Stephen Fry is back on stage at last, and has been perfectly chosen to play the pompous Malvolio in Twelfth Night, which opened last night at the Apollo Theatre, Shaftsbury Avenue for a 14 week run.
And there’s more. For the first time we are allowed to sit on stage in side seats that bring us within inches of the action. The idea is to recreate the atmosphere of Middle Temple Hall where the first recorded performance of Twelfth Night took place in 1602, in the days before Shakespeare’s players had the luxury of a theatre’s like The Rose or The Globe.
Thus the front rows of the Apollo’s seating have been removed to make way for the apron stage which comes forward into the stalls. Two storey benches have been constructed out of solid oak seating 30 people on each side of the stage. Traditional oak panelling is the backdrop through which the actors entered, stage rear, and above it minstrels played in the gallery.
Hot wax drips from the great overhead candelabras which light the stage, and now and again an actor has to dodge a falling candle, for the whole cast are on stage as we take our seats. We edged our way past Stephen Fry as he adjusted his woollen garters. It was normal for the players to dress up in situ, so for half an hour we sat watched them, feet away, as they put on their makeup, then the traditional linen under-garments garments and finally the formal attire and wigs.
By the time the curtain went up, which it didn’t of course, we’d heard their vocal chords being warmed and watched them struggle with their corsets. You might think that after all this intimacy it would be harder for them to carry us off into a world of illusion. But as soon as Maria (Paul Chahidi) entered like a mechanical doll, with his waxed bosom pushed up from under a tight black organ-crusher, we were away. He was every inch the naughty-nurse of a scheming spinster just as Olivia (Mark Rylance) was a perfect parody of a besotted woman chasing a man whilst pretending not to, failing hilariously to fool anybody.
A drawback of having seats on the side of the stage is that there are times when the actors’ backs are turned so you watch helplessly as they deliver a hilarious facial expression you will never see. As the rest of the audience double up with laughter you want yell ‘turn around!’
Viola, brilliantly sensitive, (Johnny Flynn) was so convincingly terrified of the fabulously stupid and cowardly Aguecheek (Roger Lloyd-Pack) that we wanted to pull him over as he pretended to climb the barrier onto our laps. This was the advantage of stage seats.
Equally, I’d had my doubts about a traditional all-male cast, but Rylance, Flynn and Chahidi were all superb, as was Stephen Fry (Malvolio) in his first official return to the stage after his famous disappearance on the first night of Cell Mates in 1995. He later turned up in Bruges, suffering from terrible depression, and had not acted since until the short run of Twelfth Night at The Globe in the summer, an event that went largely unnoticed due to the lack of a press night. His official unveiling was therefore last night (17th November).
All was well. And our national treasure has lost none of his stage presence, one raise of the eyebrows was enough to get a laugh when he mentioned his ‘precious gems’, and the anticipation of seeing his entrance in yellow stockings ‘all cross-gartered’ was well rewarded.
But with a universally strong cast, homage cannot be left to Fry alone. The chemistry between Orsino (Liam Brennan) and Viola was divine. She was so achingly vulnerable and he was equally moving. Together they were better than any pair of different sex lovers I have seen. Sir Toby Belch (Colin Hurley) was heavenly in his drunkenness, Peter Hamilton Dyer was a memorable Feste and Samuel Barnett a sweetly stunned Sebastian, albeit in a somewhat limiting role.
Praise must also go to the six-strong band of musicians whose Elizabethan harmonies provided a perfect complement to the fast moving wordplay. While the choreography of the final square dance, allowing all the actors to take their bow to their three sided audience, was the catalyst for a standing ovation in the stage seating.
By this time our backsides were totally numb from the inadequate stage seat cushions, but we left the theatre walking on air, not wanting to ever forget moments such as Olivia feigning bashfulness, Sir Andrew’s empty-faced stupidity or Maria’s ‘Hurray’ as she announces she is to marry the ratted Sir Toby. A great production in an ambitious setting where all the risks have paid off.
Overall Verdict: 5/5