September 30, 2012, by Peter Kirwan

Twelfth Night @ Shakespeare’s Globe

The Globe’s double-bill of Original Practices productions links Twelfth Night with the much longer run of Richard III reviewed in my last post. Again, the backboards of the tiring house were lifted to reveal the actors dressing; again the female characters were men in white make-up; again onlookers sat in the galleries and the band played original instruments. Yet the horizon of expectations for this production was unavoidably different on account of the presence of Stephen Fry, the nation’s darling and, of course, a long absentee from the stage since Cell Mates in 1985. The Globe is one of the few major London theatres that avoids celebrity casting as a matter of course; the theatre is the star, and the ensemble its gracious inhabitants. The combination of rigorous Globe staging practices and celebrity television star meant that this production carried a different weight of expectation to Richard III, bolstered by this production completely selling out months in advance and attracting a relatively new audience to the Globe.
In the end, the overwhelmingly positive response to this performance was one of the most influential factors in the production’s success. While the audience weren’t explicitly referred to to quite the same extent that they were by Mark Rylance’s Richard, they continued to create much of the generous and convivial atmosphere, from the calls of sympathy for Roger Lloyd Pack’s Sir Andrew and Fry’s Malvolio, to the cheers and applause for every effective bit of comic business, to the audible cries of delight and joy as Viola and Sebastian finally reunited.As with Richard III, this was a production where every actor in the immensely capable ensemble got his moment to shine.

As part of this, Fry didn’t disappoint. His slow-moving, relatively amiable Malvolio was no tyrant but an intellectual pedant, who established his studied difference to the other characters in a way befitting an actor who had joined the ensemble for a single play. Fry took utter delight in language, rolling Malvolio’s carefully planned barbs around his mouth and anunciating them with care in the direction of Feste and Maria, building from an early stage the foundations of the hatred borne by those characters against him. His poise was careful and rarely dropped, allowing him to become a centre of gravity for his scenes that sucked the energy out of the carnivalesque, while avoiding going for cheap laughs through mugging or exaggerating. Fry’s Malvolio was, in fact, one of the most human I’ve yet seen, a pedant with a deep regard for his proximity to Olivia and an arrogance just waiting to be unleashed, as seen in the miming of a female companion when he first appeared for the garden scene. Fry’s overt comedy was reserved for moments of genius such as his aggressive snarl when telling the audience that he would smile, or his wrapping of a blanket around himself like a toga as he stormed off with dignity following the cross-gartered scene. Yet this Malvolio was no monster, and his cries from a barred prison jutting up from the trap and his final sloping offstage following his stuttered cry of revenge were greeted with a general sympathy.

There was an excitable side to Malvolio, whether in his roaringly awkward clawing at Olivia following her suggestion he go to bed or, sweetly, his dash back onstage to deliver the letter’s postscript following his wonderfully naive trawl through the ‘MOAI’ trick. The sight of statelinesss succumbing to histrionics was echoed throughout other performances, most notably Rylance’s remarkable Olivia. Early on, Olivia appeared in a state of exaggerated formality as she glided about the stage, fanned herself genteelly, and tentatively raised her veil. Her attention was early on the empty chair that stood for her absent brother, to which Sir Toby saluted even amid his drunkenness. Yet as her lust for Cesario took over, the cracks in her dignity began to show. She stumbled over her words, berated herself after the fact for asking Cesario’s parentage (hitting herself on the head in frustration) and ran back and forth, pulling comically at the ring tightly wedded to her finger as she tried to pass it to Malvolio. As the play progressed her unpredictability became the play’s comic highlight. Screaming in rage when Andrew interrupted her interview with Cesario, she threw her entire gardening basket and clippers at him while chasing him offstage, and when her words failed to break up Toby and Fabian’s duel with Sebastian, she went back into the tiring house and emerged with an enormous pike which she swung wildly about the stage, shrieking and sending the men flying before turning to a flabbergasted Sebastian.

This movement from the mannered to the ridiculous characterised much of the play and, crucially, allowed audience buy-in from an early stage, as characters developed and expanded on a relationship. This was especially true in terms of the love plots, where Olivia’s gradual slippage of decorum increased the desire to see her fully uninhibited. Her increased desperation and frustration meant that after her final hysterical pleas to Sebastian, his firm “Madam, I will” and her subsequent “Oh!” both brought the house down, providing a satisfactory and suitably straightforward antidote to the earlier crossed purposes. Time was taken to build up to the other consummations of love plots, most notably during Feste’s rendition of “Come Away, Death”. Cesario and Orsino sat together on a downstage bench, facing away from each other for the duration of the song. As it progressed they began darting glances at each other, each just missing the other’s glance. Gradually they began touching, Orsino clasping a hand manfully on her chest, and slowly drew closer. As they talked, and Cesario spoke of her family, Orsino embraced his servant. She in turn put an arm tentatively round him, and the two raised their faces to each other, almost touching. They finally broke the tension and jumped up, comically planning the next embassage to Olivia as a way of shrugging off the inexplicable moment that had just passed.

Also sweet, but treated with an irreverence that effectively undercut the sincerity of the other love stories, were Paul Chahidi’s Maria and Colin Hurley’s Sir Toby in a standout partnership. Maria stole every scene in which she appeared (even with her subtle double takes when she appeared during the twins’ reunion), beginning as a demure maid but building up a noticable wicked streak, firstly during Sir Andrew’s bumbling attempts to ‘accost’ her and then later responding to Malvolio’s insults during the drinking scene, where most of his disdain was reserved for her, including lines normally addressed to the men. As Maria’s cunning side emerged, her voice dropped and an evil cackle began characterising her plots. She took early responsibility for a rambunctious Toby, who magically revealed new wine jugs hidden in every part of the scenery, and who let fly impressive, stage-clearing flatulence when decrying his pickled herrings. At her revelation of the plot, Maria slowly revealed her intention, allowing it to dawn on Sir Toby as the two turned their heads to each other in glee. The two immediately shared a long kiss, to enormous applause from the audience, which she acknowledged with a complicit smile.

The other clowns were uniformly entertaining, including James Garnon making the most of Fabian by playing up the character’s innocently whistling pretence at neutrality during Olivia’s flying rages and his wonderful goading of Viola during the duel with Andrew. Peter Hamilton Dyer was a significant presence as Feste, his slow and melancholy songs punctuating the action and allowing him a folksy choric role. Claire van Kampen’s music added a wistful air to what was a relatively straight Feste, responding with incredulity to the more bizarre happenings and constantly asking for more money, given with increasingly ill grace. While he made the most of set pieces (Sir Topaz babbling almost incoherently, the screamed reading of Malvolio’s ‘mad’ letter) his real strength was in speedy delivery of the verse and a quick wit. As he did with his Catesby, the remarkably capable Dyer played off the audience, sharing looks of incredulity and offering a sober sense of commentary even as he played his pipe and feigned indifference.

This was in contrast to the slow witted Sir Andrew of Lloyd Pack. Beautifully measured and with a slow delivery that demonstrated perfect bathetic timing, Pack was best when, for example, attempting to laugh along with Toby and Fabian while also coming to terms with the realisation that his head was stuck in the box tree, or when forced towards Viola with his sword flailing. While the clowns demonstrated a general physical ability, Pack always stood out for his character’s attempts to ingratiate himself entirely with the action, despite a clear inability to blend into any situation. A particular highlight was the singing of catches during the evening scene, where Andrew, Feste and Toby engaged in a fantastic round of ‘Hold thy peace’ and bawled out Malvolio collectively; yet Andrew’s finest moment came when, his back turned, he was the only one not to see Malvolio enter. While the others retreated to the sides of the stage, Andrew was left singing and swinging a captured dead rabbit around his head, until he finally realised and sat down, embarrassed, and began unconsciously stroking the rabbit.

The carefully managed duel was a comic highlight, perhaps even more so than an amusing but straightforward box tree scene. Johnny Flynn’s Viola shone here, shrieking ridiculously while Antonio broke up the duel and pursued a similarly terrified Andrew. However, the play depended on Viola’s relative sincerity throughout, she the ‘straight’ earnest heroine who pleaded with characters and responded with bewilderment as events overtook her. The same was true of Samuel Barnett’s Sebastian, though he had more agency as he punched Sir Andrew hard in recompense for the slap he had received, and then took on Fabian and Sir Toby single-handed. Humour was found later on in the twins as Orsino accidentally took Sebastian by the hand, but the priority accorded the twins was the beauty of their final reunion. The final scene expertly integrated the amusing (Maria hiding herself behind a tree in embarrassment and giving a pathetic ‘Yay!’ to back up Fabian’s report of her marriage) and the deathly serious, drawing a hushed silence from the audience as Toby bawled at Sir Andrew who, without turning to look at the audience, slowly hung his head and left the stage without further word. The combination of humour and affect perfectly served the reunion of the twins, where for the first time ever I heard suppressed shrieks of delight as they came together. It was, finally, a moment of wonder that defined the play.

This was, as I asserted in my previous post, the most capable ensemble the Globe has seen in some years, and served as a wonderful end to a cracking year for the theatre. While not the most out-and-out hysterical version of the play, it made a powerful claim for good verse speaking, simple comedy and a festive ensemble as the Globe’s most important ingredients. Avoiding the obvious traps of the celebrity production and instead celebrating the creation of theatrical community between actors and audience, every moment was fully invested in, creating an entirely wonder-full production.

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