Stand-up and sitcom: Even with Stephen Fry on hand, this is no way to treat ‘Twelfth Night’

Stephen Fry and Mark Rylance can hold an audience’s attention like no one else, but the Globe's production was grief as farce

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Much enjoying Jonathan Miller refusing to bear his faculties meekly and go quietly into the good night of artistic eminence, but thundering Timon-like against – well, against just about everything. Such withering anger, it seems to me, becomes a man who has directed Shakespeare and Verdi, who could have given his life to science, mimicry, satire, polemics, sculpture, and who never seems to believe he is doing what he should be doing or that people have adequately valued what he has done.

He is right. He isn’t and they haven’t. You don’t get your recompense in this life, and while most of us feebly accept the next best thing, it is exhilarating to see someone ignoring the convention and berating the vain, the vicious, and the vacuous. Miller makes cowards of the rest of us.

His intellectual gifts have always seemed to me greater than his opinions and beliefs – his atheism has too much sneer in it for my liking, and it rings false of so whole-hearted a man that Jew should be the only ish thing about him – but then most men’s beliefs aren’t worth a hill of beans. His gifts, however, are prodigious: the cause of envy in men who have no gifts at all, and a trouble, even, to himself sometimes, as though their prodigality encumbers him, in the way Baudelaire’s Albatross, hampered by its giant wings, stumbles when it walks. There’s consolation in that for daintier creatures. You have an easier time of it if you’re a tit.

This column is not about Jonathan Miller but a production of Twelfth Night I have just seen at the Apollo Theatre. I felt he was sitting in the row behind me, though, cracking his knuckles until his fingers fell apart. Only that morning I’d read something he’d said against “theatre-schlepping”, the habit of updating classic works for the West End stage, which stops those works from being “a witness of where they come from”. I can’t, of course, predict what he would have thought of the Globe’s all-male production of Twelfth Night, which anyway was not updated in the costume or contemporary relevance sense. Indeed, it was played to give us the feeling of being at an Elizabethan theatre, the costumes – into which we watched the actors being squeezed before the play began – sumptuously 16th century. But there is more than one way of schlepping theatre.

I wrote with enthusiasm on this page recently about Richard III, the Globe’s sister production at the Apollo Theatre. It was because I had enjoyed it so much that I moved heaven and earth to get tickets for Twelfth Night. So I went in benign spirits and with the highest expectations. There was much to look forward to. Mark Rylance, whose Richard III had been revelatory, as Olivia. Get your mind round that. Roger Lloyd Pack who’d been splendid as Buckingham, now cutting a caper as Sir Andrew Aguecheek. And Stephen Fry as Malvolio.

I’d paused at that. Would Fry be able to give Malvolio the gravitas – not of his own stewardly conceit but of a person grievously wronged? I admire Stephen Fry as an actor. He has a commanding presence and a strong, expressive voice. He was an outstanding Oscar Wilde in Brian Gilbert’s fine 1997 film Wilde. And I recall relishing him in a number of TV dramas years ago, in particular Simon Gray’s marvellously mordant comedy Old Flames. But with an audience of Fry fans baying for laughs as maniacally as those who drive Malvolio out of his wits, would he be able to deliver the pathos? In the event, no. He was good at suggesting the heights of pomposity from which Malvolio must fall, and embraced delusion well enough. But in a play about the lurching sickness caused by love, where yearning pierces everyone, including Sir Andrew Aguecheek (whose sad, surprising I “was adored once too” should have been delivered more hauntingly), Malvolio’s infatuation with Olivia, no less than his humbling by her servants, should stop the heart, and it didn’t.

I don’t blame Fry for this, except in the sense that his starry presence caused the production to lose its head. They had a famous comedian in the cast – in fact, two famous comedians, since Rylance can time a joke as well as anyone alive, even when there’s no joke to time – and that determined the production on its course. The Fry and Rylance Show. Everything was funny. Orsino’s erotic indolence was rendered doubly absurd by a north of the border accent identical to Peter Capaldi’s in The Thick of It.

Did I hear or did I dream “If music be the food of love, play on for fuck’s sake”? Rylance’s Olivia came on as though with broken roller skates under her dress, her hoarse, hesitant cadences eerily reminiscent, for those who’d been to the Apollo only a week or so before, of Richard III’s. Rylance holds an audience’s attention like no one else, but this was grief as farce, the strange troublesomeness of love, insinuating itself where it’s least welcome or expected, turned into mere tantrum and caprice. And just in case we were in any doubt that this was pantomime, enter Paul Chahidi playing Maria as Widow Twankey, in pursuance of that inexplicable, inexhaustible British love affair with drag.

Everything we know from television comedy was here. Gurning, knowing pauses, double-takes, winks, nudges, men dressed as women going all of a doodah when men dressed as men accost them. Thus did a play shot through with melancholy pawn its poignancy and wit – for Shakespeare has his own way of being funny – for a barrel-load of panel game, stand-up and sitcom laughs. The audience cheered and whooped as though we were at the other Apollo, Live.

Talk about a schlep. This Twelfth Night was no witness of where it came from, only of where we’re going.

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