Sunday, December 02, 2012

Twelfth Night - Apollo Theatre

It's been much too long since I saw a straight play, but a combination of Shakespeare and Mark Rylance was always going to tempt me back - albeit a little late, since this is a transfer of the original Globe production.

I'm hardly alone in being a fan of Mr Rylance, but that's only because he's so genuinely, uniquely, charismatically brilliant. Since watching that BBC Four live broadcast of Richard II I've loved his ability to give such an unexpected but utterly natural cadence to Shakespeare's language, and away from the Bard I've also had the pleasure of seeing him as the British Bacchus in Jerusalem, and in La Bête, with that notorious, hilarious 25 minute speech.

It's a real thrill, then, to see him as the mourning Olivia in Twelfth Night. I didn't study the play, but have seen it once before when John Lithgow played Malvolio with the Royal Shakespeare Company, and as far as I can tell, that's usually the role that gets the "big" casting. With Stephen Fry playing the pompous - but harshly treated - steward, maybe that's the case again here, but enjoyable as he is (and he really is a commanding presence), Fry is well and truly trumped here in the 'comic performance' stakes by Rylance.

Should Olivia be the big comic role in Twelfth Night? Should she be more ridiculous than Malvolio? Than her household of scheming fops and drunks, even? Maybe it wasn't Will's plan... but it sure is fun. And it's all there in the text to be exploited, with Olivia switching from pious mourner to a love-struck girl hopelessly obsessed with the cross-dressing Viola (Johnny Flynn) in an instant - Rylance, as ever, just turns it up to eleven.

Away from Rylance and Fry, there are lovely performances to be found throughout the production though. In particular, the ever-fabulous Samuel Barnett shines as Viola's long-lost brother Sebastian - making the most of a role that could easily get lost thanks to his perfection of an incredulous "what the heck is going on?" expression.

There's also a gorgeous scene during which Viola's lord Orsino (Liam Brennan) sees his "page boy" in a whole new light - Brennan's comic timing is a delight as he tries to steal a glance or two, and is surprised at what he finds, and what he feels.

Like the RSC production, this again struggled to deal with the drawn-out "reveal" of the final act when the characters finally work out what we've known all along, but it's a minor quibble buried in a production that is big on fun, and full of performances to revel in.