(Apollo Theatre, London, playing in rep with Richard III until 9 February 2013)
I should, of course, have seen these plays the other way round: Twelfth Night in early January and then Richard III last night, spiced with the news that the skeleton found beneath a car park in Leicester is (almost certainly) that of the king. Anyway, it was a joy to return to the Apollo for my second encounter with the Globe company in their winter quarters. Once again I hung over the balcony watching the actors milling around as they were dressed, watching doublets and hose tugged on, bodices laced up, lead-white paint and rouge applied to faces. Even without their wigs, the actors gained a feminine elegance as soon as they were into their skirts; and I watched Mark Rylance’s hands fluttering convulsively as he was laced up, as if trying physically to shake himself into his role.
Viola and Sebastian are twins of noble birth, shipwrecked off the coast of Illyria. Viola (Johnny Flynn) is rescued from the sea by a loyal sailor, but presumes her brother has been drowned. Grieving, she decides to throw herself on the charity of the island’s ruler, Count Orsino, to whom she comes disguised as a boy, giving her name as Cesario. Orsino (Liam Brennan) is consumed by melancholy, the sort of man you usually see brooding in miniatures by Hilliard or Isaac Oliver, tormented by love for the unattainable Olivia. Bereaved of her father and brother, Olivia has rejected Orsino’s love many times and yet he tries again, this time sending Cesario as his messenger. Olivia (Mark Rylance) holds court in her mansion, enduring her rambunctious drunken cousin Sir Toby Belch (Colin Hurley) and his foppish friend Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Roger Lloyd Pack), who is an unwelcome suitor for her hand. She is overwhelmed by Cesario, however, and rapidly falls in love with him – much to ‘Cesario’s’ dismay.
At the same time as she is fending off Olivia’s advances, Viola is battling with her own growing feelings for Orsino. While these three are struggling with their romantic triangle, Sir Toby and the maid Maria (Paul Chahidi) come up with a practical joke to amuse themselves. They plan to puncture the self-importance of Olivia’s pompous steward, Malvolio (Stephen Fry), by convincing him that Olivia herself is in love with him. And, somewhere on another part of the island, Sebastian (Samuel Barnett) is nursed back to health by his devoted rescuer, the privateer Antonio (John Paul Connolly). The scene is set for one of Shakespeare’s most complex and surprisingly romantic plays, where nothing is exactly as it seems.
It was super to watch this after having seen almost the entire cast taking different roles in Richard III: it really showed off the actors’ talent. Special mention must go to Paul Chahidi: he’d already impressed me in Richard III and he was absolutely brilliant as Maria, blending the matronly command of a mature housekeeper with a dash of girlish flirtation. It comes to something when two middle-aged men, one in drag, can create the most touching and convincing relationship between Sir Toby and Maria that I’ve seen to date. Colin Hurley was a wonderful Sir Toby, short and stout and occasionally belligerent, rolling about the stage with florid nose and cheeks. One day I will be able to watch Roger Lloyd Pack without thinking ‘Trigger!’, but that day is not yet here (Only Fools and Horses played too central a role in my childhood); and yet I thoroughly enjoyed his Sir Andrew, who was lanky, ridiculous and decked out in an enormous ruff which became dislodged or stuck in places as required. And his comic timing was spot on: as he and Cesario were goaded into duelling, both principals tried to escape by clambering into the audience on either side of the stage.
Despite such a strong company, however, most people would have come to see either Mark Rylance or Stephen Fry; and both were very good. Having seen Rylance as Richard III just a few weeks ago, I could see that his Olivia shared certain mannerisms with the king, particularly the hesitancy and vocal nervousness which adds naturalism to his lines. He’s a pro at the serious women’s roles (rather than the comic ones, like Maria) and he glides around the stage so smoothly he might as well be floating, completely absorbed in character but ever so slightly overdoing Olivia’s preciousness in movement. The best moments in the play came from the romantic confusion between the characters and, after finding Olivia rather cold at the beginning, I suddenly warmed to her in the scene just after Cesario’s departure, when she has finally gained the courage to flirt with him. Rylance’s fluster combined excitement and mortification: his Olivia sits as if stunned for a moment, before repeating, ‘What is your parentage?’ as if she’d just realised it made an absolutely dreadful chat-up line.
There are two things which always interest me in Twelfth Night: first, the treatment of Malvolio and, secondly, the success of the twins’ casting. It was interesting to compare Fry’s Malvolio to Sir Derek Jacobi’s at the Wyndham’s in 2009, which was the last stage version I saw. Fry’s Malvolio struck me as more sympathetic, perhaps because Stephen Fry simply embodies bonhomie, but he was also a stronger, more ambitious man. His fury at the end – ‘I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you!’ – was the reaction of a man incensed, not crushed; and throughout he was given greater dignity. I wondered afterwards why Malvolio is so cruelly treated for having the temerity to fall in love where it isn’t returned – after all, everyone else has! – but then I realised that it’s probably because he falls in love above his station: Shakespeare treats him as a relentless social climber and, as such, modern comedy would be no more merciful to him. Yet I always feel sorry for Malvolio; he brings it on himself, but the comedy has a bitter and unpleasant tang.
And so, the twins. My problem with Twelfth Night – both in the Wyndham’s production and the film – is that the twins are never convincing. Yes, I know that I’m expected to suspend my disbelief, but there are times when you wonder how both Orsino and Olivia can be so desperately blind – or how there can ever be genuine confusion between Viola and Sebastian. At the Wyndham’s this was exacerbated by the fact that their Viola very obviously had breasts. And this is exactly why it sometimes helps to see plays done as their authors intended. When Viola is played by a boy, it all works perfectly.
Johnny Flynn and Samuel Barnett were dressed in the same wigs and costume and were virtually indistinguishable even to the audience. I wasn’t quite sure about Johnny Flynn’s voice when he played Queen Anne in Richard III and there’s still something a little strained about it here, but he had all the physical mannerisms down pat for Viola. As a boy playing a girl pretending to be a boy, he suggested his femininity by the way he sat with his ankles crossed, or stood with the weight slightly on one leg, or with one arm bent and his fist resting on his hip (a gesture so stereotypically masculine that it recalled ‘Bob’s’ slapping of her thigh in the first episode of Blackadder II). The all-male cast meant that the frisson and comedy of the gender confusion within the play was extended outside it: my favourite scene had virtually no words, as Orsino and Cesario sat on a bench listening to Feste’s love song, nervously trying to pretend that they weren’t sneaking glances at one another. It was just brilliant.
These plays have offered me the chance to imagine what it might really have been like to go to the theatre in Shakespeare’s day and the company have managed to create the feel of being at the Globe even in the heart of Shaftesbury Avenue. Overall I think Twelfth Night was more successful than Richard III, both because it’s a delightful story and because it’s the best of all Shakespeare’s play to see with an all-male cast, which adds different resonances to the plot and (ironically) makes the whole thing that much more believable. Great credit must go to the actors, who have been superb on both occasions, and I hope I’ll see some of them in future seasons at the Globe.