“And all is semblative a woman’s part”
Mark Rylance’s much-trumpeted double-bill return to Shakespeare’s Globe this summer started with Richard III but it is now the turn of the belated second part to make its bow. Tim Carroll’s revival of Twelfth Night, originally seen in 2002, largely uses the same all-male company and the same Original Practices approach of ‘doing it like it’s 1601’ for a short run – all sold out – before transferring into the West End. With a view to this, official press reviews will come from the Apollo rather than the Globe, so heaven know if this counts as a preview or not. Oh and in the interest of full disclosure and as heretical as it may be, I am not really a fan of Mark Rylance, just so you know. I do try to test my dislikes though, in the spirit of open-mindedness, something made much more palatable here by the £5 groundling tickets.
The choice of interpretation might strike a casual observer as typical for the Globe, even a little unimaginative, given the wide variety of Shakespearean re-imaginings on offer, but that would be underestimate the incredible level of detailed work that has gone on here at all levels. Liam Brennan imbues Orsino with a much greater deal of personality than is often granted to this lovesick Lord, making him a constant point of interest; Colin Hurley’s Sir Toby Belch reins in the boisterousness to construct a much more interesting character; Feste’s presence possesses an intriguing ambivalence in Peter Hamilton Dyer’s hands; and James Garnon makes one notice Fabian more than I’ve ever done before.
The unexpected star of the show though for me, is Paul Chahidi’s Maria, a warmly wry, comic performance that brims with such a natural confidence that he completely transcends the cross-gender casting to a point where one forgets so quickly that he’s a man in a dress and instead his just one of the funniest performances currently in London. Rylance’s Viola is almost Kabuki-inspired as he skitters around the stage in white-face, playing up the effects of her sheltered existence as a distinct lack of social skills and pulling out humour from some unexpected places. It was a performance of his that I did actually warm to for once, blending into the ensemble in a way I haven’t seen before, though he may have erred a little close to scene-stealing in the final section.
I did have difficulties with Johnny Flynn’s Viola though. His is such a stylised mode of performance (a Twitter friend suggested this was part of the Original Practices) that is characterised by a thin, reedy vocal delivery, a kind of stiffness in the way that he carries himself and a consequent lack of variation in his acting. The result is a nagging sense of unease, a constant reminder of the artifice of this approach (which may seem an odd thing to say about any piece of theatre, but I mean in relation to, say, Chahidi’s comparative ease). I don’t think I’m alone in wishing that Sam Barnett – an excellent Sebastian here – had been cast as Viola instead.
Claire Van Kampen’s music captures the lightly reflective, almost melancholy tone of the production which is further epitomised by Stephen Fry’s Malvolio, a steward of more avuncular warmth than gruff edges which makes him a sadder figure and somehow more endearing to the audience. It’s a different take but one which largely works even if it leads to something of an uncertain tone at the end, the post-imprisonment darkness robbed of some of its context and sitting a little more uneasily amidst the rest of the comedic unfolding.
So a production of some exceptionally great character work but an overall effect that is partially muted. Maybe this is partly due to the length, at 3 hours 15 minutes it is a hefty stretch; maybe it is partly due to a staging which rarely makes use of the opportunities offered by the venue, perhaps an acknowledgement that it was always destined to end up in a West End theatre. A lack of vibrancy does not however mean a lack of quality, and there is no doubting that there is some seriously impressive acting on display here.