As a student of seventeenth-century romance texts, I’m always going to love a shipwreck and bit of cross-dressing. So to the Apollo, where Mark Rylance’s much hoopla’d production of Twelfth Night transferred from the Globe at the end of last year. Since Jerusalem, Rylance has become a cult figure and the presence of Stephen Fry in the cast has guaranteed packed houses for both runs. Now I know you don’t go to the Globe for radical re-readings; you go there for the clarity of the story-telling and a bit more audience interaction than you’d get in subsidised theatre. But goodness, this was a mixed bag. (By the way, I’m not sure of the copyright status of the picture, if any IP lawyers have alighted upon this blog. I’m sure you’ll let me know..)
Rylance’s insistence in mimicking early modern performance practice with an all-male cast opens up wonderful possibilities, since every encounter contains within it multiple readings. There was a marvellous bat squeak of sexual tension when Orsino (Liam Brennan), unconsciously starts touching Viola/Cesario (Johnny Flynn, very fine) and then checks himself. A cute moment, as it makes sense of Orsino’s abrupt turn towards Viola at the end of the play when he realises Olivia is taken.
So in this scene, were we seeing a man thinking he is falling for a man? Were we watching him sense the feminine beneath? Both? And of course, thanks to Rylance’s casting, we are inevitably aware of yet another layer, that underneath the feminine is a male actor. That playful oscillation of gender and its performativity is always what draws me back to Twelfth Night. That, and seeing how any production is going to make Sebastian and Viola indistinguishable – something that is usually a major let-down, but worked brilliantly in this production. And Rylance’s stuttering, gliding, imperious, desperate Olivia was a masterclass in nuance.
But. But. But. The comedy scenes were dire; Toby Belch (Colin Hurley) coarse but without charisma, Aguecheek (Roger Lloyd Pack ) the most wan piece of underplaying I’ve seen on stage for a long time. Never has festivity been so poorly executed.
Worst of all, Stephen Fry’s dour Malvolio squandered all the comic potential in the role. I’ve never seen the letter scene less funny. I couldn’t help comparing it to the Donmar West End production in 2008, where Derek Jacobi’s pomposity and self-delusion was shot through with middle-aged fragility, which in turn underpinned his willingness to believe Olivia was secretly in love with him.
In contrast, Fry’s characterisation was simply peevish, with his parting line (“I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you”) more Victor Meldrew than William Prynne. This caused a hole in the rest of the production. There was no emotional logic for Belch’s plot since Malvolio just seemed a prissy irrelevance with little authority. So as a spectator I didn’t know why the revellers had it in for him, and by the end I didn’t care, and his imprisonment – which in the Donmar production had a dark and dying fall – just seemed like a rather lame prank.
I left the theatre quite cross at the standing ovation Fry got at the end for his celebrity. And then I re-read the reviews. The Guardian was the kindest, calling Fry’s Malvolio “grave, dignified and overbearing”. The Arts Desk called him “a supporting rather than scene-stealing comic turn” and The Independent described him as “reined-in”. Next time I’ll pay attention to the critics’ subtext. I should have taken the Time Out review most seriously: “colossally miscast”. Hear, hear.