Stephen Fry may steal the headlines, but Mark Rylance steals the show. This all-male production of Twelfth Night premiered at Shakespeare's Globe this summer but has now transferred to the warmth of the Apollo Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue, where it is playing in repertory with Richard III. It feels like a production transplanted rather than adapted, and no doubt worked better in the period venue for which it was conceived, but the bravura acting still makes for a hugely enjoyable evening.
Rylance plays Olivia, a beautiful young lady who spurns Count Orsino's court only to fall in love with Viola, a ship-wrecked maiden disguised as a boy. His performance requires a double suspension of disbelief – not only is he a man, but he is also middle-aged. Yet this only adds to the comedy. His ageing Olivia delivers her first lines with such frigid stateliness, in full mourning dress, that it is all the funnier when she throws herself headlong at the startled Viola. Sure, it's hard to imagine why Orsino would be in love with this Olivia, but in the emotionally mercurial world of Twelfth Night that hardly matters. Instead we get a performance exquisitely calculated for laughs – and who'd say no to that?
The other two men playing women also put in remarkable performances. Johnny Flynn's Viola – a man playing a woman playing a man – was, ironically, the most feminine. His distracted looks towards Liam Brennan's Orsino were meltingly believable, and the erotically charged scene in which they both listen to the fool singing Come Away Death was a priceless exercise in how to conjure theatre out of thin air. Paul Chahidi played Olivia's housekeeper Maria very effectively as a pantomime dame – a welcome addition to the more slapstick scenes, which can otherwise seem dated.
The men playing men couldn't quite compete with this impressively varied display of gender-bending. That includes Stephen Fry, whose Malvolio was a little flat. There's a touching moment at the end of Twelfth Night when we suddenly feel sorry for Olivia's self-important steward, when we realise the practical joke played on him has turned to needless cruelty and we feel guilty for laughing. It is one of the abrupt emotional shifts for which Shakespeare's comedies are famous. But it doesn't really come across here. Fry can act superior, but he cannot manipulate emotions with the facility of a Rylance or Flynn.
Still, this is a minor niggle when the overall standard of acting is so high. And good acting is what makes all that poetry we read at school leap out of the book and sound spontaneous and funny. Period performance has rarely felt so up-to-date – and not just because of all the men kissing. A treat.
Twelfth Night is playing at the Apollo Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, until 10 February. Tickets £25-55, with some day tickets at £10. For more information see the Shakespeare's Globe website. We saw this production on a press ticket.