Mark Rylance (Olivia) and Stephen Fry (Malvolio) in Twelfth Night, dir. Tim Carroll at Shakespeare’s Globe, London 2012 (photo by Simon Annand)
For the rain it raineth every day
I have spent more time at the Globe theatre watching plays (and later volunteering and freelancing) than is reasonable. I first visited the theatre in 1996, and saw the opening production of Henry V the following year. On that fateful August day, Mark Rylance walked on stage, recited the play’s opening lines (O for a muse of fire that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention), and kicked open a door somewhere inside me I didn’t even know existed. That open door led me to some strange countries, not unlike Illyria - an oxymoronic land of merriment and Puritanical condemnation, of mistaken identities and willful pretence, of cruel jokes and harmless witty foolery. A place where people fall desperately in love at first sight, or long for lovers they cannot have.
I watched theatre nearly seven days a week, for years. I moved to England, went to drama school, directed plays. I worked and lived in and for the theatre. Then something broke. I became frustrated with career options that offered hard labour but little reward. I turned bitter, critical and exhausted; there was no more joy in it for me. I remember reading a line in a Lorca play that hit me right on the head: you have to destroy the theatre or live in the theatre! It’s not fair to boo from backstage! I don’t how I ended up there, but there I was: booing from backstage. So I opted out, cut theatre out of my life. I went to the cinema. After a while I fell in love again - this time with an equally thrilling, rich and challenging art, but one that is at the same time safer, more distant: nobody looks back at you, nobody can touch you from a silver screen.
Last night I went to see Twelfth Night at the Globe. It’s a production I have seen many times before, because it was originally performed by the Globe company at Middle Temple Hall in February 2002 on the 400th anniversary of the play, and later transferred to the Globe for the summer season that year. Mark Rylance reprised his hilarious, intense Olivia; Paul Chahidi was again a perfectly savvy Maria, and Liam Brennan a muscular yet refined Orsino. New cast member Stephen Fry (!) played Malvolio – the most sympathetic and believable Malvolio I’ve ever seen, a joy to behold. Johnny Flynn and Sam Barnett were (impressively similar-looking) Viola and Sebastian: both eloquent, sensitive, courageous survivors. And my favourite actor from the original cast, Peter Hamilton Dyer, returned as Feste (make no mistake: Feste is the core of the play; with his tenor voice and sharp sense of humour PHD was born to play this part).
This new cast is extremely well-balanced, and all parts are fully characterised through costume and smart, inventive performative touches that feel really grounded in the world of the play. The minimal but effective direction allows each cast member to play his part to the full, using the beautiful setting of the Globe-turned-Elizabethan-mansion, as well as the very lively audience, as a perfect foil for jokes and confessions, really drawing on the energy of the live, open air experience so essential to the magic that the Globe can create.
Globe productions can incorporate so many external agents into their ebb and flow - weather, accidents, audience response - and the best Globe shows are organic, sensory events. In Shakespeare’s times people spoke of ‘hearing’ a play rather than ‘seeing’ it, and while great attention was paid to visual comedy (for example in the scene where a confused Orsino realises he feels attracted to Cesario/Viola and, transported by the music, nearly kisses him - observed by a watchful Feste), this show is primarily an extraordinary aural experience. The combination of the text being spoken so clearly and accurately that every word makes sense, and an inspired use of music to accompany so many scenes (and pre-show, interval, final jig and curtain call), creates a world of sounds and sighs – breath made song for the purpose of laughter, lament, and nourishment alike (If music be the food of love, play on is, after all, the opening line of the play).
It is a production full of fun and joy – the physical joy of beautifully ornate language being articulated for the pleasure of our own ears and hearts, of gorgeous garments that swish and flutter as characters move (Orsino does wear changeable taffeta!), of bodily enjoyment in dance, love, drink and food – the purest joys there are. It may not be the darkest, most sophisticated interpretation of the play, but for me it was simply the definitive production my favourite Shakespeare comedy.
I can’t remember where I read something that Mark Rylance said about Olivia being like a country that’s moving from winter to spring thanks to the experience of love. Last night under a pouring, cold autumn rain, something inside me thawed. Like the last piece of wood on the fire after a long, merry evening drawing to its melancholy end, it warmed me up and reminded me why I loved the theatre. And why you can’t forget your first love, no matter how much it hurt, no matter how far away from it you travel.