When Mark Rylance is on the cast list, there’s not many people whose role would be more eagerly anticipated, but if you’re universally declared as a national hero who hasn’t been seen on the West End stage in 17 years, you might just take that crown.
Stephen Fry must have been on many a casting director’s wish list to play Twelfth Night’s Malvolio for quite some time and luckily he doesn’t disappoint in Tim Carroll’s joyous production first seen at the Globe this summer. With just the right amount of pomp, naivety and grump, he can wear his yellow stockings with pride as he commands the stage in Shakespeare’s greatest comedy of mistaken identities.
As the misguided object of his affections, Mark Rylance gives an uncharacteristically low-key, but deliciously witty performance as Olivia in the all-male production. Cutting a severe figure in a heavy black beaded dress with his face painted ghoulishly pale, he floats around the stage, playing the over-privileged and under-sexed character as an anxiety riddled untouchable Countess, thrown into a hormonal cyclone when Viola knocks on her door.
Of course Viola is at this stage disguised as a boy. Although in this case we have Johnny Flynn dressed as a girl dressed as a boy, just to make things even more hilariously confusing. Flynn does a measured job portraying this conundrum, the slightest feminine touches creeping in, a softly place hand here, a flick of the ankle there.
Staged on the same set used for Richard III, which plays in rep with Twelfth Night, the pinewood minimalist stage with the most basic of lighting – a general wash and candles for flourish – leaves the aesthetics of the characters themselves to shine. Director Carroll creates an almost fairy tale feel to the piece with Flynn and his unwitting twin – played with impressive ease by Samuel Barnett – dressed in elaborately embroidered garb and Roger Lloyd Pack looking comically like a ghost from the halls of Hogwarts as the ruff-clad Andrew Aguecheek.
Compared to the darkness of its paired production, Twelfth Night is a breath of uncomplicated – Shakespeare’s outlandish storylines aside – comic fresh air and pure unadulterated theatrical fun. Leading the mischievous charge alongside Aguecheek – played hilariously blank-faced by Pack – is Colin Hurley as a suitably red-cheeked raucous Toby Belch and Paul Chahidi who virtually steals the show as Maria; played with just the right level of subtlety meets pantomime dame, combined with an incredible range of facial expressions, which have the ability to have the audience in stiches with just one look.
The first Twelfth Night I’ve ever seen when it would be genuinely possible to confuse the separated twins at its centre, Fry is just one of many reasons to escape to Illyria this winter.