After a Romeo on a motorcycle, Macbeth in an insane asylum, and Julius Caesar in a women’s prison, Mark Rylance decided to bring his own high concept to Shakespeare’s plays – presenting “Twelfth Night” and “Richard III” the way the Bard intended.
The Shakespeare’s Globe productions that opened tonight are best-known for having a cast entirely comprised of men. But that is far from the only aspect of the two plays in repertory at the Belasco Theater that re-create the experience of Elizabethan audiences — and that make for electrifying theater. Or at least half the time it does.
The costumes are painstakingly put together to the specifications of the period, made only of material available in Elizabethan England. We know these costumes more intimately than we might otherwise because, for about half an hour before the plays begin, the actors are on stage getting dressed in them. When they are finished, they lower the chandeliers, and light each individual candle on them. The set replicates one of the great halls where Shakespeare and the rest of the company performed, and includes seating right on the stage for some members of the audience.
Then there are the musical instruments – all specific to the period, and each with a name as lovely and unfamiliar as its sound: rauschpfeifes, sackbuts, shawms, cittern, theorbo, as well as recorders, lute and field drums. The dancing to the music at the curtain calls is a lovely touch that sends us off as ecstatic Elizabethans into the Times Square air.
As exciting as it is, all of this authenticity might mean less if the audiences couldn’t relate to the performances. Here is where the plays differ significantly enough that they should be considered separately. They do, after all, have separate admissions (as little as $25 apiece!)
The Shakespeare Globe’s “Twelfth Night” turns out to be the ideal production – or at least certainly the best in memory — of this comically convoluted tale of mistaken identity, misunderstanding and addled affection, which begins when Viola, surviving a shipwreck, alights on the land of Illyria. She disguises herself as a man named Cesario, and becomes the man-servant of the Duke of Illyria.
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One might think it confusing enough that the Duke, loving the Countess Olivia, sends his new servant Cesario (Viola in disguise) to help woo Olivia – and that Olivia falls in love with this woman disguised as a man. How much more confusing would it be, then, when the actors portraying the two women characters Olivia and Viola are both men. Samuel Barnett as Viola/Cesario is a man playing a woman playing a man. But as it turns out, this Twelfth Night is actually less confusing than past productions, requiring less suspension of belief during the bulk of the play when Viola is disguised as a man. No actress I have ever seen portraying Viola has been very convincing as a man. Samuel Barnett is – which also makes the constant mistaking of Viola/Cesario for his identical twin-brother Sebastian (Joseph Timms) far more plausible now that the two actually do look identical. If, in his period-white makeup and falsetto, Barnett is less convincing as a woman, that matters less, since he is only portraying Viola as a woman for the briefest of times during the beginning and the ending of the play.
But what of the male actors who are playing women characters who don’t dress up as men? There are two such characters. Paul Chahidi is fine as Maria, one of the central characters in the subplot involving a mean practical joke played on Olivia’s tyrannical steward Malvolio. The real stand-out here is Mark Rylance as Olivia, who glides as if a cartoon character with wheels for feet beneath her bulbous black dress, and does pratfalls like Lucille Ball and double-takes that rival Jackie Gleason’s, but who somehow nevertheless is never less than persuasive as a countess.
Another stand-out is Stephen Fry as Malvolio, who is told (falsely) that Olivia is secretly in love with him, and that he should reciprocate her love by wearing yellow garters (Olivia hates the color yellow), and by smiling at all times. “I will smile,” Fry says with a snarl that alone is worth the price of admission.
Though it has a large cast of characters — played in this production by 16 performers, some doubling up, most also with roles in “Twelfth Night” — Shakespeare’s history play hinges on the performance of the title character. Mark Rylance plays Richard in startling contrast to the way he is usually portrayed. Actor Stacy Keach in his new memoir notes Richard’s “snake-like charm that enables him to slither his way onto the throne.” Kevin Spacey’s recent performance at BAM showed Richard as a two-faced schemer, the embodiment of ambition, the epitome of evil. But Rylance’s Richard is instead an unpleasant buffoon – he actually gets the audience to laugh several times just in the opening monologue. His Richard III is awkward and even diffident, though with a terrible temper — his shouting comes a tad too close to Fry’s Malvolio. He seems the least self-aware villain I’ve ever seen, if not outright dumb. He comes off as so much an inconsequential oddball it is hard to understand why he inspires so much fear and loathing in the other characters.
Why do writers make so many villains evil geniuses? Maybe the answer is because otherwise they’d just be boring, no more compelling than your nasty neighbor or dim-witted boss. Having watched several of his glorious performances with open-mouthed amazement – the heroic boozer of ‘Jerusalem” standing on his head; the obnoxious, gross-out boob of “La Bete” mesmerizing the audience in a monologue lasting a full half hour — I have no doubt that Mark Rylance knows what he’s doing. But I couldn’t figure out what he was doing in “Richard III.” Only in the last half hour does Rylance’s Richard take on the intensity that the drama demands.
There are also more female characters in Shakespeare’s history play than in the comedy, and their portrayals by the actors in white face, while respectable, are more distracting. This may be largely because they no longer fit so snugly into the theme of cross-dressing mistaken identity.
“Richard III” still has wondrous design, a feel of authenticity and worthy supporting players, but the production seems something “worth seeing” (i.e. a slog) compared to the full-throttle entertainment of “Twelfth Night.”
Twelfth Night and Richard III
At the Belasco Theater
By William Shakespeare; directed by Tim Carroll; designed by Jenny Tiramani; music by Claire van Kampen; lighting by Stan Pressner. Through Feb. 1.
Running time for Twelfth Night: 2 hours 50 minutes including an intermission.
Running time for Richard III: 2 hours 45 minutes including an intermission.
“Twelfth Night” cast: Liam Brennan (Orsino), Matt Harrington (Curio/Officer/Olivia’s Servant), Kurt Egyiawan (Valentine/Officer), Samuel Barnett (Viola), Terry McGinity (Sea Captain/Priest), Colin Hurley (Sir Toby Belch), Paul Chahidi (Maria), Angus Wright (Sir Andrew Aguecheek), Peter Hamilton Dyer (Feste), Mark Rylance (Olivia), Stephen Fry (Malvolio), John Paul Connolly (Antonio), Joseph Timms (Sebastian), Jethro Skinner (Fabian) and Bryan Paterson (Servant/Officer).
“Richard III” cast: Mark Rylance (Richard), Liam Brennan (Clarence/Lord Mayor), Peter Hamilton Dyer (Brakenbury/Catesby), Paul Chahidi (Hastings/Tyrrell), Joseph Timms (Lady Anne/Grey), Terry McGinity (Rivers/Scrivener/Blunt), Samuel Barnett (Queen Elizabeth), Matt Harrington (Dorset/Bishop of Ely/Guard), Angus Wright (Duke of Buckingham), John Paul Connolly (1st Murderer/Cardinal/Ratcliff/Halberdier), Jethro Skinner (2nd Murderer/Messenger/Halberdier/Guard), Colin Hurley (King Edward IV/Stanley), Kurt Egyiawan (Duchess of York/Richmond), Matthew Schechter (Prince Edward), Hayden Signoretti (Duke of York) and Bryan Paterson (Servant/Officer).
Twelfth Night and Richard III are scheduled to run in repertory through February 1.
Update Dec 4: Both plays have been extended to February 16, 2014