There are not many Shakespearian characters that cause as much pleasurable anticipation as Malvolio. And casting Stephen Fry in the role — who on television was P G Wodehouse’s talented butler, Jeeves, and so has form when it comes to playing an aristocrat’s loyal steward — makes good sense.
Yet, legion though Fry’s talents undoubtedly are, on this evidence it appears that Shakespearean comedy acting is not one of them.
Not that there is much to complain about. His aloof, watchful Malvolio is perfectly respectable. And he handles with aplomb the garden scene in which Malvolio is fooled into thinking his mistress Olivia is in love with him.
But neither is there much to rave about.
And sharing the stage as he does with such terrific talents as Mark Rylance, who in Tim Carroll’s all-male Globe production plays Olivia, and Roger Lloyd Pack, who is delightfully deadpan as the posing fop, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, having nothing much to rave about with a character as pivotal as Malvolio sticks out like a sore thumb.
In every other respect, Carroll’s production is superbly judged. Designer Jenny Tiramani retains the spirit of this show’s original Shakespeare’s Globe setting by seating some of the audience on stage. And Colin Hurley’s sozzled Sir Toby Belch takes full advantage by snaffling bottles of booze secreted among the punters.
In the duel scene, Lloyd Pack’s cowardly Aguecheek and Johnny Flynn’s touchingly sensitive Viola practically climb into the audience’s laps to escape the fight.
Meanwhile, Mark Rylance delivers the most striking Olivia I have seen. With his face plastered as white as Queen Elizabeth’s would have been, a fairy-tale crown perched on a head of short black hair, he is not the most feminine of dames. But, underneath that black crinoline dress, and behind the demure gestures, this is clearly a woman in mourning who has a lustful need to rejoin life and live it to the full.
Yet the evening plateaus when Fry takes centre-stage. Malvolio needs to be mean enough for us to enjoy the indignities that are inflicted upon him, and vulnerable enough for us to feel the injustice of his humiliation.
An underpowered Fry evokes only a little of either (www.apollotheatrelondon.co.uk).