Well… talk about a reversal! As ham-fisted, flat-footed and ill-conceived was the Shakespeare’s Globe production of Richard III, its Twelfth Night is nimble, smart, funny and delightful. It is, happily, simply the finest Shakespearean comedy that I have seen in decades. Like its sister production performed on the same set, Twelfth Night strives for Elizabethan authenticity, with period instruments, authentic costumes and males playing female parts.
Where to begin? The direction by Tim Carroll is loose and light-on-its feet. His staging of Richard was lumbering, but here the cast virtually dances through the play. It never loses it sense of comic pacing, the rhythm and tempo underscoring the moments of farce and comedy both high and low.
Mark Rylance as Olivia – suddenly love-struck after mourning the death of her father and brother – is a marvel. All of the fusty business of his Richard is gone, and his natural gifts as a comedian shine. In his skillful playing, he manages to convey both the tragedy of mourning and the giddy realization of both affection and sexual passion. Olivia always straddles a difficult line: we are sympathetic to her love for Cesario (who is actually a woman, Viola, in disguise) but tickled at her transformation and seductive quest. Rylance makes Olivia a profoundly moving comic figure.
Equally moving is the magisterial Stephen Fry as Malvolio. This is Fry’s first Broadway appearance, and it would be difficult to think of a more challenging role for his debut. Malvolio – a figure of steady courtesy, sobriety and decorum – is duped by the play’s comic figures into playing the lover to Olivia. He is thrown into a sunless dungeon for this effrontery and Fry wonderfully embodies the straight-arrow, the foolish wooer and the injured party. Like Olivia, it is an extremely tricky role – Twelfth Night is not Malvolio’s play, but his presence often resounds with the greatest resonance. Fry carries both Malvolio’s gravitas and folly on his sizable shoulders in a performance that is not to be missed.
Equally excellent is Samuel Barnett as Viola/Cesario. The heavy pancake makeup he wears in Richard III, strangely, works surprisingly well in a comedic setting. Twelfth Night capitalizes on his amazing resemblance in makeup to Joseph Timms (as twin-brother Sebastian) to create an astounding end-of-play revelation. This resemblance was a misstep in Richard III – but here, the payoff is nothing short of magical.
Equally deserving praise is Paul Chahidi as Maria – who is equal measures comic figure and villain. He skillfully got laughs without ever losing sight of Maria’s inherent venom. And Angus Wright, so windy and flat as Buckingham Richard III, delivers a deft comic performance as Sir Andrew Aguecheek – and his near-duel with Cesairo/Viola is a riotous comic set piece.
Finally, special mention must be made of the beautifully spoken and sung performance of Peter Hamilton Dyer as the fool, Feste. In a play of fools, it is a typical Shakespearean irony that the sanest, and perhaps sweetest, man wears motley. His singing of the final song is deeply moving, and a fitting finale to the evening.
And moving is perhaps the note upon which to end. Twelfth Night has always been, at least to your correspondent, a difficult play. The overwhelming action of the plot revolves around various practical jokes, many of them committed with malice deep and damaging. Because of the impersonation of Viola/Cesario and thanks to the japes and wheezes of Maria, Aguecheek and Sir Toby Belch, one man is imprisoned to the point of nearly losing his sanity, two men come perilously close to killing each other in a duel, and a lonely woman becomes a figure of fun by falling in love with another woman disguised as a man. We laugh at all of this, but I found myself saddened, as well. Olivia’s love for Cesario (at one point, she grabs a halberd in his defense) is no less real for being comic, and Malvolio’s wrongful imprisonment is hard to laugh away.
Twelfth Night is the last day of the Christmas holidays – and the festive season is never mentioned in the play. Perhaps Shakespeare selected the title as an indication of the bitter-sweet quality we often feel at the end of our revels. Or, perhaps he wished to create a light comedy for those who laugh, and a more subtle, darker farce for those who think. It can be no mistake that the full title is Twelfth Night – Or What You Will.