After the RSC's dismal Twelfth Night at the Roundhouse earlier this year, it's a sheer joy to rediscover the play in this brilliant production at Shakespeare's Globe. This is a revival of an all-male 'original practices' production first staged in 2002, which I remember seeing as an Olivier awards judge. Its Elizabethan costumes deservedly won a gong for Jenny Tiramani, but it was Mark Rylance's hilariously extravagant send-up of the Lady Olivia which stuck in my memory.
Now Rylance is back again, still pancaked in white makeup and teetering around the stage under a black veil and a coronet, like a chessboard queen with mobility problems. The magic of his portrayal of Olivia lies in the way the character's forced and formal restraints disintegrate in the scene where she falls in love with Cesario/Viola. Rylance's Olivia is first flustered, and then starts to jump and sprint around the stage in a panic, desperate to ensure that the object of her sudden passion won't disappear for good. It's incredibly funny, it's exaggerated, and if a lesser actor than Rylance was involved, you would diagnose over-acting and scene-stealing. But this isn't just a pantomime dame; the key to Rylance's performance is that he shows us a woman turned inside out and driven bonkers by love.
In many ways this is a stronger production than the one I saw a decade ago, particularly in the relationship between Olivia and Malvolio, played by Stephen Fry not a a jumped-up parvenu with ideas above his station, but as a steward who is clearly cut from the same aristocratic cloth as his mistress. There's a sympathy and equality between the two of them, underlined when they sit side by side at a table to conduct their daily household business. Olivia's sympathy at the end of the play for Malvolio's misadventures is prompted by the realisation that he and she have basically done the same thing. Both have behaved in a ludicrous fashion out of love. Fry avoids easy repetition of his television role as Jeeves, and plays Malvolio as a donnish, superior figure rather than a rigid puritan. When he tells Sir Toby off for his drinking, it sounds like an Oxbridge dean warning an errant undergraduate that he may be rusticated. Fry lacks the physical dexterity of Rylance, but it doesn't matter. I've seen funnier performances of the letter-reading scene by other actors playing Malvolio, but that doesn't matter either. Fry plays this scene and his appearance in yellow stockings relatively straight, enabling Malvolio to retain his humanity and a generous slice of the audience's sympathy.
Some of the cast reprise their roles from a decade ago; Liam Brennan plays Orsino absolutely straight and Peter Hamilton Dyer makes Feste the play's resident intellectual rather than a funny-funny jester. Paul Chahidi as Maria gives a gem of a performance, perpetually balanced on the cusp between primness and louche misbehaviour, and always reacting expressively when not actually speaking. He turns 'Bring your hand to the buttery bar' into the dirtiest line in the play. The flirting between Sir Toby, excellently played by Colin Hurley, and Maria is intelligently used to create a third love story in the play. Johnny Flynn plays Viola, the role taken by Michael Brown in 2002, with an exquisite mixture of embarrassment and enthusiasm. He's well matched by Samuel Barnett as his lost brother Sebastian, identically costumed and bewigged so that they really are indistinguishable. It's in this formality of costume that the idea of 'original practices' really pays off; it takes the production several steps away from realism and creates something akin to commedia dell'arte.
Tim Carroll's direction lets the play breathe at its own pace; while many other directors dispatch Twelfth Night in two and a half hours, this production lasts a full three, but not a moment is wasted. There's a lovely scene played on a bench between Cesario/Viola and Orsino, who is trying to come to terms with the strange attraction he feels for his new page. Clapping Cesario manfully on the shoulder, he then holds his hand and the couple almost kiss -- a wonderful moment that encapsulates the erotic subtext of the play. Deep down, Shakespeare reminds us, we always fall in love with the wrong person at the wrong moment. Carroll's skill as a director is shown by the way he creates a coherent whole out of disparate elements -- the rich comedy of Sir Toby, Maria and Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Roger Lloyd Pack) and the deeper anguish of Viola, mourning her lost brother and trapped in a deception of her own making that she finds increasingly painful. Twelfth Night's very long final scene is a very difficult one for any director to get right because of the number of characters on stage and their complicated relationships. But Carroll gets this multidimensional chess game exactly right, building up to an emotional climax rather than the muddle of confused blocking that some productions deliver.
This production, while richly comic, doesn't rely too much on the audience interplay for which the Globe stage is famous. That's because there are only 18 performances before it moves to the West End under Sonia Friedman's auspices. Critics have not been invited in for a press night, though some have ignored this rather silly embargo. I think the Globe stage is the right space for this production, though the Apollo theatre will no doubt be warmer and more comfortable, and free of helicopters buzzing overhead. And there won't be any groundling tickets at £5. If the Olivier awards had a special prize for value for money, the Globe would win it hands down.