Twelfth Night, performed by the Company of Shakespeare's Globe at the Middle Temple Hall, London, February 2002.
David Nicol
University of Central England

Nicol, David. "Review of Twelfth Night." Early Modern Literary Studies 8.1 (May, 2002): 10.1-23 <URL:

With Eddie Redmayne as Viola, Rhys Meredith as Sebastian, Patrick Brennan as Antonio, Mark Rylance as Olivia,Paul Chahidi as Maria, Peter Hamilton Dyer as Feste,Oliver Cotton as Malvolio, Ian Talbot as Sir Toby Belch, Angus Wright as Sir Andrew Aguecheek, Terence Maynard as Duke Orsino, Richard Attlee as Fabian/Captain, Roger Gartland as Valentine/Priest, and Simon Hyde as Curio. Master of Play Tim Carroll. Master of the Words Giles Block. Master of Voice Stewart Pearce. Master of Clothing and Properties Jenny Tiramani. Master of Music Claire van Kampen with Keith McGowan. Master of Dance Siân Williams. Master of Light Paul Anderson.

  1. Walking to the Middle Temple Hall is like travelling back in time; you leave the twenty-first century bustle of Fleet Street, pass down eighteenth-century lanes and courtyards, and arrive at a beautifully preserved Tudor hall which is famed as the site of the first recorded performance of Twelfth Night, on 2nd February 1602. To celebrate the four-hundredth anniversary of this event, the company of Shakespeare's Globe staged a short run of performances there. Acted in Elizabethan costume, and with male actors in the female roles, the production was designed to recreate the look and performance style of the 'original' Twelfth Night.

  2. Sadly, the Globe's Twelfth Night was a disappointment. Long, slow, and unfunny, with lacklustre direction and a weak cast, it wasted its impressive performance space. Nonetheless, the production's experimental qualities - its use of the hall, and its all-male casting - mean that the company's staging choices deserve analysis. Furthermore, some of the production's problems prompted questions - for me, at least - about the relationship between audience and play in the Globe Company's more overtly historicist productions.

  3. In a recent article, Dennis Kennedy has described the Globe Company's deft manipulation of past and present in its relationship with its audience. While its "fundamentalist" approach to staging has "the virtue of highlighting Shakespeare's otherness, of chronicling the distance the texts have travelled across time and culture" (Kennedy 16-17), the Globe's great success is (paradoxically) in turning that distance "into one of the most familiar of touristic commodities, the easy delights of the heritage museum and historical theme park" (17). Kennedy's concern is that the Globe company effaces too easily the difference between Shakespeare's historical context and that of its modern audience; he concludes with the message that "if the Globe Centre wishes to be more than Disney it must strive - in the midst of its touristic success - to show that Shakespeare is not us" (17).

  4. No doubt the Globe Company would respond that they believe in making Shakespeare accessible, and have no interest in alienating their audience from the plays. But Mark Rylance's programme note for Twelfth Night imagines an audience-play relationship remarkably similar to Kennedy's, though more optimistic: "I think Shakespeare would have wanted us to compare his plays to our own lives, and weigh their true value in the scales of that relationship". The notion that the audience should make a comparison is, I think, what Kennedy believes; both he and Rylance envisage an active, critical response to the play, and to the culture that created it, followed by an assessment of whether it still has worth today. But where Rylance assumes this comparison to be an uncomplicated interaction between author and audience, Kennedy insists on the responsibility of the mediator: the theatre company must create an intellectual context in which the play's historicity and/or relevance can be judged.

  5. The act of comparison between past and present becomes most relevant when the audience watches a production that is self-consciously trying to recreate a performance from the past. The Globe's Twelfth Night was a fascinating investigation into how the play might have looked and functioned in one of its original performance spaces, but since it was staged as a thoroughly historicist experience, complete with an attempt at recreating an Elizabethan 'atmosphere,' it raised interesting questions. How is the audience's ability to make a comparison between the play and their own life affected by directorial decisions? Where must compromises be made in order to make unfamiliar cultural forms accessible to a modern audience? And how far can audiences be challenged with unfamiliar forms before they reject their "true value" as worthless? Watching the show, I felt that sometimes the company ignored cultural differences that it would have been done better to highlight. But other aspects of the production seemed to me too 'alien', and needed adapting in order to generate a more appropriate comparison between past and present.

  6. The following review focuses on three aspects of the Globe's Twelfth Night: the attempt to introduce the play with a pseudo-Elizabethan ambience; the direction, acting, and the adaptation of the Middle Temple Hall for performance purposes; and the use of male actors in female roles. Since the merits of Globe productions remain controversial, I should emphasise that I have enjoyed most of their shows: although their light-hearted, often humorous takes on the plays annoys some critics, I find this approach to be more insightful, and more entertaining, than many avant-garde productions. To my mind, the Middle Temple Twelfth Night lacked the refreshing irreverence of some recent productions at the Globe's main house. But, in fairness, I should note that despite my negative reaction, the show received a standing ovation from most of the audience. The ovation seemed to me a reluctant one, begun by a group of fanatics and politely followed by everyone else, but I was pretty jaded by that point.

    The Elizabethan Experience

  7. The most eccentric aspect of the production was its attempt to recreate an Elizabethan atmosphere in which to perform the play. Upon arrival at the building, each spectator was presented with a cardboard box containing Elizabethan snack food: ginger and prunes on a stick, an 'aniseed cracknell' (which was very tasty indeed), and a bread roll called a 'manchet' (which contained many ingredients but tasted of nothing at all). We were then directed toward the great hall itself, where Elizabethan music could be heard, and mulled wine was being served. But before we could enter, we had to walk through the actors' dressing room, where we were invited to watch the cast apply their make-up and lace their doublets. I would like to think this was an attempt at metatheatricality, but I doubt it. There is a certain section of Globe audiences that takes pleasure in discussing the minutiae of Elizabethan costuming, and this looked like a sop to them: fabrics and items of clothing were set out for us to feel, and clusters of elderly ladies were observing the mechanics of male corset-wearing with a practised eye.

  8. It is easy to sneer at this kind of kitsch, but I found it entertaining. It was genuinely interesting to taste the Elizabethan food, the music was pleasant, and the visit to the dressing room obviously made a lot of people happy. Nonetheless, the company's decision to introduce the play in this way summed up only too well their simplistic attitude toward the play's historical context. The audience was being transported, via unfamiliar food and unusual staging practices, into a culture that was not their own. But there was an implicit assumption that producing Twelfth Night in accordance with its Elizabethan origins requires only that the actors wear the correct clothing, and that the audience is supplied with aniseed cracknells beforehand. Other, equally Elizabethan qualities - such as the words, ideas, characters and situations in the play - were assumed to be instantly translatable to a modern audience.

  9. One will not learn anything about Twelfth Night by eating a manchet or stroking a velvet doublet, but introducing the play with an 'Elizabethan experience' need not always be valueless. I wonder whether it might be possible to surround the audience with those aspects of Elizabethan culture that really affected the play's composition and creation: for example, contemporary theories of poetry and drama, or information about the socio-historical context? At the risk of sounding hopelessly idealistic, audiences in search of an historical experience might enjoy pre-show material that deepened their understanding of the period: displays, pictures, or maybe even brief readings from contemporary documents. Snippets of information about Puritans or social mobility could be offered to deepen and complicate the audience's response to the Malvolio subplot; information about the controversies over the use of boy players might enrich the audience's experience of watching Viola.

  10. Of course, it sounds absurd to raise such an idea, since theatre companies typically regard education and entertainment as separate events: the Globe Education Centre, for example, offers excellent lectures and workshops, but they are optional extras, and the material is never integrated directly with the performance experience. If the Globe company want their audience to come into contact with the Elizabethan context, and then "compare [Shakespeare's] plays to our own lives," a more educative form of pre-show entertainment would at least challenge them to compare their similarities and differences from Shakespeare in a more informed way.

    Playing the Middle Temple

  11. The Middle Temple Hall is a beautiful acting space, and the opportunity to see how the players might have used it in 1602 was fascinating. The hall is long, with a carved wooden screen at one end. As stage historians have long noted, the screen has two doors and a balcony, and is therefore a similar structure to the tiring house of the Swan theatre as depicted in the de Witt drawing. The Globe Company utilised the screen doors, but they also added a third entrance, emerging through the audience at the other end of the hall. Twelfth Night does not require an upper stage, and the balcony was thus reserved for the musicians. It was clear that the few large properties required by the play would have presented no problems in 1602: Olivia's box-tree was represented by a small, man-sized prop that was wheeled on and off swiftly, while Malvolio's 'dark house' became a large wooden chest, with a small hole through which his scrabbling fingers could be seen.

  12. But despite the simple staging, and despite one effective coup de théâtre (the shipwrecked Viola discovered beneath Orsino's table), the scene changes were remarkably sluggish. One reason was the use of a large, heavy table and chairs, which the stagehands were frequently required to haul on and off. The heavy furniture seemed alien to the Elizabethan spirit of minimalist stagecraft, and, in addition, the lengthy pauses while it was moved emphasised that the acting space was rather too large. The audience was placed on raked seating along the two long sides of the hall, and on the end that faced the screen. The effect was to create a long traverse stage, and there were many awkward hiatuses while actors strode the length of the stage to achieve the optimum position. Possibly the space was used differently in 1602: C. Walter Hodges' hypothetical reconstruction (Hodges, 142-3) imagines only half or two-thirds of the hall being used, so as to create a square acting space closer to the shape of the Globe stage. Certainly, the King's Men would have found such a space easier to adapt to (although, as the modern company no doubt calculated, it would have lessened their box-office returns).

  13. The acting was very disappointing. Orsino (Terence Maynard) was an inept verse speaker who seemed adrift in Shakespeare, and Peter Hamilton Dyer's Feste was achingly monotonous. Ian Talbot (Sir Toby) and Angus Wright (Andrew) plodded competently through their scenes without ever raising any belly laughs. I enjoyed Paul Chahidi's arch Maria, and Oliver Cotton gave Malvolio some touching pathos in the letter scene, but none of the actors was in the same league as Mark Rylance (Olivia), and the production was therefore divided awkwardly into Olivia's scenes, and the rest.

  14. Rylance is a superb technician, with immaculate comic timing. His Olivia began as a weary householder signing an endless pile of documents at her table, and rebuffing Feste's jokes with pitying solemnity. But when Cesario entered her life, the deadpan gravity evaporated. The transformation was marked by some inspired comic business in which Olivia ordered Malvolio to return the ring Cesario had thrown at her while frantically trying to remove the same ring from her finger. Rylance turned Olivia into a quirky, highly animated creature: she scuttled around the stage as if on roller skates; she did a silly dance when she thought she was alone; and, when she offered herself to Sebastian, she collapsed backwards in what can only be described as a deadpan swoon, her skirts billowing beneath her like a safety mattress. What was delightful about Rylance's performance was that he was unafraid to enjoy himself, and revel in the role's potential for comedy. Unlike the rest of the cast, he was inventive and original; rather than relying solely on the words and the costumes, he was always busy working in the knowledge that performing Shakespeare requires reinvention, not reiteration. Sadly, the muted, stilted acting of his colleagues made Rylance look as though he had swirled in from a different, far better production. If he had played Malvolio or Viola, his energy and inventiveness might have made the show tolerable; as Olivia, he wasn't on stage frequently enough to save it.

  15. A sense that Rylance was working independently of the rest of the show was evident in the fact that Olivia was a constant, swirling source of movement, while the other actors seemed restricted by Tim Carroll's lumpen direction: the play was stretched out to three and a half hours by interminably slow speech, and static blocking. The nadir was the 'Come Away Death' song, in which Orsino and Viola were required to sit expressionlessly on a bench while Feste stood stock still and droned out his song in a bone-numbing monotone, and in a setting that not only drew it out to an intolerable length, but also repeated every line twice. Theatre doesn't get much deadlier than this. The Globe urgently needs to invest in better actors and more imaginative directors. At the moment, they appear to be resting on their twin laurels of 'authentic locations' and Mark Rylance; both need to be supported by practitioners with more than workaday competence.

    Neutering the Boy Player

  16. The decision to cast a young, fresh-faced actor (Eddie Redmayne) in the principal female lead was an innovation for the Globe company: previously, they have cast a mature man as the female protagonist (Mark Rylance's Cleopatra), while young actors have been cast only in smaller female roles (such as Toby Cockerell's Katherine in Henry V). In addition, this was the Globe's first attempt at using cross-dressed actors in one of Shakespeare's cross-dressing comedies. The results were mixed. Redmayne's performance was interesting because it experimented with a different method of playing female roles than that of Rylance. But the production perpetuated a consistent problem with the Globe's use of cross-dressed actors: the denial of their sexuality.

  17. Redmayne had a very different approach to cross-dressed acting than that of Rylance. To my mind, Rylance's brilliant performance as Cleopatra was most memorable for its ironic humour: throughout much of the play, he invited laughter by never allowing the audience to forget that he was a man in a gorgeous frock. Rylance played Olivia in a similar manner: the fan-fluttering, pirouetting and swooning were exaggerated enough to invite parodic interpretations, and to suggest that Olivia's femininity was as artificial a construct as Viola's masculinity.

  18. Interesting and enjoyable though Rylance's approach is, it was good to see an alternative. While some modern scholars have described boy players as ironic figures who highlighted the artificiality of gender roles, it is possible that most early modern audience members saw cross-dressing as an easily ignored convention, and thought of the boys as women for the duration of the performance. Redmayne's performance erred more toward the latter interpretation: he seemed intent on creating a believable female impersonation by acting in a restrained, non-parodic style. His Viola was remarkably serious, contrasting strongly with the comic performances of Rylance and Chahidi. In scene 1.2, Redmayne's costume (an elegant gown with a high, beehive hairdo) gave him an aristocratic deportment which he emphasised with graceful movements and slow, sonorous speech. When Viola became Cesario, Redmayne always maintained a degree of grace and seriousness, even when the character fumbled with the unfamiliar conventions of masculinity.

  19. To an extent, Redmayne's performance demonstrated that boy actors in cross-dressing comedies may be convincing as women - although paradoxically, they are more convincingly 'female' when wearing male costume. When the actor performs the role of a woman, it may not be easy to forget that he is a man; but when the same actor performs a woman who is learning to replicate the codes of masculinity, the focus on the artificiality of those codes means that the actual gender of the actor becomes obscured, and indeed irrelevant.

  20. But despite this success in making the convention of the boy player acceptable to a modern audience, I felt that Redmayne's work had been made too easy, because his performance missed an element that the Globe's all-male productions have continuously excluded thus far: sex. The Globe company needs to experiment with casting actors who are androgynous enough to be sexually alluring to heterosexual men. After all, the central joke of Twelfth Night is that Viola thinks her disguise as a eunuch will negate her sexuality, whereas, in fact, she becomes attractive to both sexes: Olivia is attracted to her gallant persona, Orsino to her feminine beauty (Smith, 14-15). But although both Viola and Sebastian (Rhys Meredith) were played by good-looking, youthfully androgynous actors, the production design destroyed any possibility of audience identification with Olivia's and Orsino's attraction to them. With their strange haircuts (very short at the front, very long at the back), their faces caked in make-up, and their skinny legs sticking from voluminous trunks, the siblings looked like bizarre life-forms from an alien zoo rather than attractive, androgynous young humans. While it was easy to share Orsino and Olivia's confusion as to their gender, it was impossible to share their erotic attraction. This is of course another complication to the notion of recreating authentically an Elizabethan performance. No doubt Viola and Sebastian's costumes were scrupulously researched, and if they dressed this way in the original 1602 production, many in the audience might have found them attractive. But ideas about what is sexually alluring have changed, and making boy players attractive to modern men and women would no doubt require a less studiously authentic costuming style, such as that used in Cheek by Jowl's 1992 As You Like It.

  21. The absence of sexuality in the costume design was echoed by the actors. The Olivia-Cesario relationship was, thanks to Rylance's approach, too comic to be erotic; the relationship between Cesario and Orsino was chastely humourless. And Patrick Brennan's innocent, earnest Antonio had a purely Platonic love for Sebastian (when, at the end, the departing Olivia and Sebastian saw him standing alone and invited him to join them, it looked like sympathy for a lost puppy, and certainly not an invitation to a ménage à trois).

  22. I do not mean to claim that boy players were certainly intended to be attractive to both sexes in Shakespeare's time, but I think this is an important possibility of cross-dressed theatre that the Globe has not yet explored. The company's avoidance of it may be deliberate: they may wish to avoid offending the sensibilities of a modern mainstream audience. But I think it is an experiment that needs to be attempted, both because the plays often require it, and because it challenges the audience to accommodate an Elizabethan staging technique that is less 'safe' than the neutered transvestitism it has offered thus far.

    But That's All One

  23. Kennedy asserts that the Globe company must force its audiences to confront Shakespeare's difference from us; Rylance, in contrast, sees value in the audience's identification with what had previously appeared foreign. The Globe, rightly, tries to walk a tightrope between the alienation of historicism, and the accessibility of modernization (and certainly a number of their productions have deliberately rejected historicism by adopting obviously modern staging practices on the Globe stage). But if they are supplied with the right tools, audiences can be enabled to understand historical differences without effacing them; and there are ways in which those differences can be emphasised in order to challenge more powerfully the audience's assumptions. Hopefully, the Globe's future forays into recreating the Elizabethan Shakespeare will prove less reliant on the belief that costume, stage-construction, and snack recipes are all that is meant by 'historical context.'


I am grateful to Karen Kettnich for recollections and suggestions that aided the writing of this review.

Works Cited

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.

© 2002-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).