Mark Rylance’s dazzlingly watchable antics as a reproving Olivia overturned by lust in Shakespeare’s Globe’s all-male “Twelfth Night” constitute nothing short of a star turn. That, however, is both the production’s strength and its weakness. As with his Richard III, performed in rep with this production, Rylance’s unfettered show-stealing effectively relegates most of the cast to the level of supporting players and overbalances the proceedings. Casting and branding spell success for this West End transfer of a Bard double bill, but the inconsistent production makes the play itself feel only fitfully convincing.
Tim Carroll helms what the Globe terms an “original practices” production restoring the ethic of the first performance of 1602. To that effect, designer Jenny Tiramani’s set is little more than a wooden back wall with, in a nod to the “O” shape of the Globe, wooden boxes of seating for audience members on either side of the stage.
Against this, the all-male company appears in traditional ruffs, doublet and hose beneath candelabras and a largely unchanging lighting that keeps much of the auditorium more brightly lit than is usual, which tends to keep audiences more engaged.
Bolstering Rylance’s undoubted box office appeal is the casting of author, wit and beloved Brit all-rounder Stephen Fry as Malvolio.
Fry’s combination of nice timing and patrician manner perfectly suit the pompous steward, but he lacks energy and emotional depth. His fierce intent at the idea of being (falsely) instructed to smile all the time in order to win Olivia is funny for being unexpected, but the rest of his performance is predictable. Since he reveals vicious high-handedness only at the very end, the stakes remain low even during his wrongful imprisonment, which should be much more upsetting than it is here.
Nor does Carroll energize the relationships for which Malvolio is the linchpin. That particularly affects the play’s gulling scene, in which huge potential for dramatic tension and sight gags with Belch (Colin Hurley), Aguecheek (a mournful Roger Lloyd-Pack) and Fabian (James Garnon) remains largely untapped. This is also attributable to Carroll’s slack pacing: His three-hour production runs a full half-hour longer than Michael Grandage’s West End version three years ago.
Although Shakespeare’s acting company used boys in women’s roles, they are played here by men — an understandable decision but one at odds with the self-styled “authenticity.” Of those performances, the funniest and the most thought-through is Paul Chahidi as a magnetic Maria, the housekeeper who comes up with the scheme to fool Malvolio.
Making Maria clear-eyed about just how far she can push the boundaries of status, Chahidi is almost the only person who makes auds recognize his character’s crucial rank within Olivia’s household. Rather than indicating that he’s playing “a woman,” Chahidi winningly homes in on character. Quietly but excitingly alive at every moment, he uses his own voice rather than the disconnected, high head-voice Johnny Flynn adopts for Viola.
Sounding like a cartoon idea of a woman distances Flynn from both the action and the audience. Worse, his lack of vocal power undermines him whenever the emotions run high which, in this play, they often should. His bland performance leeches tension from the drama in his scenes with both Liam Brennan’s gruff Orsino — who has one moment of homo-eroticism but little else — and Rylance’s Olivia.
With an almost Japanese whitened-mask of a face, Rylance makes Olivia a prim presence who can barely control the passion she feels upon discovering the boy Cesario. Rylance wins uproarious laughs at every turn, even when simply gliding across the stage affecting to have not a care in the world.
But, puzzlingly for an actor with so rich a command of text, most of his laughs come from additions to the lines rather than the text itself. Interrupted by a servant while making love, he throws a slipper at him, squealing, “Go away.” Such interpolations are strikingly funny but at odds with the “original practices” principle.
The lack of breadth and depth in both this and “Richard III” notwithstanding, Rylance’s dominant presence plus strong local reviews should elicit the Gotham transfer indicated by the attached roster of U.S. producers.