NOTE: This review dates from May 2002 and the production's original run at the Globe.
With period costumes, traditional instruments and an all-male cast, this Twelfth Night is very much an Elizabethan event at the Globe (except for ordure, bear-baiting and pickpockets that is). And director Tim Carroll has drawn out all the play's rich, bawdy humour with so many double-entendres and phallic references (and even a fart gag) that it resembles a sort of 16th-century Carry-On film - Carry On Up My Doublet perhaps.
Such comments are not decry this production; anything but. The audience positively lap it up and, as is usual at the Globe, the cast played up the presence of the audience. Certainly so in the 'female' roles which, rather than being a casting gimmick, actually serve to provide new insight and appreciation. It's true that the sight of a man playing a woman playing a man is irredeemably humorous - and the performers here draw every ounce of comedy from their situations.
Carroll goes further though - skillfully using the device to divine some of the story's intrinsic sexual ambiguity. Liam Brennan finds himself drawn to his captivating servant and is obviously fighting with a set of conflicting emotions. The scene where Caesario and Orsino listen to Feste's plaintive "Come away, come away death" ends with them briefly kissing, instilling in both a mixture of horror and shock. While at the start rather uncertain, Michael Brown's Viola ultimately succeeds in representing the full range of conflicting emotions borne from her/his complicated circumstances.
But the real strength of the casting is having Mark Rylance as Olivia; there is no doubt that it is his show. Rylance essayed a female role three years ago when his Cleopatra met with a mixed critical reception. This time, he succeeds gloriously from his very first appearance as a tetchy spinster to the final scenes where he/she lasciviously pounces on the hapless Sebastian. Rylances' very movement adorns the play: he glides round the stage like a farthingale-clad Dalek. There are two particularly hilarious scenes - the initial wooing of Viola/Caesario and some incredibly funny business with a halberd.
There is some rich comedy too from the conspirators: a knowing Maria from Paul Chahidi; Bill Stewart's Toby Belch, pulling bottles out of secret hiding places; and Albie Woodington's skinny and lank-haired Andrew Aguecheek, looking like an outcast from a Jethro Tull tribute band, and desperately trying to keep his dignity in the face of humiliation. Only Timothy Walker's Malvolio disappoints, never quite managing to display that irresistible combination of superiority, ambition and superciliousness that makes this character such a powerful comic creation.
Twelfth Night is a play that is rich in music and Claire Van Kampen has given us an appropriately rich and haunting score. And as Feste, Peter Hamilton Dyers rich singing voice adds lustre to the production, ending with a rather uptempo "Hey ho, the wind and the rain" as the actors perform a closing jig.
A cheery and rewarding production for the summer nights.