Stephen Fry Triumphs in ‘Twelfth Night’ Stage Comeback

Stephen Fry
Stephen Fry as Malvolio in Shakespeare's Globe production of "Twelfth Night." The production transfers to the West End in November 2012. Photographer: Simon Annand/Globe Theatre London via Bloomberg

Strutting around in yellow stockings as Malvolio, Stephen Fry has conquered the dejection and doubts that wrecked his last appearance on the London stage.

He’s starring, with Mark Rylance as Olivia, in “Twelfth Night” at Shakespeare’s Globe -- a six-week run that instantly sold out. It’s been trumpeted as London’s theatrical event of the year.

Normally, you can get to stand in the replica half-timbered theater for five pounds ($8). In this case, expect to pay 50 pounds or more on EBay for the privilege.

Fry’s previous appearance on the boards in 1995 was a stage-fright disaster. He pulled out of Simon Gray’s “Cell Mates” after a few days, scuppering the play. Since then he’s stuck to writing, radio, film, television and accumulating more than 4.8 million followers on Twitter.

Critics aren’t invited to the Globe. We’re supposed to wait patiently until the production transfers to the West End in November -- but I’d bought a ticket as a backup.

Though we’re only a couple of shows into the run, Fry’s already come into his own. He delivers a likeable portrayal of the bookish steward driven slightly crazy by ambition and love.

Soon Malvolio is prancing around self-confidently. Fry has good comic timing, talking about how, in boredom, he used to “wind up my watch, or play with my --" (suitably long pause for laughter) “some rich jewel.”

All-Male Cast

Director Tim Carroll’s revival has a Shakespearean all-male cast, which makes the plot even more absurd. Johnny Flynn plays a woman (Viola) pretending to be a man (Cesario).

As Fabian remarks, “If this were played upon a stage now, I could condemn it as an improbable fiction.”

Rylance is suitably frosty reprising his part as a white-faced Olivia. His achievement is impressive because he is playing it back-to-back with Richard III, also in an all-male Carroll-directed version at the Globe before a move to the Apollo Theatre in November. His memory is prodigious: The roles have as much dialogue as his very different leading characters in “Jerusalem” and “La Bete.”

There’s also authentic music, dancing and a closing song by Feste the fool, “for the rain it raineth every day.” That’s always apt for outdoor theater in drizzly England, currently suffering floods.

So far the weather hasn’t damped Fry’s show, and the forecast is improving.

Rating: ****.

What the Stars Mean:
*****      Exceptional
****       Excellent
***        Good
**         Average
*          Mediocre
(No stars) Poor

“Twelfth Night” is at Shakespeare’s Globe, 21 New Globe Walk, Bankside, SE1 9DT. Performances are supported by UBS Wealth. Information:, +44-20-7902-1400.

(Mark Beech writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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