Our doughty president, Frances, reviews the filmed version of the Globe Theatre's production of Twelfth Night.
It is interesting that this was an ‘Original Practices’ production, and therefore had an all-male cast, and yet for me the main focus of attention was on the female characters. The skills and technique of the men en travestie, particularly Olivia and also Maria, were outstanding.
There were many fine performances in this production: Sir Toby, short and very red-faced, Sir Andrew, long and thin with lank straw-like hair, made a fine trio with a very clever and subtle Maria. Maria, with minimal gestures and changes of facial expression, allowed us to follow ‘her’ every thought. This was notable in the carousing scene, after Malvolio’s exit, as the plan for revenge developed gradually, rather than appearing ready-prepared in her mind.
The twins were almost perfectly matched – costumes, hair and make-up of course assisting. Viola’s performance, however, was the only one about which I had any reservations. ‘Her’ delivery was too constrained by the verse structure, and natural phrasing was often disrupted, obscuring the subtleties of meaning and mood. Viola lacked the many-layered personality which I expected, including vivacity and a sense of humour.
Then there was the other female character: Olivia, played by Mark Rylance, long associated with the Globe. This was an Olivia unlike any I have ever seen before. I had never thought of this character as contributing to the comedy of the play: in fact, in most performances she has made little lasting impression on me. Here, however, Olivia was unforgettable: volatile, changeable, unpredictable and so funny. At her first appearance she was almost an automaton. A marvellous gliding walk as if on castors brought her to her table, where she sat with Malvolio to attend to the business of a large estate, signing letters, checking invoices, etc. This was a perfect way to establish the standing of both characters. Olivia was stiff, coldly going through the motions of daily life and the annoyance of unwanted attentions from her suitor and disruptive behaviour by her kinsman. Clearly looking for anything to relieve the dreary pattern of daily life, she allowed ‘Cesario’ to enter – and then, what a change! At times skittishly reviving long-unused tricks of seduction, and then at other times uncertain and losing confidence, she showed herself capable of bursts of angry petulance, uncaring that her erstwhile dignity had flown. Delicious highlights included the picnic planned for Cesario; the rush to defend him in the duel with Sir Andrew, bearing the longest battle-pike which she swung terrifyingly close to actors and scenery; and the kiss with which she proposed to Cesario (i.e. the real and completely uncomprehending Sebastian.)
The impact of Olivia’s characterisation changed the balance of the play. I had always thought of the action as centred upon Viola, with Olivia rather off to one side, but as I think over this production it is the Countess and her household who dominate, subordinating Orsino and his entourage. However, this accords with the play’s construction – Orsino lachrymose and self-indulgent, doing very little, while the action occurs at Olivia’s. The plotting, the letter scene, the yellow stockings, the duel and the final unravelling provided one delight after another, with very few shadows darkening the frivolity. Even the cruel treatment of Malvolio passed lightly.
The music was a charming accompaniment throughout in both the Fool’s attractive voice and the instrumentalists in the gallery. They contributed to the sunny warmth of a delightful performance.