Well, since my discussion of Churchill’s Black Dog was received with all the enthusiasm of a root canal, let’s turn to a topic that’s less…depressing.
Twelfth Night (or What You Will) is without doubt my favorite of Shakespeare’s plays, and I’ve seen many productions of it both live and on screen. Before, I was torn as to which was my favorite but that’s all done with, as the clear winner is the 2012 production mounted by Shakespeare’s Globe, starring an all-male cast including Mark Rylance (as Olivia) and Stephen Fry (as Malvolio).
Followers of PBS’s Masterpiece Theater will recognize Mark Rylance from his work as Cromwell in the recent production of Wolf Hall (which, even though the books were dreadful, was an excellent screen production and performance). Rylance is an immensely respected actor, director, and playwright in Britain, and was Artistic Director of Shakespeare’s Globe from 1995 to 2005. In this all-male production (in the style of Elizabethan theater, when women were not allowed to act on stage), he plays Olivia, the grieving noblewoman who is at the center of the farcical storm of suitors and messengers who populate the mythical Illyria.
Stephen Fry is a British National Treasure with a long list of works–some comical, some documentary–and he should be known to everyone who loves words and wordplay. His role is as Malvolio, the preening, self-important steward of Olivia’s household, whose officious nature makes him the target of japes and pranks. Of all the Malvolios I’ve seen, Fry’s is the most natural, the most human, and the most sympathetic which, considering the character’s priggish self-importance, is no small task.
An all-male cast performing a double-love story filled with disguises and cross-dressing has some challenges for a modern audience, and suspending one’s disbelief to accept a man playing a woman playing a man can be difficult, but in the end it isn’t the gender of the actors that lifts this production above all others, but its sheer comicality. While some of the humor comes from our awareness that these are guys playing girls, it’s a minor fraction of the whole. The hilarity that this production owns comes primarily from the classic comic elements of timing, juxtaposition, and absurdity…with handfuls of farce and slapstick thrown in for good measure.
Rylance is especially good in this, and I recommend it just so you can see his Tony- and Olivier-award-winning performance. Olivia, usually played as a grieving Stoic who struggles with her affection for the Count’s messenger boy, is in this production a lively woman (albeit constrained by her nobility) turned giddy by unexpected love. Rylance uses physical comedy as well as emotional and verbal play to give us the best Olivia I’ve seen.
Other cast members stand out as well, though the actors’ names will not be familiar to American audiences. Suffice it to say that the quartet of Maria, Feste, Sir Toby, and Sir Andrew set their comic best against Fry’s Malvolio to good effect.
The costumes, the music, the cast, and the staging are all part of the Globe’s “Original Practices” method, bringing us as close to the Elizabethan experience as can be had today. No one is fooled by the wigs that Sebastian and Viola wear, but the craftsmanship to make them–not to mention the incredible lacework of collars and ruffs, and bejeweling of the costumes–is undeniably impressive.
As a live stage performance, presented to a house full of groundlings and occupied seats, this production has an advantage over movie adaptations. The audience reacts to the actors, who in turn interact with the audience, turning soliloquies into conversations and comic asides into laugh-out-loud entre-nous moments.
As modern life and the trials of everyday existence mount and intensify, this production of one of Shakespeare’s funniest comedies can provide an oasis of pure escape.
Note: There are two “all region” versions available on Amazon. I recommend the Opus Arte version. The Kultur version is reported to have problems with subtitles, etc.