September 30, 2012, by Peter Kirwan
Twelfth Night @ Shakespeare’s Globe
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.
Johnny Flynn in the role of Viola disguised as Cesario said “I am not that I play”. The full vertiginous effect of that line, as the audience is made aware of the multiple layers of identity behind that “I”, could only really be brought out by an OP production.
Duncan – agreed, though the same could presumably be said of any production where Viola is played by a man, regardless of whether or not it’s OP (cf Propeller, or the cross-gendered RSC one of a few years back)? What the OP costuming really reminded me of was how interesting these gender concerns are in relation to Elizabeth I, though, which I think often gets overlooked. Loved the costuming in both these productions.
I haven’t seen the current production but saw the earlier Globe OP production a few years ago in which I thought Rylance’s performance as Olivia made sense only if seen as an interpretation of Queen Elizabeth. This is clearly a very different production: to me the earlier one felt wistful rather than broadly comic, apart from Rylance and, at times, Paul Chahidi. But then, of course, they didn’t have Stephen Fry…
It is a strange idea that Rylance’s Olivia only makes sense as an interpretation of Elizabeth. I have seen the show many times and that possibility has never occurred to me; neither, to my knowledge, has anyone in the cast or production team ever mentioned such a link. Indeed, Tim Carroll, rather than try and bring out extraneous references, tends to concentrate on doing the play in hand and let the audience make connections if they wish. If Rylance’s Olivia brings Elizabeth to mind, that is all well and good: but to say that it only makes sense through that interpretation is frankly bizarre.
For some reason, I reacted very differently to that line in this Globe OP production than when I saw Propeller do the same play. Here, OP provided a constant reminder of the original performance conditions that gave that particular line its full force. The line becomes a wry comment on an entire theatrical culture with only men permitted on stage. Propeller never seems to dig that deep.
Interesting what you said about OP costumes and Elizabeth I, was that something you thought was being deliberately brought out?
[…] of a press night, a few reviews have crept out, from the Daily Telegraph, the Guardian online, and Bardathon. I thought the original production was heavily weighted towards Mark Rylance, easily the most […]
I didn’t see the Propeller production so can’t really comment, though I don’t agree that Propeller don’t dig deep; I’ve consistently found their productions some of the most textually insightful. But I suppose one of the things about Propeller is that performativity is so foregrounded that individual moments of explicit awareness such as Viola’s speech could have less impact.
I don’t imagine the Globe production was trying to say something specific about Elizabeth (or, indeed, James); but what interests me about the Globe’s version of OP is that you are never allowed to forget these are Elizabethan/Jacobean plays, and when you’re an audience member who’s very embedded in those historical/social/political contexts, it’s a different experience to have it emphasised that these are plays about a particular historical moment, rather than necessarily about the present. Though of course, the recreation of the past in itself says something about the present, and round the whirligig we go….
Oh, just for the record, you mentioned Claire van Kampen’s compositions. That is very lax on the Globe’s part as all the music is actually by composers of the 16th and 17th centuries: Cornyshe, Holborne, Morley, Dowland etc.
Good point Mizo – I’ve rechecked the Globe’s website and, in its defence, it does say ‘Music’ for van Kampen, so I’ve edited the review to reflect that, as it would fairly cover arrangements.
On the Elizabeth I note, I’d very much agree with you that I don’t think a reading that evokes Elizabeth I is by any means the only one, or even an obvious one. I’m just observing that, in light of my own recent reading and viewing, the period costumes reminded me how many resonances the play has with the period: the very present male absence in Olivia’s household, the refusal to marry, the powerful, puritanical right-hand man… It’s an aspect of the play that rarely occurs to me, but one of the beauties of this production’s choices was in allowing some of those specifically late-Elizabethan/early-Jacobean concerns to shine through.