A sudden vogue has developed for producing the plays of William Shakespeare with all-male casts. Currently, Edward Hall's Propeller Company has Rose Rage with men in women's parts and the Globe's White Company is producing Twelfth Night with all three female parts played by men.
This harks back to Shakespeare's day when women were not seen on the stage at all. In the third millennium, when women have fought so hard for rights, the case is far less strong. Rose Rage would surely have been stronger with a female Margaret of Anjou.
By contrast, the performances from the actors playing the three female parts in Tim Carroll's production of Twelfth Night are so strong that the experiment seems fully justified. In fact, the audience is soon so mesmerised by the quality of the acting that it is easy to forget that these are men playing female roles.
Mark Rylance as Olivia and Michael Brown as Viola are outstanding in a generally strong cast. The former plays the Countess as a stiff, nervous innocent, possibly in homage to the Virgin Queen, Elizabeth. The scene in which she falls for Viola in the guise of Cesario is extremely funny and wholly believable. Most Englishmen will remember an aged maiden aunt just like this. There is also a hint of favourite Ealing Comedies about her.
Michael Brown is also very strong on female body language. His walk is just right and his girlish nervousness wins over not only Liam Brennan as a very touching Duke Orsino but also everybody in the theatre.
The other strand of Twelfth Night, in addition to the romancing, is the comedy. Tim Carroll is very well served by his cast in this aspect. In particular, Albie Woodington makes a wonderful Andrew Aguecheek looking like an ageing rocker dressed as a hornet; while Paul Chahidi has great fun in the final female role as the scheming Maria.
A slight surprise was the performance of Peter Hamilton Dyer as Feste. While fun wasn't too far away at any time and he kept things rolling along nicely, he was not a particularly comic fool, with one notably hilarious exception.
Carroll ensures that the audience - and particularly the groundlings in the Pit - are drawn into the action by making full use of the stage area and allowing a least a little interaction between actors and audience. As poor, maltreated, Malvolio, Timothy Walker reached rock bottom, he laid his head on the stage and found a female grounding sympathetically stroking it. This is the Globe at its best.
As always at the Globe, the production was rounded off with excellent period music using an assortment of more or less recognisable instruments (under Clare van Kampen and Keith MacGowan's direction) and superb costumes designed by Jenny Tiramani.
This production is an opportunity to appreciate the very high quality of the acting of the theatre's artistic director, Mark Rylance. It is also great fun with a suitably happy ending and would make a very good introduction to both Shakespeare and the Globe Theatre for anybody, young or old who is not already familiar with them. It should also be compulsory viewing for those who know the works of the Bard and already love Sam Wanamaker's dream fulfilled.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher