Your Shakespeare in London for Christmas problem is solved at a stroke - courtesy of producer Sonia Friedman; thanks for nothing, RSC - with the greatest cartoon chronicle history play in the language, and the never-failing (except in the recent Peter Hall NT revival), mature comedy of gender-bending romance and thwarted puritanism.
For it’s a paradoxical feature of both Mark Rylance performances and Tim Carroll’s “original practices” productions that absolute modernity is the keynote. There’s nothing stale or historically arch at the Apollo, despite the panelled hall and minstrels’ gallery of Jenny Tiramani’s design, with about eighty onstage customers seated in a mini-Globe-like onstage boxes.
This is an indoor Globe, with constant light and four descendent chandeliers, with the freshness of the outdoor acting, actors coming through the stalls, and Rylance playing the audience like a music hall comedian. The music is marvellous and you can look forward to a Globe-style company jig to send you home happy.
Rylance’s Richard is the most original I’ve ever seen, the very opposite of Kevin Spacey’s satanic leather-and-buckles job, a psychotic booby with a calm façade, minimal disability (a withered left hand worn like a brooch, a slightly splayed right leg) and a vile and childish playfulness that is brilliant for the wooing of Lady Anne, or the circuitous acceptance of the crown, or the suggestion that he’ll bury the sons of the Queen in her daughter’s womb, a funereal defilement.
Similarly, Rylance’s Olivia in Twelfth Night – a performance resurrected from his days in charge at the Globe – glides, as if on castors, through the play in total command, a white-faced beauty in a tiny coronet whose flirtatious cheek, this time, has a more carnal intention, the pivot of the action, “the observ’d of all observers.”
And Stephen Fry as Malvolio? He’s fine, without being great, or even stepping out of his comfort zone. No sign of mania, or even hysteria, not much of a rictus when he “smiles” or absurdity in his yellow stockings. He’s funny, alright, but in a totally Stephen Fry sort of way. The scene-stealing, detailed acting performance here is that of Paul Chahidi as a wonderful Maria, a sort of trussed up Patricia Routledge with a sniff of a party spirit and a chance with Sir Toby.
Chahidi plays a great double in Richard III, too, as Hastings and Tyrell. Other notable doubles across the plays are those of Peter Hamilton Dyer as the ever present Catesby and a well-voiced, dry-as-dust Feste, and Roger Lloyd Pack as a slavish Buckingham and a languorously debauched Aguecheek in ill-fitting hose and a feather on his cap that looks as though it grew out of his beard.
Still missing from Richard III is Queen Margaret, whose absence unhinges the play from the history cycle, so fair enough; until, that is, Richmond (James Garnon) plonks us right in it at the end.
And although Johnny Flynn is a perfectly acceptable, likeable Viola, he misses the inner rush and turmoil by a mile; no Dorothy Tutin or Judi Dench, he. In the context of an all-male version, he’s not especially androgynous, either, so that the Sebastian of Samuel Barnett (a superbly ferocious Queen Elizabeth in Richard) is consequently less effective.