Twelfth Night and Richard III. Belasco Theatre (see Broadway). By William Shakespeare. Directed by Tim Carroll. With Mark Rylance, Stephen Fry, Samuel Barnett, Paul Chahidi. Running time (each production): 2hrs 50mins. One intermission.
Twelfth Night and Richard III: In brief
The phenomenal Mark Rylance (Jerusalem) plays Olivia in an all-male rendition of Shakespeare's frothy comedy, in which all sorts of people are tripped up by inappropriate clothing. Stephen Fry costars as the starchy valet, Malvolio. This transfer from London's Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre and the West End plays in repertory with another all-boys take on the Bard: the tragic history play Richard III. Rylance takes on the titular crookbacked villain.
Twelfth Night and Richard III: Theater review by David Cote
To keep with the antiquarian spirit of Shakespeare’s Globe on Broadway, I would fain be liberall in my orthographie and strew capitals atop divers Wordes, that thou mayst see a poore scrivener’s wytte inspirèd. Such gimmickry would probably confuse more than amuse—the opposite effect of the Globe’s utterly enchanting repertory engagement, which renders the text lucid and the action transparent. In their staging and treatment of the verse, the actors and crew behind Twelfth Night and Richard III aim for an Elizabethan aesthetic—from the initial ceremonial lighting of candles to the final full-cast jig. They achieve a spectacle of surpassing elegance and buoyancy: We see a classic comedy and a bloody tragedy in their pure Shakespearean glory.
RECOMMENDED: Q&A with Mark Rylance
Pure is an unstable term, of course. The 16th-century frame—a bare wooden set and period costumes designed by Jenny Tiramani, musicians tootling Claire van Kampen’s tunes on recorders and sackbuts—is just another filter. It’s a re-creation (with modern accents, not original pronunciation, thank goodness), no more authentic than King Lear in outer space. Done sloppily, the tactic could come off as classed-up Renaissance fair. But strict research and theatrical savvy have gone into these beautiful productions, which debuted in London last year.
What’s gained and what’s lost by thus historicizing the scene? To my mind, a great deal of clarity and textual innocence is gained, while the only thing lost is four centuries of directorial and academic humbug. We look at the female characters of Viola, Maria and Olivia—played by men—as stage creatures, not representatives of the Elizabethan feminine subject or camp objects of derision. In terms of scenery, we don’t need backdrops or elaborate props to follow the action. The Elizabethan theater, as some commentators have argued, was antimimetic and antinaturalistic (admittedly, long before the term naturalism was even coined). Its resurrection encourages us to spectate with “double vision”—fully aware that men are playing women, but also succumbing to the illusion, knowingly. The actors’ vocal approach acknowledges the poetic nature of the language: There’s an increased formality and a concomitant decrease of psychological innuendo. We are reminded that these plays are very old, as are their social codes, gender roles and narrative devices.
And anyway, it’s just an experiment. We will see Hamlet in the antebellum South, Rosalind in Yellowstone National Park, and Pericles on a Somali pirate boat. But I can’t remember a performance of Shakespeare that so beguiled me with its simplicity and lyric vibrancy. Wait: Maybe I can. This is the Shakespeare of my youth, which I discovered on onion-thin pages dotted with fanciful, 19th-century woodcuts. Some of the lines were hard to parse, hard to wrap your head around. But when the language clicked open, meaning and music flooded out. Everything was strange but so inevitable. This is Shakespeare through a wise child’s eyes.
Director Tim Carroll, working with a frisky and versatile all-male cast headed by Mark Rylance, coaxes forth a fresh, limber reading of Twelfth Night, the wistful gambol about a cross-dressed twin, mismatched lovers and a severely gulled butler in yellow stockings. Stephen Fry takes on the latter role of Malvolio, gracing the puritanical sourpuss with his inherent sweetness, but still bringing plenty of pomposity. Samuel Barnett makes a pert and droll Viola, who disguises herself as a man to serve Count Orsino (Liam Brennan), whom she secretly adores. Orsino, meanwhile, pines after noble, uninterested Olivia (Rylance).
The performances are all pitched perfectly between light comedy and pensive melancholy, which is precisely where Twelfth Night lives. Rylance tempers his typical eccentricities for Olivia, who is vain and impetuous, but adorable and demure. Paul Chahidi’s scheming servant, Maria, maintains a kind of quiet dignity, gliding along the stage as if on a skateboard. And there’s something touchingly plaintive in Peter Hamilton Dyer’s deadpan clown, Feste, who speaks truth to power, but seems just as bemused by more common foibles and frailties of those around him. This fool knows he’s one wrong joke away from prison. All in all, it’s a marvelous cast, and no one tries to “act” Elizabethan; they just serve the words and the words serve them.
There are many insults hurled at the hunched back of Richard of Gloucester (later to game his way to the throne as Richard III): Most of the taunts are animal-based (toad, boar, dog). No one, however, calls him a dummy. In Mark Rylance’s innovative, sickly comic turn, Richard simpers like a royal family’s idiot son. Dull-eyed and slack-jawed, the wretch’s withered left arm is pinned to his side, the paralyzed hand the size of a toddler’s (the actor wears a repulsive prosthetic). Of course, the I, Claudius act is just a front for bloody ambition. Richard is always good for a few nasty chuckles, but Rylance clowns it up shamelessly. His apish glee upon seducing the mourning Lady Anne (Joseph Timms) is almost infectious. And his shrimpy skittering is contrasted nicely by Angus Wright’s strapping, manly Buckingham, the lord who helps Richard murder and slander his way to the crown.
As with Twelfth Night, director Tim Carroll and a sterling ensemble do wonders with the Elizabethan staging, giving the verse its weight but keeping the action fresh. Mind you, this is not a totally faithful production of Richard III; the character of mad, wronged Queen Margaret has been excised, a choice that may disappoint some, but which I didn’t miss. Liam Brennan gives a lovely, unfussy account of Clarence’s nightmare of drowning. And Rylance delivers the most unexpectedly poignant postnightmare soliloquy (Act V) I’ve ever seen. The sequence, in which the psychopathic villain is assailed by nihilistic self-pity, usually falls flat. Rylance’s reading is so unfeigned, so childlike in its simplicity, we almost feel sympathy for the devil.
Here I am, giving away too much plot. But then, we all know these plays, right? They’re constantly being done on Broadway, Off Broadway, free in Central Park, everywhere. We’ve been reading them since high school; they’re the oxygen we breathe, their phrases woven into daily speech. Unless… If you’ve never seen Twelfth Night or Richard III—o, lucky fools!—let these “original practices” versions be your blissful virgin voyage.—Theater review by David Cote
THE BOTTOM LINE: Zounds! Methinks these period renditions maketh a jolly time.
Read our in-depth Q&A with Mark Rylance about these productions.
Follow David Cote on Twitter: @davidcote
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