A Bit of Fry and Rylance

Twelfth Night, The Globe, 23 September 2012

The set was dressed only in climbing plants that ascended the back wall and pillars, adding a touch of realism to the sequence in Olivia’s garden.

Musicians played on the balcony at the start of the performance, then inexplicably stopped, prompting Orsino’s (Liam Brennan) opening line requesting in a fine Scottish accent that they should play on (1.1).

Viola (Johnny Flynn) appeared in a green dress with an obviously false wig of long brown hair, and a pale whitened face with a touch of rouge. She was helped out of the trap door by the Captain (Jethro Skinner), who put a coat around her shoulders. At this early stage it was very easy to accept a man as Viola because the character’s main function at this point was to express mournful sadness, which is non-gender-specific (1.2).

Colin Hurley was excellent as a slightly red-nosed Sir Toby who tried valiantly to put on his boots (1.3). When stuffed into a tightly-fitting low-cut dress Paul Chahidi’s Maria had distinct moobs which were a great advantage for playing a female character.

Maria expressed her displeasure at Sir Toby’s drinking by emptying his goblet on the ground only for him to refill it from a leather bottle. Maria also confiscated the bottle, but Sir Toby had another secreted elsewhere on the stage.

Sir Toby’s description of Sir Andrew (Roger Lloyd Pack) created the expectation of a young gadabout. When he appeared, he was old and greying, almost a parody of a young rake.

For the buttery bar sequence Maria took Sir Andrew’s hand and held it near to her bosom without making contact. Her phrase “It’s dry, sir” was delightfully confusing for being delivered by a male actor.

Sir Toby congratulated the ageing, grey Sir Andrew for having “an excellent head of hair”, and brought a lascivious relish to his wish to see a housewife take Sir Andrew between her legs “and spin it off.” Emboldened by this less-than-honest praise, Sir Andrew struck a pose with his foot extending backwards for the “back-trick”.

Viola had gained employment at Orsino’s court and wore a white doublet, almost Caroline in look, allowing her to maintain her own hair (1.4). She dropped her sword and carrier and Orsino helped to attach them properly to her doublet. This gesture was a symbolic act, involving the fitting of the ultimate male accessory. She prepared to serve as Orsino’s messenger to Olivia.

Orsino’s description of Viola’s “smooth and rubious” lip, remarking that “all is semblative a woman’s part” saw both getting slightly aroused by each other. This was the first of several great moments in which the play’s layers of deception collided, properly enhanced by all-male casting. Orsino was seeing through a woman’s disguise as a man, but the actor beneath was a man. Nevertheless, it was easy to believe in the disguised Viola as a woman when she spoke of her love for Orsino, pining “myself would be his wife”.

Feste (Peter Hamilton Dyer) looked lively in his orange boots and coloured jacket (1.5). This was an interesting characterisation with no hint of dour melancholy.

A long table was brought in, as Olivia (Mark Rylance), wearing a floor-length black dress with a black veil drawn down from her coronet over her face, bustled on stage with no motion of her feet visible. A black cloth was placed over a chair at one end of the table, representing her dead brother, to which Olivia bowed. Malvolio (Stephen Fry) drew back her chair to allow her to sit and he then positioned himself at her side. This initial closeness formed the basis on which Malvolio’s subsequent delusions would develop.

She signed papers and Feste began playing on his drum, prompting her to look briefly upwards and pronounce peremptorily “Take the fool away” as if she were asking for the window to be closed.

After Feste’s long syllogism, her second request for his removal saw her attendants begin to manhandle him away. His “misprision” remark became a protest to remain and to be allowed to prove her a fool. Despite her initial dismissiveness, Olivia relented and asked “Can you do it?” She got out of her chair and then sat down again with Malvolio again attentively drawing back the chair for her so that she could hear the fool’s explanation.

Olivia asked Malvolio for his opinion of Feste’s reasoning. Helped by the fact that no one had whooped on his initial appearance, Stephen Fry’s first words as Malvolio were sonorously disdainful.

Olivia’s witheringly critical response to Malvolio’s putdown showed that she did not in fact share his outlook or in any way constitute his soul mate, which was vital for later on.

Sir Toby arrived from the gate very drunk and sat himself down. He rose and went into a spasm of pain as he leant forward across the table. The others gathered round as he gave a sigh of relief, releasing a gust of malodorous wind that the others were obliged to waft away. Sir Toby explained the source of his discomfort: “a plague o’ these pickle-herring!”


Admonished and still very drunk he looked at the empty chair representing Olivia’s dead brother and raised his glass to it saying “Well, it’s all one”. This tiny moment conveyed a great deal: Sir Toby seemed to be saying that the living should enjoy themselves.

Malvolio shuffled closer to Olivia, symptomatic of his attachment to her, and explained that a young fellow had come to speak with her. He stressed repeatedly “and therefore comes to speak with you” as if surprised at the young man’s persistence. Unfortunately Fry got his “Not yet old enough for a man, nor young enough for a boy” line wrong at first, getting “man” and “boy” the wrong way round, and had to repeat the line to get it right.

Olivia seemed to have enjoyed the fool’s foolery enough to attempt some of her own. As Cesario entered, she had Maria sit reading a book and positioned herself as if in attendance on her.

Falling into Olivia’s trap, Cesario addressed Maria before Olivia intervened. Viola’s speech was stilted, which added an extra layer of stiltedness over the male actor’s impression of a woman pretending to be a man.

The “I am not that I play” line pointed towards a collision of dense layers of disguise.

Once the pair were left alone, Olivia slowly lifted her veil to reveal her face. She was inwardly pleased at being able to show herself.

Olivia listened to Viola’s message and during this exchange they went to sit on a bench. It was clear from the way Olivia looked Cesario up and down that she found him attractive. This occurred even before Cesario’s “willow cabin” speech, in which Cesario’s thinly disguised pining for Orsino was mistaken by Olivia as veiled attraction to her.

Olivia’s intentions looked very obvious just before her “What is your parentage?” question.

After Viola left, Olivia sighed and facepalmed as she repeated her stupid query. She pulled a ring from her finger using her mouth and gave it to Malvolio, pretending that it was a gift to be returned to Orsino via the just-departed Cesario. She added “If that the youth will come this way tomorrow” as an afterthought hinting at her real reason for the subterfuge.

Our first look at Sebastian (Samuel Barnett) showed that he was identical to Viola in costume and pallor (2.1).

Malvolio caught up with Viola but had to pause to recover his breath as he had evidently been running (2.2). Malvolio threw the ring at her but it caught on her doublet and only eventually fell to the ground.

Viola finally realised that Olivia was in love with her. However, her state of mind was virtually unchanged, as if this additional circumstance were no worse than losing a brother and suffering an impossible love for Orsino.

Sirs Andrew and Toby gathered for some late-night carousing (2.3). Feste arrived with a brace of rabbits which he held around his head forming the picture of “we three” and making a reference to coney catching.

Sir Toby exploited Sir Andrew by taking money out of Sir Andrew’s hand to give to Feste, after which Sir Andrew decided to add some more, but both sums had come from his own purse.

The carousers sang “Hold Thy Peace” until interrupted by Maria. Sir Toby’s protest saw him sidle up to Maria and kiss her hand singing “There dwelt a man in Babylon, lady, lady!” which she received willingly. This was the first sign of a proper romance between Sir Toby and Maria, which made their subsequent marriage more credible.

The continued singing attracted the attention of Malvolio, whose quite ordinary nightwear was adorned with his three loop chain of office. Sir Andrew was the last to notice Malvolio, as he was busy swinging rabbits around his head, but once he spotted the steward he clambered slowly down from the table.

Malvolio rounded on Sir Toby warning him that Olivia wanted him to leave. The knight continued singing and eventually climbed onto a bench so that he could look down on Fry’s quite tall Malvolio to deliver his withering “Art any more than a steward?” As mentioned above, Malvolio was wearing the chain on which Sir Toby now ordered him to go rub crumbs.

Maria hatched her plot and was excited at its prospect. She put special emphasis on “I can write very like my lady your niece”, as if she had not decided on Malvolio’s love object until that very moment. She sat next to Sir Toby so that when she said “a horse of that colour” he was holding her by the hand affectionately. He kissed her at “Good night, Penthesilea” so that she exited smiling radiantly at the audience.

The next scene was key for the relationship between Orsino and Viola (2.4). The Duke called for music and asked Viola if she loved someone. Her descriptions of the presumed woman “by your favour… of your complexion… about your years” were so full of longing that it seemed impossible for Orsino not to notice that Viola was attracted to him.

Feste started to sing “Come away death”. Orsino sat Cesario on the bench to listen to the song but strolled around by himself indifferently. He caught Cesario looking sideways at him and then also sat on the bench facing the opposite way towards the audience.

As they continued to listen, Orsino shot Viola sideways glances full of trepidation and interest. Viola noticed and looked towards him with a constant coy but sadly puppyish expression. Orsino became bolder and held onto her hand, only to let go soon after. He then went further, taking her hand and placing it on his shoulder. It stayed there for a while until Viola withdrew it. Orsino’s audacity increased as he grasped her hand in his, but again Viola withdrew. As he sang, Feste was keenly focused on this display of tentative physical intimacy.

The song ended and Orsino angrily threw over the bench glaring at Viola. Orsino tried to pay Feste, who refused and commented on what he had seen saying “Pleasure will be paid, one time or another” with his glance directed firmly at Viola.

Orsino ordered everyone else to leave before instructing Cesario to visit Olivia once again. Cesario stood sheepishly at the side of the stage fully realising that she had angered him. This was the background to her pleading that there might be another woman who loved Orsino, a clear reference to herself.

They sat on the bench again as Viola repeatedly attempted to end her “concealment”. She alluded to her true identity stating that she was “all the daughters of my father’s house and all the brothers too.” As she said “and yet I know not” she hugged Orsino, who gingerly put his arm round her as if confused by this sudden affection. They broke away and looked at each other. Their lips move closer together until they almost kissed.

Viola recoiled with a start saying “Sir, shall I to this lady?” which made Orsino embarrassed, causing him likewise to come to his senses saying “Ay, that’s the theme.”


James Garnon’s Fabian appeared for the letter drop scene (2.5). The box tree was a leafy green box with openings at the side and slits in its sloped roof. The letter was placed on the bench and the conspirators hid inside the tree behind. They peeped their heads out of the top until they worked out that it was best to hide inside.

Malvolio entered as if holding his arm around an invisible Olivia. He sat on the stage right bench as continuing to hold Olivia before shifting to the central bench. At this point, heads popped out of the box tree, which shuffled closer so that it stood right behind Malvolio. The ensuing commotion was disguised by imitated bird calls.

The steward relished the fantasy of calling his officers about him.

Stephen Fry did not turn “where I have left Olivia sleeping” into a suggestive innuendo. But at the line “Play with my…” he paused and raised a finger as if forestalling our sniggers before continuing with “some rich jewel”. This was a brilliant piece of audience connection.

Knowing how much of a Shakespeare fan Fry was, it was possible to see his performance as a response to the great privilege of being offered the role.

Congratulating himself on being mentioned, Sir Andrew popped his head out of the top of the box tree until Fabian put his hand out and stuck Sir Andrew back in again.

Malvolio picked up the letter beside him on the bench and moved stage left to open it. When trying to figure out the meaning of MOAI, Malvolio looked at us as if we could help him. The solution eventually came “every one of these letters are in my name”, at which point he grimaced at us, implying that we had been remiss in not pointing this out to him sooner.

It was gratifying to see that no attempt was made to derive laughter from the letter’s instruction to “revolve”.

For those familiar with the play it was quite bittersweet to see Malvolio pause and beam before announcing “I am happy”. He ran offstage and was applauded, but immediately skipped back on again, “Here is yet a postscript”, which advised him to smile. He exited, this time walking normally.

After he left, Sir Toby put his neck on the bench inviting Maria to step on it. Maria triumphantly stood centre stage to explain precisely why yellow garters would be Malvolio’s undoing. As they departed, Sir Andrew could not free himself from the box tree, so he stood up inside it and walked away. As he turned, the back of box tree was revealed, bearing a sign that read “Interval”.

At start of the second half the entire cast came forward through the centre doors singing the song “Jolly Robin”. They then reversed back in again to make way for the scene with Viola and Feste (3.1).

Viola and Feste traded barbs that became meaningful once Viola said she was sick for a beard “though I would not have it grow on my chin.” This stress on the personal pronoun made it clear that she was thinking of Orsino’s chin.

Viola’s brief skirmish with Sir Toby and Sir Andrew led into her meeting with Olivia. The pair were left together in the garden. Olivia led Viola around the garden taking cuttings from the plants on the pillars. All the while Olivia was flustered with excitement. She made a stuttering and confused apology for the ring subterfuge. She was very keen to interpret Viola’s “I pity you” as “a degree to love”.

The clock struck making Olivia realise that her time was short. Just as Cesario went to depart, she threw off her shoe calling after him in the hope that he would put it back on her foot. Sir Andrew walked in on them through the centre doors and seeing Olivia without her shoe, made a quick exit. Olivia asked what Cesario thought of her and then made her declaration of love.

Olivia knelt on the ground to plead “Love sought is good, but given unsought better”. Viola rebuffed her, leaving Olivia on the ground in crumpled failure wearing just one shoe.

Sick for love of Olivia, Sir Andrew wanted to depart (3.2). But Sir Toby suggested that he challenge his putative rival Cesario to a duel.

Maria came to tell them of Malvolio’s approach, and it was gladdening that at this point they kept the mention of “the new map with the augmentation of the Indies”.

A brief scene showed Antonio (John Paul Connolly) together with Sebastian, who took charge of Antonio’s purse (3.3).

Olivia set out a sheet on the ground and made worried preparations for Viola’s return (3.4). Cushions and a banquet followed, but she was interrupted by the dramatic entry of Malvolio.

Stephen Fry’s Malvolio wore simple yellow cross garters and not the habitual carnival outfit of some productions. Olivia, sat on ground, caught sight of him and said “How, now, Malvoli.. oh!” Fry was very good with his “Sweet lady, ho, ho” as he put his leg up on the stage left bench.

He took an apple from the table, bit into it, and walked off upstage right. When Olivia said “Wilt thou go to bed, Malvolio?” he froze quite still and dropped the apple, which hit the boards with a thud. When Malvolio spoke of some having “greatness thrust upon them” he crouched behind the seated Olivia and hugged her tightly. She turned and hit him firmly with a pillow, leaving him lying on his back.

Malvolio spoke at length about how Olivia’s reactions fitted the content of the letter. He knelt with his head bowed to thank Jove. When the others entered, they saw him with his bottom pointing at them and exited again. But they took courage and tried once more.

Maria tried to fend off Malvolio with a bible, which she slapped into his hand as she made a hissing noise suggesting his demonic reaction. Malvolio imperiously dismissed them and reclined on the ground, but they tried to pull the sheet away with him on it. They brought him to his feet and the sheet was draped over him. But he extricated himself and instead wrapped the sheet round him like a robe of office and strode out haughtily.

Sir Andrew brought his letter of challenge, whereupon Sir Toby sent him away and tore up the letter.

Olivia was left alone with Viola and offered her a jewel. Olivia’s phrase “’tis my picture” was said with patently feigned surprise, as if she wanted Cesario to believe that she had only just now noticed that the gift was her miniature portrait: the present had obviously been carefully selected beforehand. This attempted deception was quite touching in its innocence, with Olivia crediting that such a transparent device could not be seen through. She added excitedly that Cesario should come again the next day.

Sir Toby and Fabian scared Viola into thinking that a duel with Sir Andrew was imminent, and Fabian led her away.

Sir Toby then worked on Sir Andrew. Fabian brought in Viola, forcing her forwards in an arm lock, which Sir Toby pretended was in fact an attempt to restrain the aggressive duellist.

They both drew rapier and dagger. But each had to be propelled forward by Fabian and Sir Toby respectively as both Sir Andrew and Cesario were leaning backwards in fright.


Antonio rushed in to defend “Sebastian” and was promptly arrested, but Viola did not have his purse to bail him. The shock of being addressed as Sebastian made Viola lean against a pillar with her mouth slightly open.

Viola exited through the stage left doorway while Sebastian entered through the same doorway immediately afterwards (4.1). This unrealistic near miss foreshadowed their eventual reunion.

Sebastian was dismissive of Feste’s insistence that he was Cesario. Sir Andrew confronted Sebastian, took off the stranger’s hat and threw it to the ground, tweaked his nipples and then smacked his nose. Sebastian retaliated by taking off Sir Andrew’s hat, stamping on his foot and punching him. Sir Toby picked a fight with Sebastian just as Olivia entered.

She saw them locked in combat and exited briefly, returning to defend her love with a huge halberd, which she swung wildly about, forcing the others away from him. Having separated them, she dropped the halberd to the ground and ran and kissed a very surprised Sebastian. She took a few steps back and fainted, possibly from a mixture of shock and exhaustion.

After this halberd display, Sebastian looked at us and then at the revived Olivia as if she were crazy for inviting him into her house. But his “Madam, I will” was gloriously emphatic and caused Olivia to become flustered.

The gulling of Malvolio made ingenious use of the trap door, which opened to allow a box fronted with bars to be raised through the opening (4.2). Malvolio’s head appeared in the small cage so that he could speak with Feste. As the box opening faced forward, Feste was able to spend most of the sequence behind it, unseen by Malvolio, allowing him to switch effortlessly between his own voice and Sir Topaz.

Maria continued her spite against Malvolio, pouring molten candle wax on him through the cage opening after “Sir Topaz” withdrew.

Feste returned as himself and Malvolio put a hand out through the cage bars trying to reach him. Feste stood on top of the cage and took one of Malvolio’s hands, and then the other. But when Malvolio asked him to go, Feste suddenly let go of both, causing Malvolio to plummet into the bowels of the stage. The implication was that this cage was a vent accessible by a long climb.

Sebastian emerged from Olivia’s house (4.3). He was so confused that he had to check basic facts. His statements became almost questions “This is the air (?), that is the glorious sun (?)”.

Olivia asked Sebastian to excuse her haste, and then ushered in the Priest (Ian Drysdale), who was ready to marry them. Sebastian’s immediate consent was in character with the resolution he showed when first agreeing to enter her house.

After Feste’s lucrative fooling for Orsino, Viola spotted Antonio being brought in, who promptly confused Viola with Sebastian (5.1).

Olivia’s refusal to love Orsino developed into an argument which culminated in Orsino drawing his sword on her “Why should I not … kill what I love?” He then turned it on Viola threatening to sacrifice “the lamb that I do love…” Viola stood facing Orsino’s back when she said that she would willingly die a thousand deaths to make him happy.

Viola went to leave, and just as she reached the stage right door Olivia cried after her “Cesario, husband, stay”. Orsino echoed the key word “husband” in complete surprise. The Priest confirmed the story. Sir Andrew and Sir Toby showed their injuries inflicted on them by “Cesario” who was in fact the pugnacious Sebastian.

While Viola cowered at the back stage left, Sebastian entered from stage right and addressed Olivia without seeing his sister. But Orsino, positioned behind him, could see both siblings and commented on their similarity. Sebastian turned to see Antonio and spoke with him stage right. Antonio’s question “how have you made division of yourself” caused Sebastian to turn once more and see Viola. Olivia’s “Most wonderful!” produced a great laugh.

Once Viola had revealed her true identity, Sebastian was quite matter-of-fact in pointing out that Olivia had nearly married a woman. This was in character with his previous directness.

Orsino was palpably relieved to discover that Viola was a woman.

Feste read Malvolio’s letter as a rant, obliging Olivia to pass it to Fabian. To everyone’s relief, all was well between Olivia, Orsino and Viola.

Fabian explained that Maria had written the forged letter and that she had married Sir Toby, which caused Maria to inject a low-key “hooray!” but it was obvious that she was the only one in a mood to be happy given what she had just admitted to.

Malvolio was slightly bloodied and most dishevelled, and made a very angry threat to revenge himself on the whole pack of them.

Orsino took Sebastian by the hand and started to talk to him, before swapping to Viola and beginning his speech again “A solemn combination…”

Feste sang the closing song with its rain references in shower of real rain. This wonderful coincidence was cheered almost as heartily as the lively jig that rounded off this truly excellent performance.


This production had two distinctive features: original practices and Stephen Fry. The thought-provoking effects of the former meant that the celebrity status of the latter was not the overbearing distraction it might have been in a vanilla staging.

Applying all-male casting to Twelfth Night created mind-boggling layers of meaning when a male actor playing a female character dressed as a man exclaimed that she was not what she played.


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