"Ungird thy strangeness" and prepare yourself for a feast of joy. The Globe Theatre's West End transfer of Twelfth Night is a true celebration of Shakespeare and the comedic ensemble. Even though Twelfth Night shares a cast and stylistic traits with the Globe's recent Richard III, it is its own special show.
It opens with the all male cast on stage putting on their make-up and costumes. Besides enhancing the feel of equity among the cast, this choice foregrounds the layers of artifice within the play. As here men are playing women who are also sometimes pretending to be men. We see the "women" putting on pasty white make-up, stepping into bodices, and we see the men in their stockings getting into their pantaloons. It was an unexpected choice that was more in the spirit of a farcical, backstage comedy than Shakespeare but it sets the stage well for what was to follow.
Duke Orsino begins the actual play by calling for the muse of love. From then on a multitude of star crossed lovers stumble through their comic turns and like all rom-coms our pleasure is in the adventure that befalls them and a happy ending. Here Mark Rylance is Olivia who falls for Viola. Viola survived a shipwreck only to believe her twin brother Sebastian has drown. Viola decides to pretend to be a boy, Cesario, so she can go into service for the local Duke. Viola (Johnny Flynn) falls for Duke Orsino (Liam Brennan) even though he has sent Viola to help him woo Olivia for himself. Later Viola's twin brother Sebastian (Samuel Barnett) finds himself in the court of the Duke and Olivia mistakes him for Cesario/Viola. Complicating the complicated plot, Olivia's uncle Sir Toby Belch along with her faithful servant Maria (Paul Chahidi) decide to play a trick on Olivia's sour steward Malvolio (Stephen Fry) and convince him that Olivia is in love with him. Malvolio throws himself into wooing Olivia and makes himself quite the fool.
But this show is not really about the plot as much as it is about how this cast mines the material for comic gold. Rylance and Chahidi seem to move as if they were hovercraft--hardly touching the ground as they sashay across the stage. It accentuates their delicacy as ladies of the court but is a fantastic physical gag. Even with men playing female characters, no one is "acting" feminine as much as they are acting their characters. I applaud the cast for laying the comedy on heavy but the gender dynamics more gingerly. The comedy comes from the situations, characters and play and not from the use of an all male cast.
Rylance finds his inner Carole Lombard as he gets more and more desperate for Cesario's attention. Whether "losing a shoe" which she hurls at Cesario as a ruse to stick around or defending her love with whatever weaponry is at hand, Olivia is relentless in her pursuit. Here men and women have been bitten by love and the desperation goes in both directions. Once mistaken for Cesario, Sebastian gets a "taste" of Olivia and Barnett (who I loved in Richard III) gives another great performance as Sebastian (albeit in a smaller role). His stunned double-take moment after his kiss with Olivia is almost as good as his venomous curtsy in Richard III. I liked Chahidi's gleeful turn as Maria. It was wonderful to see Stephen Fry on the stage after his long absence.
Following upon the same style as Richard III, there are musicians
playing Renaissance instruments throughout the show--though here the
cast starts the second half of the show with a song and ends the play
with a song and dance. The lightness and joy was infectious and you'd be hard-pressed not to leave this show with a giant smile on your face.