, back in Shakespeare’s time, despite having a woman running the country during most of his years as a playwright, the fairer sex were not allowed on stage with female roles played by men, a tradition this production reverts to. I was skeptical at first, it sounded gimmicky and, well, wrong in these marginally more enlightened times. But dispensing with female actors actually brought these otherwise rather slight characters to life, especially in the hands of such fantastic actors as Mark Rylance (Olivia) and Paul Chahidi who almost stole the show as the formidable Maria. Shakespeare’s dreary females were transformed by made-up men (that is men in make-up, not imagined); the campness turned their simperiness into comedy gold. Rylance was a beguiling, hilarious but also touching Olivia who glided across the stage as if on skates (in fact, from my vantage point with the groundlings, I couldn’t see his feet and wondered if he was wearing those kids’ trainers with wheels on. He wasn’t), his steady grief giving way to frantic, and very funny, hysteria as Viola-as-Cesario (the very pretty Johnny Flynn) spurns his/her advances.
Much has been made of this being Stephen Fry’s first appearance on the stage since he walked out on Cell Mates 17 years ago. He’s good, but not, as critics feared, the show-stealer. In fact he’s almost too subdued in the role of the pompous Malvolio. I’ve always felt rather sorry for Malvelio, he’s a bore and a prig, but I think his treatment at the hands of tedious Belch and Aguecheek is rather out of proportion. My feelings were only heightened in this production as the contrast between Colin Hurley’s flatulent Belch and Roger Lloyd Pack’s, Aguecheek, who to steal Blackadder’s quote, looked like a bird who had swallowed a plate in his oversized ruff , were as brilliantly vulgar and funny as they should be, while Fry had an almost kindly manner. As with so many of Shakespeare’s plays, the funny parts are rarely straightforwardly amusing. Malvolio’s famous cross-gartered yellow stocking scene is always a little hands-in-front-of-your eyes funny and even more so in Fry’s subtle hands. We know he can play buffoons to perfection and he could have done with challenging a bit more Colonel Melchett into his Malvolio even if he was worried about stealing the headlines.
But he would have to put in the performance of his life to do that in what is very much an ensemble piece, each actor bringing their own bit of brilliance to make a play that’s feels as fresh, funny, cheeky and enthralling as it must have done in the early 1600s.
by Suzanne Elliott