During this last week I’ve caught up with The Globe Theatre’s production of Twelfth Night curtesy of the wonderful system that allows those of us who can’t get down to London to see productions on the silver screen. Appropriately enough, I went over to Stratford and saw the show in the very welcoming, tiny cinema tucked away down one of its side streets. If I’m honest, I’m not actually enamoured of the work I’ve seen coming out of The Globe. I can appreciate the desire to replicate the conditions in which Shakespeare would have worked, but the productions I’ve seen make me question whether or not it will ever be possible to replicate the theatre practices of the Elizabethan and Jacobean stage, if only because there is no one around to verify the choices made.
Having said that, this production of Twelfth Night is undoubtedly the best of their work that I’ve seen, even though it is still what The Bears, with their enviable knack of finding the right word for the right occasion, would call ‘eggy’; that is, like the curate’s egg, it is ‘good in parts’. Perhaps predictably, the highlight is Stephen Fry’s Malvolio, never over powering in his self-aggrandisement, never pushed so far that he becomes ridiculous. In fact, in a production that tries to milk the play for more humour than it allows, it is interesting that he is never made a figure of fun for the audience. He is more sinned against than sinning; a man out of his depth but not aware of it until it is too late to retreat. However, there are other first class performances, notably from Roger Lloyd Pack, superbly cast as Sir Andrew Aguecheek, and James Garnon, who actually makes a real character out of the underwritten Fabian.
But, I’m not in the habit of writing theatre reviews here and this is going to be no exception because what I really want to consider is what this production has to say about the practice of using men to play the parts of women on the twenty-first century stage. Now I know that this is what would have happened in Shakespeare’s day when women were not allowed on the public stage, but the Globe’s performance really made me question the wisdom of our trying to replicate the tradition in the light of the point I made earlier: there is no one to tell us if we are replicating the practice authentically.
There are three major female roles in Twelfth Night, the lady Olivia, her gentlewoman, Maria and Viola, who spends most of the play disguised as a boy and each of the actors concerned appears to have taken a different approach towards their portrayal. Unfortunately, given that it is the main role, Johnny Flynn, as Viola, was the least successful. He clearly wanted us to keep the three levels of identity in mind all the time and in theory, this is no bad thing. However, in the end, you have to believe in the character as an integrated whole, if you are going to empathise with them and it was completely impossible to forget that this was a man playing a woman disguised as a man. The make-up, particularly, said I am a man trying to appear to be an Elizabethan woman, even though I want all those around me to think I am a man and the voice wobbled all over the place. I never saw him as anything other than an actor playing a role.
Mark Rylance’s Olivia was a much more convincing woman. The problem here was one of age. Rylance is in his fifties and so I was never certain whether or not I was suppose to see this as an elderly Olivia, a problem I wouldn’t have had with an Elizabethan company. If this is meant to be an older woman (and I have seen the part played that way, albeit never quite that old) then why does Sebastian fall for her? Especially when, as here, she is made a figure of ridicule with a huge number of cheap laughs gained at her expense. I have to be careful about this because I don’t like Rylance as an actor. I still remember the problems he had playing Hamlet at Stratford, although to be fair, those pyjamas were far too big for him. Anyway, I need to be aware that I might be biased here but I did think he was playing to the groundlings in a role that isn’t intended to do that.
And then there was Paul Chahidi’s Maria, which was just superb. I cannot pinpoint how he did it (which is as it should be) but while I never for one moment failed to recognise I was watching a man, I never for one moment failed to believe that I was watching a woman. The integration of the two beings was simply perfection.
So, I know which approach I prefer, but that still doesn’t answer the original question as to which is authentic. And it doesn’t solve the problem that when I see a so-called authentic production my attention is being taken away from the play by the individual performances. I’m not appreciating what Shakespeare wrote because an historical facsimile is getting in the way.
I don’t want to detract from some of the wonderful work The Globe does, especially in the field of education and research, but the more I see of their productions the less I feel I want to see. Am I alone in this? How do others feel? I would be really interested to know.