The Apollo Theatre’s production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, reprising the 2002 Globe Theatre production, is far more than just a show–it’s an event. From the all-male cast to the boxes on stage in which the highest-paying customers can sit to the fantastically intricate costumes and heavy amounts of powder make-up we watch the actors apply in the on-stage ‘dressing room’ before the performance starts, it is clear what director Tim Carroll is trying to show us: this is Shakespeare.
Yet, while the production is visually authentic, in acting style it is anything but. Rather than highlighting the absurdity of its characters’ excessive love and the excitingly taboo homoerotic tensions that make Twelfth Night hilarious, this performance instead focuses on making its characters and their emotions feel genuine. Orsino (Liam Brennan) and Cesario’s (Johnny Flynn) first hesitant steps toward one another are beautiful and heart-wrenching, while Olivia (Mark Rylance) is as profoundly relatable as she is funny when she starts to lose her rigid, disciplined demeanor upon realising that she can still experience feelings for a ‘man’ after all. Even Stephen Fry’s Malvolio appears human, understandable rather than a caricature.
For most of the first half of the play, only the comic trio of Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, and Maria are allowed to be truly funny. After the interval, however, as instances of mistaken identity begin to pile up, the inherently farcical nature of Shakespeare’s text reemerges. Olivia rushes onstage with a giant axe, Orsino makes heartfelt declarations of love to Sebastian by accident multiple times, and Stephen Fry becomes a comedian once again. The shift in tone is a bit surprising, but is perhaps an effective directing strategy; Carroll teaches us to care deeply for his characters before he shows us their true absurdity, resulting in a much stronger emotional connection than we would have with them otherwise.
Particular standouts include Paul Chahidi’s Maria, who far from being relegated a minor character shows more intelligence, stronger motivations, and a more dynamic energy than many of the leads. The costuming is simply phenomenal, and one can spend most of the play trying to determine how to tell Cesario/Viola and Sebastian apart through any other method beside their voices. This production gave its audiences a Shakespeare we could care deeply about, as relatable as it was fun, and ultimately produced a profoundly enjoyable experience for everyone in the theatre.
(ALSO I MET STEPHEN FRY.)