sun 14/07/2024

Twelfth Night/Richard III, Apollo Theatre | reviews, news & interviews

Twelfth Night/Richard III, Apollo Theatre

Twelfth Night/Richard III, Apollo Theatre

Shakespeare makes a triumphant return to the West End with a little help from his friends

Some have greatness thrust upon 'em: Stephen Fry's Malvolio attempts to woo his Olivia (Rylance)

Something new is happening in the West End. Just up the road from Thriller and down a bit from Les Misérables a billboard the colour of weak tea (positively consumptive compared to the full-colour, neon assaults on either side) proclaims the arrival of Richard III and Twelfth Night. Shakespeare is back on Shaftesbury Avenue, and this time he means business – big, commercial business. How has this sleight of hand been achieved?

Five words: Mark Rylance and Stephen Fry.

With national fervour still fresh and raw in this Olympic year, and audiences still coming down from the high of Branagh’s “Be not afeard…”, not even a glitzy musical and its X Factor stars could trump the appeal of two national treasures performing our national poet. So certain were the producers of success that the West End transfer was scheduled even before the two shows opened at the Globe Theatre. And they were right: director Tim Carroll and the irrepressible Rylance certainly know how to put on a Shakespearean show.

Rylance's usurper-king ha crystallised into a grinning, ingenuous villain

But what happens when you take Shakespeare out of The Globe – not so much a theatre as a philosophy of theatre? Good things, it seems. Every effort has been made to preserve or recreate those elements that make the Globe so special. There may not be space for groundlings but the cosy setup of Victorian Apollo places the front rows within easy reach of the performers. Crowns roll off the stage into their laps, actors appeal for shouts and cheers, and flanking the stage on both sides built-up wooden boxes place some audience members right amongst the action – receiving flowers from the amorous Richard or holding a hat for a drunken Sir Toby. It’s effortless and genial: panto for adults.

But it’s also deeply affecting. When Richard (Mark Rylance, pictured right) practises his deceit upon the crowds, feigning pious unwillingness to take the crown only to yield to their urgings, we find ourselves among their number, complicit in this hideous conspiracy and swayed by his blandishments even as we know them to be false. Don’t be fooled by the proscenium, it’s an anachronism to these authentic, all-male productions and one the cast dissolve by sheer force of will and a few tricks. Actors complete their pre-show preparations onstage, so you enter to find Stephen Fry in his shirt and britches having his hair brushed and his makeup applied, to hear Roger Lloyd Pack essaying a few vocal warm-ups.

Rylance is a given, and since his cross-dressing Olivia has already been seen at the Globe back in 2002 and his Richard III had his press outing back in July, all eyes were always going to be on Stephen Fry – making a brave return to the stage after famously doing a midnight flit from Simon Gray’s Cell Mates in 1995, when a negative review drove him to “contemplate suicide”. Malvolio is of course a character beset by psychological attack, but of a cruel rather than chemical nature, becoming the butt of a practical joke taken too far.

But any hope that Fry might use his own publicly documented battle with mental illness to enrich his cross-gartered lover is a vain one. Fry’s Malvolio (pictured below) is unexpectedly gentle, a supporting rather than scene-stealing comedic turn that seeks out the humanity in this well-intentioned pedant. There are still plenty of laughs – his “smiling” is terrifying in its determination, and there’s a cheeky pelvic thrust at the line “some have greatness thrust upon them” – but little of the grotesque you might expect. His “I’ll be reveng’d on the whole pack of you” is the exasperated cry of one we know will forgive, rather than the threat of one turned feral through mistreatment.

The result is a substantial rebalancing of the play. With the Malvolio thus muted there’s space for Paul Chahidi’s charmingly sadistic Maria to shine, a woman of the world (amply evident in her toying with Sir Andrew) to Rylance’s repressed and sheltered Olivia. Dry little asides and plenty of freedom with Shakespeare’s lines invest her with a vivid inner life, further embellished in her dealings with Colin Hurley’s staggering sot of a Sir Toby. Roger Lloyd Pack plays Sir Andrew limp and feckless, foppish without ever actually being camp, set off by James Garnon’s unusually muscular Fabian and some delicious by-play in a box-hedge.

At the frozen heart of the production is Rylance’s imperious, icy, but ever-so-slightly overplayed Olivia. Thawing from a start that suggests real damage in her past to a giggling, girlish nymph who exclaims “most wonderful” at the sight of the twins with such fervour that her fantasies are vivid indeed, Rylance dominates. Liam Brennan’s Orsino doesn’t stand much of a chance in his tripping, gliding thrall, and Johnny Flynn’s unforgiveably blank Viola gets swallowed up whole. Only a neat bit of homoerotic dumbshow saves that particular partnership from nullity.

This Twelfth Night is one that lives in the comedic moment. There’s barely a shadow to cloud the blissful landscape, and “all’s well that ends well” could be the motto of a production that sees no damage done that cannot be undone with a kiss and a final caper. For those who prefer things a little darker there’s Richard III.

First seen at the Globe  a few months back, Rylance’s Richard hadn’t fully settled. Here at the Apollo the usurper-king appears crystallised – a grinning, ingenuous villain who takes Shakespeare’s “childish-foolish” as his watchword. It’s slick, certainly, playing the adoring audience as though a crooning lute, but also increasingly mannered. More and more of Rylance’s signature empty syllables are creeping in, repunctuating Shakespeare’s dialogue with pauses and breaks that add to the comedy but sometimes lose the dramatic flow, carving out space for his character at the expense of the unfolding drama.

Samuel Barnett’s clipped delivery captures the self-preserving instincts of the social-schemer Queen Elizabeth (pictured right), her contained tragedy a companion-piece to the grief of the Duchess of York (James Garnon). Johnny Flynn’s Anne generates twisted heat in her dealings with Richard, but as Rylance’s Richard sprawls further over the production so these human cameos are sacrificed to feed his all-consuming performance.

They may not stand much chance against the amplified electronic instruments that blare out from theatres across the West End, but the Globe’s shawms and sackbuts are loud in their promise of change to come. If an authentic, well-informed and seriously cast production can carry its existing audience onto Shaftesbury Avenue, and entice a whole new one away from its other distractions, it will be a significant step for arts in the UK. The National Theatre has already made the short but crucial journey from the South Bank into the West End, proving that there’s the demand; the Globe has followed, and now it’s up to us to keep them there.


Bridge of Spies. Spielberg's warm-hearted Cold War thriller is lit up by Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance

Endgame. In Complicite's homage to Beckett, Rylance's Hamm is an animated, self-lacerating lout

Farinelli and the King. A witty and moving new play is a timely reminder of just why art matters

Jerusalem. Rylance is unforgettable as Johnny Rooster Byron in Jez Butterworth’s smash Royal Court hit

The BFG. Rylance lends moments of the sublime to standard issue Spielberg

La Bête. Rylance dazzles in astonishing opening monologue, but this callow play coasts on the performances

Nice Fish. Rylance is waiting for cod-ot in this absurdist West End trifle

Wolf Hall. Mark Rylance works rare marvels as Hilary Mantel's scheming Tudor fixer


Much Ado About Nothing. Rylance Old Vic staging of Shakespeare's romantic comedy with elderly leads gets lost in translation

Fry’s Malvolio is unexpectedly gentle, a supporting rather than scene-stealing comedic turn


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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