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Review: The Globe’s ‘Twelfth Night’ (****)

The Globe’s production of Twelfth Night is available:
– For streaming by The Globe Player (£4 / ~$6)
– As a DVD from Amazon UK  £13.11 or Amazon (US)  $19.99
Prices are indicative – check the actual price at the Vendors’ links above.

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Our Bottom Line:

This is “certainly the funniest production of Twelfth Night I’ve ever seen…. Rylance’s Olivia is the funniest I have ever seen, and can ever imagine seeing”.  Perhaps that is why it was such a success in London at The Globe, and then in New York. And now you can watch it in the comfort of your own home on a PC or Internet-enabled TV.

Our Review (****)

In October 2012 I visited The Globe Theatre in London, to watch their production of Twelfth Night. This morning, in the comfort of my own home (and

Audience at Twelfth Night Photo: Simon ?

Audience at Twelfth Night
Photo: Simon Annand

without the expense of train tickets from Scotland to London, accommodation, or any of the general carry on of getting all the way down there) I was able to relive the experience using the online Globe Player service, downloading the production straight to my computer. Of course, watching a filmed stage production seen on a small screen will never be the same experience as going to see it live, but there’s a lot to be said for convenience- and being able to rewatch productions whenever one wishes to.

The filmed version opens with the audience already in place, and an excited buzz of chatter, accompanied by Elizabethan style music played by Feste, a drummer, and a man on a wonderful but rather bizarre wind-up instrument. We get glimpses of the cast members backstage being helped into costumes, several with their hair under caps waiting for wigs, painted white faces and bright red lips. There is no attempt to be realistic in a filmic way- this is joyously theatrical.

Before going any further, perhaps a quick overview of the plot is in order, for those who don’t know it. Twelfth Night, Or What You Will (most commonly referred to as just Twelfth Night) tells the story of two identical twins, one male, one female, who are separated in a shipwreck before the play opens. Both think that the other is dead, and Viola, fearing for her safety, alone in this strange land, dresses as a boy and goes to work for the Count Orsino, calling herself Cesario. Orsino is in love with the Countess Olivia who lives nearby (or thinks he is at least), and sends “Cesario” to deliver his messages of love. Olivia falls in love with this “boy” instead, and Viola, completing our love triangle, has fallen in love with Orsino. Meanwhile, the comic sub-plot is provided by Olivia’s feckless uncle Sir Toby, his foolish friend Sir Andrew, the quick witted lady’s maid Maria, who concoct a plan to give the puritanical steward Malvolio a taste of his own medicine. Add to this mix the reappearance of the other twin Sebastian, Olivia’s fool or “corrupter of words” and some of Shakespeare’s wittiest wordplay, and the stage is set (quite literally) for an exuberant farce of mistaken identity.

Watching Shakespeare at the Globe always brings the feeling that one is witnessing something far closer to the original productions of these plays than could be seen anywhere else, and this production increases that sense by using an all-male cast. This brings with it advantages and disadvantages. It’s certainly the funniest production of Twelfth Night I’ve ever seen, taking every possible opportunity to get a laugh from the audience (who the camera cuts to at a lot of these moments, reminding us that this really is a live show). A lot of these jokes just wouldn’t work, or would seem rather odd, with women playing the female roles. There is also the added confusion of having a boy, playing a girl, pretending to be a boy, not an easy feat for any actor. However, there are times when the slapstick replaces what can be very tender or moving moments when played more seriously. I guess every Shakespeare production has to make decisions and in taking one option another has to be sacrificed.

Having said this, there were a few very poignant moments: in particular, the almost-kiss between Viola and a very obviously smitten Orsino (although he seems rather bewildered by his attraction to this boy); Sir Toby’s rejection of Sir Andrew; and the reuniting of the twins. In a production full of music,

Orsino and Viola Photo:  Simon Annand

Orsino and Viola
Photo: Simon Annand

and using (I believe) an uncut version of the text, this is a rare moment where everything that needs to be said is conveyed through silence.  Two of the most memorable performances in the production are also given by men playing women. Paul Chahidi is a wonderful Maria, sliding gracefully around the stage, running (occasionally literally) circles around Sir Andrew and Toby. With a fantastic stage presence (both live and in the recording), a sharp and sometimes cruel wit, and an unnervingly feminine voice and appearance, this Maria (to this audience member at least) supplants Viola as the most likeable and relatable female character of the play.

And Maria’s dainty walk may be graceful, but it’s as nothing to Mark Rylance’s Olivia, who seems to float across the stage. Tall, slim and rather imposing with her white face, red lips and black hair (not to mention the large ruff and crown she wears in her first scene), the sophisticated mask slips once she falls for “Cesario” and indeed begins to “speak in starts, distractedly”. Rylance’s Olivia is the funniest I have ever seen, and can ever imagine seeing, forgetting all attempts to maintain dignity in her quest of Viola/Cesario, beating Malvolio around the head with a pillow when he comes to her “in yellow stockings and cross-gartered”, and running onto the stage flailing a lance twice her height in an attempt to defend Cesario when he is about to fight with Sir Toby. A truly superb performance.

Twelfth Night is one of the most musical of Shakespeare’s plays, with Feste singing many times, and the music greatly adding to the atmosphere of key scenes, whether it be the melancholy “Come Away Death” or the riotous “There Dwelt a Man in Babylon”. The play even opens with Orsino’s much quoted line “If music be the food of love, play on.” The music in this production may not be the most memorable, but it does its job well enough. As with the rest of the production, it sticks to the Elizabethan roots of the play, with the opening music letting us know we’re going to be transported back 400 years for an afternoon of light-hearted revelry. Peter Hamilton Dyer as Feste has an excellent and very clear voice which carries well to the large audience, and the harmonies in the full cast version of “Hey Robin, Jolly Robin” at the beginning of the second half are expertly arranged and very well executed.

As is to be expected of productions at the Globe, there is a reasonable amount of interaction with the audience, although not as much as in some. Viola’s plight is shared with us through the famous ring soliloquy, with the revelation that “[She is] the man” being put to us as a joke we are invited to join in on.

There were no entrances or exits through the audience, and no real business involving them, but through the whole performance the beautiful language is shared, with the actors seeming to joy in passing it to us. Despite all the slapstick stuff, the text shines through in all its glory, and the actors make the meaning behind every line clear. I didn’t find myself, as is sometimes the case with uncut versions of Shakespeare’s plays, wishing some of the less necessary lines had been cut; every word was delivered with conviction, it was there for a reason.

Despite one or two weak links in the cast, this is a wonderful and hilarious production of one of my favourite Shakespeare plays, and highly recommended. It’s worth it for Mark Rylance’s spectacular performance alone- oh, and the priest cavorting in his gown in the closing dance is definitely something to look out for too.

Watch it, and enjoy!

Caitlin Morris,

Reviewer,
Players-Shakespeare.com
admin@players-shakespeare.com

To find out more about Caitlin Morris, our new reviewer, see our Players-Shakespeare News page
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