fri 24/10/2014

Twelfth Night/Richard III, Apollo Theatre | Theatre reviews, news & interviews

Twelfth Night/Richard III, Apollo Theatre

Shakespeare makes a triumphant return to the West End with a little help from his friends

Some have greatness thrust upon 'em: Stephen Fry's Malvolio attempts to woo his Olivia (Rylance)

Something new is happening in the West End. Just up the road from Thriller and down a bit from Les Misérables a billboard the colour of weak tea (positively consumptive compared to the full-colour, neon assaults on either side) proclaims the arrival of Richard III and Twelfth Night. Shakespeare is back on Shaftesbury Avenue, and this time he means business – big, commercial business. How has this sleight of hand been achieved? Five words: Mark Rylance and Stephen Fry.

With national fervour still fresh and raw in this Olympic year, and audiences still coming down from the high of Branagh’s “Be not afeard…”, not even a glitzy musical and its X Factor stars could trump the appeal of two national treasures performing our national poet. So certain were the producers of success that the West End transfer was scheduled even before the two shows opened at the Globe Theatre. And they were right: director Tim Carroll and the irrepressible Rylance certainly know how to put on a Shakespearean show.

Rylance's usurper-king ha crystallised into a grinning, ingenuous villain

But what happens when you take Shakespeare out of The Globe – not so much a theatre as a philosophy of theatre? Good things, it seems. Every effort has been made to preserve or recreate those elements that make the Globe so special. There may not be space for groundlings but the cosy setup of Victorian Apollo places the front rows within easy reach of the performers. Crowns roll off the stage into their laps, actors appeal for shouts and cheers, and flanking the stage on both sides built-up wooden boxes place some audience members right amongst the action – receiving flowers from the amorous Richard or holding a hat for a drunken Sir Toby. It’s effortless and genial: panto for adults.

But it’s also deeply affecting. When Richard (Mark Rylance, pictured right) practises his deceit upon the crowds, feigning pious unwillingness to take the crown only to yield to their urgings, we find ourselves among their number, complicit in this hideous conspiracy and swayed by his blandishments even as we know them to be false. Don’t be fooled by the proscenium, it’s an anachronism to these authentic, all-male productions and one the cast dissolve by sheer force of will and a few tricks. Actors complete their pre-show preparations onstage, so you enter to find Stephen Fry in his shirt and britches having his hair brushed and his makeup applied, to hear Roger Lloyd Pack essaying a few vocal warm-ups.

Rylance is a given, and since his cross-dressing Olivia has already been seen at the Globe back in 2002 and his Richard III had his press outing back in July, all eyes were always going to be on Stephen Fry – making a brave return to the stage after famously doing a midnight flit from Simon Gray’s Cell Mates in 1995, when a negative review drove him to “contemplate suicide”. Malvolio is of course a character beset by psychological attack, but of a cruel rather than chemical nature, becoming the butt of a practical joke taken too far.

Fry’s Malvolio is unexpectedly gentle, a supporting rather than scene-stealing comedic turn

rating

4

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