Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night is a festive comedy, thought to have first been performed during Christmas 1601-2. Its composition may have been inspired by a visit to the Elizabethan court of Don Virginio Orsino, Duke of Bracchiano, and Shakespeare himself may even have performed in the play before the Queen and her Italian guest.
The latest production of Twelfth Night at the Globe certainly delivers a sense of festive merriment and celebration. The staging is, as ever at the Globe, simple; greenery adorns the balcony above the stage, and is entwined around the parallel pillars, delivering both a sense of the magical ‘green’ world of the play, and traditional English Christmas ornamentation. Musicians in Elizabethan costume play traditional music on the stage as the audience finds its seat, or plants its feet firmly in a small space in the yard.
In the opening act we meet the shipwrecked Viola; a vision in white, and as she transforms herself into Cesario, the only clue to her feminine identity is her long red hair. Johnny Flynn’s Viola is hesitant, almost shy, yet her lively temperament gradually emerges as she delivers messages of love from Orsino to the grieving Olivia. In its use of an all-male cast, this production beautifully highlights the double comedy within the play: a young man playing a young woman playing a young man. And it works. Flynn is a charming Viola: nervous but self-assured, comic yet radiating passion and infatuation.
The comic capers of Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek, played respectively by Colin Hurley and Roger Lloyd Pack, are a sheer joy to watch. Hurley’s Belch staggers about the stage in a state of perpetual inebriation, and Pack’s Sir Andrew is both farcical and quietly touching. Mark Rylance’s Olivia however, while clever and very funny, left me with a vague sense of unease. His age at times undermines the innocence and grief of Olivia, and his infatuation with Cesario, played for laughs, detracts from the more serious issue of his character’s self-deception.
High laughs also come thick and fast from Paul Chahidi’s Maria; his split-second comic timing, and his portrayal of Maria, caught as she is between her duty to Olivia, and her enjoyment of merry-making with Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew, is beautifully delivered. Chahidi explores every facet of Maria’s character while remaining superbly consistent.
The surprise of the show perhaps is Stephen Fry. It was always to be expected he would be the star turn, given his fame, but in fact it is his talent at acting, not his celebrity, which is very much in evidence. A pompous killjoy, an ‘affectioned ass’, Fry’s Malvolio gleams with a refreshing verve and energy. Malvolio can be a difficult character, but in Fry’s hands he is every inch the entertaining Puritan. The gulling letter scene works particularly well, and Fry portrays the dawning potential for Olivia’s affection with superb comic aplomb. I had anticipated the production being rather top heavy, with Fry’s presence on the stage the major event, but the sense of an ensemble, of a company of players, is evident throughout, and while he shines as Malvolio, he does not cast his fellow actors into shadow, which is a testament to both his fine skill as an actor, and the excellent direction of Tim Carroll. It is to be hoped that this is not Stephen Fry’s last appearance on the Shakespearean stage.
This is a fun, engaging production of Twelfth Night. Its focus on high comedy perhaps leaves some of the more subtle elements of the play behind, but its sense of festive fun abounds. There is in this production a communal sense of celebratory sharing, a ‘cakes and ale’ atmosphere, which is reflected in the very obvious enjoyment of the audience. Whether standing in the yard, or sitting in the galleries, it is impossible not to be swept along on the energised tide of cheering, laughing, clapping, and stamping which this production provokes. As I left the theatre, dark chilly autumn skies overhead, it was impossible not to smile and look forward to the merry festivity of winter.
Twelfth Night runs at the Globe until 14th October. It is currently sold out, although returns are possible on the day. It transfers to the Apollo Theatre for a limited run from 2nd November.