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Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, or What You Will, which dates from the fecund year of 1601, just after Hamlet, is one of the bard’s plays about confusion. A pair of twins is separated in a shipwreck. One, a woman, dresses as a man, and the two are reunited at the end of the play. But between the separation and reunion, much happens, all having to do with wooing and love.
The idea of separated twins is something Shakespeare used in the early Comedy of Errors. In that play, the twins were separated at birth. And the woman dressing as a man was essential in As You Like It, which Shakespeare wrote just a year or two earlier, where Rosalind had to hide her femininity during her travels in the Forest of Arden.
The Elizabethan stage did not allow women on stage, so any time there was cross-dressing, it created double ambiguity: a man playing a woman dressed as a man; the audience certainly understood that two-pronged change. In this production – described as an Original Practices performance – the Globe Theatre company performs Twelfth Night with all men, bringing back the way gender was treated in the early 17th century. Johnny Flynn plays Viola (also known as Cesario, creating yet another layer of dissimulation), Mark Rylance is Olivia, and Paul Chahidi plays Maria, Olivia’s maid.
The play begins with Viola’s explanation for why she dresses as a man. She hear’s of Orsino’s love for Olivia, and realizes that, if she were disguised as a man, she might serve as matchmaker, and “might not be delivered to the world.”
The rest of the play revolves around the confusion that arises when Viola falls in love with Orsino, and when, as courier to Olivia sending messages of Orsino’s love for the latter, Olivia becomes smitten with Viola. A side plot involves Malvolio, who has the beguine for Olivia. Maria, Olivia’s maid, together with two comic characters, Sir Toby Belch (a Falstaff-like character) and Sir Andrew, are involved in a ploy to trick Malvolio and make him think he is loved.
In the end, Viola’s brother Sebastian returns, and there is confusion with Olivia who marries Sebastian, Viola’s twin brother, then sees Viola who knows nothing of the marriage. But all ends well, as the two loving couples unite.
This is a lively production, with wonderful comic timing, with entrances and exits making scenes segue with no interruption. The Globe’s approach to have almost no sets – other than the occasional table or bench – makes the stage very fluid, and the actors all bubble with humor throughout.
The performance revolves around Mark Rylance’s Olivia, who has a strong stage presence throughout. Rylance plays a role that is subtle and powerful, yet I had a bit of difficulty suspending belief. Olivia should be fairly young, yet Rylance is in his 50s. The voice he uses – a slight falsetto – makes him sound like an elderly woman. While his acting is nearly perfect from a textbook point of view, I just didn’t find his characterization believable enough.
Nevertheless, there are certain points in the play when Rylance’s Olivia achieves perfection. Certain gestures, glances, and stuttering words give the character a life that no soliloquy could equal. The look on Olivia’s face when he suggests that Malvolio – clearly a trifle mad – go to bed, and the latter replies, “To bed! ay, sweet-heart, and I’ll come to thee,” is memorable.
Steven Fry (Malvolio) and Mark Rylance (Olivia).
As for Malvolio, Steven Fry gives a powerful performance of this somewhat gauche man who is full of himself, then thinks himself loved by Olivia. The scene in the garden where Malvolio reads the forged letter from Olivia – really written by Maria – is a masterpiece, as Fry falls into the character with ease and grace.
The rest of the cast is very good, if not excellent. While I found Johnny Flynn unconvincing as Viola, I thought Colin Hurley, as Sir Toby Belch, and Roger Lloyd Pack, as Sir Andrew Aguecheck were a wonderful comic duo.
This is a boisterous performance, and, aside from my reservations about Rylance, is delightful and effective. This production is currently on Broadway; the DVD here is a film of a production at the Globe Theatre in London from September, 2012. If you can’t see it live, then this DVD – with a slightly different cast from the Broadway production – is the next best thing. The DVD is not yet available in the US, but if you order it from Amazon UK, it is in NTSC format, and has no region code, and is therefore compatible with US DVD players.
Read a review of the current Broadway production in the New York Review of Books.
Here’s an excerpt from the DVD: