REVIEW: Mark Rylance commands stage in ‘Twelfth Night’

Mark Rylance as Olivia in Shakespeare's Globe's production of 'Twelfth Night' — Photo courtesy of Simon Annand
Mark Rylance as Olivia in Shakespeare’s Globe’s production of ‘Twelfth Night’ — Photo courtesy of Simon Annand

We caught Twelfth Night in London last year, and the successful revival is now playing to packed houses at Broadway’s Belasco Theatre. Below find our review of the London production.

Twelfth Night continues until Feb. 16 at the Belasco in repertory with Richard III.

LONDON — For those fortunate theatergoers able to make the trip across the Pond before Feb. 10, there’s a special treat waiting in London. In the beautifully restored Apollo Theatre, Mark Rylance and Stephen Fry are making it look easy in Twelfth Nightone of William Shakespeare’s funniest comedies, being given an exquisite revival by Shakespeare’s Globe.

Played out on a two-tiered set, where selected audience members and musicians look down from balconies, Twelfth Night begins without one iota of pretension. As the audience mills into the Apollo, the actors are already on stage, having the hard-working crew apply makeup and fit costumes. We watch this sacred posturing and preparing, privileged to be close to the art form, able to view creation (at least in a minuscule way).

Rylance plays Olivia, and his performance is divine, one of those uniquely layered characterizations that seems the result of much study and contemplation. Would we expect anything less of Rylance, one of the best Shakespeare interpreters of our time (he actually served as the Globe’s artistic director for a decade). The way he moves around the wooden set designed by Jenny Tiramani seems carefully executed, walking with grace and making large, noticeable turns with the train of a black dress steady behind him. His white makeup and red lipstick give him an oddly funereal feel, but once matched with his recitation, everything feels regal and womanly. It’s not a dead-on portrayal, but it seems to fit this all-male production, deftly directed by Tim Carroll.

Fry’s Malvolio is just the right balance of buffoonery and courtesy — head held high, even when he’s the butt of several ongoing gags. Like Rylance, he’s able to find the humor in Shakespeare’s words, letting silences linger and knowing when to tease-out funny one-liners with perfect diction.

Taken together, these two performances are enough to make a ticket to Twelfth Night a must-have. However, there’s much more to enjoy. The entire company, including Liam Brennan, Johnny Flynn and Samuel Barnett, help fill out the play’s three hours. Interestingly (and tellingly), Olivia and Malvolio are not exactly the lead characters in Twelfth Night. They’re pivotal, for sure, but there’s equal time given to the foolishness of the jester and the cross-dressing of Viola. And perhaps that’s the hallmark of this production: Yes, we have two wonderful actors letting us know why they deserve top billing, but everything is built around the company. At its heart, this is an extraordinary production of Twelfth Night, rather than a ho-hum revival with a few sprinkles of perfection.

Someone let these London producers know there might be a sizable audience in New York for this Shakespearean gem.

By John Soltes / Publisher /

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John Soltes

John Soltes is an award-winning journalist. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Earth Island Journal, The Hollywood Reporter, New Jersey Monthly and at, among other publications. E-mail him at

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