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More than any other playwright in history, including the Ancient Greeks, William Shakespeare has been reinterpreted in countless styles and settings. His work has been twisted into allegories for the political and social scenarios of every era imaginable, its dense thicket of Elizabethan language often pruned to make it more accessible to contemporary ears. The revelation – and there are many – of watching Twelfth Night and Richard III, the extraordinary repertory double-bill that comes to Broadway from Shakespeare’s Globe in London, is not the historical authenticity of their presentation. It’s that, rather than being reverential or scholarly, the plays are rip-roaring, user-friendly entertainment for the people.
Already shaping up in previews to be one of the major New York cultural events of the season, the ambitious venture might seem a commercially risky one for mainstream Broadway. But it’s hard to imagine six more exciting hours of vital, emotionally and intellectually engaging theater, even for those of us who have at times felt bom-Barded by Shakespeare overload.
The chief draw for stage enthusiasts is Mark Rylance, the crazed genius whose Broadway appearances over the past five years in Boeing-Boeing, La Bete and Jerusalem have earned him two Tony Awards and fans who would pay to watch him read his utilities bills. A former artistic director of the Globe for nine years, Rylance clearly has a deep affinity for these texts and for the spirit behind this staging of them, performed, according to tradition, by all-male ensembles.
As the lovestruck noblewoman Olivia in Twelfth Night and the titular monster of ambition in Richard III, Rylance is simply astonishing. But what’s more surprising is that every single member of this magnificent company more than holds his own, showing comparable versatility in contrasting roles. What could happily have been The Mark Rylance Show turns out to be so much more.
Director Tim Carroll grasps the often overlooked factor that Shakespeare’s plays were conceived to appeal to the widest possible cross-section, from high-born nobility to lowly commoners in the cheap seats. That means these productions move fluidly as required from broad comedy to cerebral wit, from melodrama to pantomime, from romance to horror, without the dumbing-down that often accompanies strained modern attempts to deliver Shakespeare to the masses.
The defining characteristic is that every actor – from the invaluable Stephen Fry as Olivia’s pompous steward Malvolio down to young Matthew Schechter and Hayden Signoretti as the doomed cherubic princes in Richard III – brings such precise understanding of his words and actions that these might be the most lucid and engrossing Shakespeare productions you will ever see.
The detailed design and presentation of the communal experience are as fascinating as the plays themselves. Both begin with the actors onstage pre-performance, being made-up and costumed, some doing warm-up exercises while others exchange a word or two with audience members seated in the wooden stands that flank the playing space. Designer Jenny Tiramani has sourced materials for her exquisite costumes and unadorned set that are as close as possible to those used in Shakespeare’s day, while Claire van Kampen’s spirited accompaniment is performed live by musicians on Renaissance instruments. Stan Pressner subtly enhances the predominant candlelight with artificial illumination, but the actors all perform without amplification, now a rarity on Broadway.
The popular hit of the two will no doubt be Twelfth Night, which has double the number of performances of Richard III through the New York run. The comedy of mistaken identities and misconstrued affections in my experience has never been funnier or more enchanting.
Even solely on a physical level Rylance is hilarious, gliding around with the daintiest accelerated steps under his voluminous Elizabethan mourning gown, making a ceremonious fuss out of merely crossing a room to take a seat. He abandons some of that poise as Olivia sheds her composure and hurls her heart at Cesario (Samuel Barnett), the envoy sent by Duke Orsino (Liam Brennan) to plead his case for marriage. The fact that Rylance’s Olivia is no beauty makes the ardor with which Orsino pursues her more amusing, just as her grave earnestness makes an even bigger joke of her obliviousness to Cesario’s true identity as the nubile Viola.
This is comic acting of the highest order. It’s a particular delight to watch Fry deploy his erudition alongside a willingness to play the dupe; he makes Malvolio’s humiliation quite touching. Paul Chahidi is another standout as Olivia’s stout lady-in-waiting Maria, sweeping around the stage at a speed that makes her look motorized, and milking huge laughs with her coy gestures and susceptibility to flattery. The antics of the drink-sodden pranksters Toby Belch and Andrew Aguecheek can grow tiresome in lesser productions, but Colin Hurley and Angus Wright wring riotous humor from the roles, blending goofy slapstick with winking subversiveness. Wright’s braying guffaw is a classic.
As Viola/Cesario, Barnett (last on Broadway in The History Boys) is the sublime essence of sweetness and grace. Kudos also to the makeup and costume department for making Barnett the spitting image of Joseph Timms as Viola’s twin brother Sebastian, long-believed to have died at sea. Given the dizzying heights of the comedy, the moments of poignancy are unexpectedly lovely. Just watch the romantic body language of Cesario and the confused Orsino as they inch closer together on a bench, their mutual attraction underscored by the soulful song of Peter Hamilton Dyer’s shrewd court clown, Feste.
Conventional wisdom might dictate that Richard III, with its nonstop chicanery and carnage, would be a brooding affair after Twelfth Night. But Rylance and company gouge black comedy out of the history play without betraying its inherent nastiness.
Limping around with his hump hidden under a cloak and a gammy, shriveled hand pinned uselessly across his chest, Rylance’s Richard deliberately flirts with caricature. He approaches the ruthless climber as an unlovable runt, crippled as much by bitterness as by his deformities. Playing shamelessly to the crowd with his halting speech and false air of self-pity, he makes the audience complicit in every vile deed that Richard executes or orchestrates. Only deep into the action after he has seized the crown does the pathos of his victims alert us to the blood on our hands.
When he finally meets his match in the iron-willed Queen Elizabeth (another superb turn by Barnett), who refuses to be tricked by Richard’s cunning, Rylance shoots a look of panicked contempt out into the house. Both the actor and his character seem to be conceding that they have lost their advantage. It’s a brilliant moment and one that signals the gradual darkening of the drama through its ghostly visitations and visceral climactic battle.
What makes Rylance such a dynamic performer to watch is that no matter how eccentric his choices – and many of them are way out there – they are never made selfishly or without logic. He is in full command of his character at all times, but what’s equally important is that he never performs in a star vacuum. His connection to the entire ensemble is unquestionable. Many confrontations here bristle with riveting new life, notably Richard’s seduction of the freshly widowed Lady Anne and his face-off with Elizabeth.
The range shown by the actors over both plays is remarkable. Wright does a complete about-face from Andrew Aguecheek as the treacherous Duke of Buckingham, whose loyalty to Richard proves misguided. Chahidi shrugs off Maria to play oily Hastings, smug in his deluded sense of invulnerability, as well as the snaky opportunist Tyrell. Timms is heartbreaking as the sadistically manipulated Anne, numb with revulsion during her brief time as Richard’s Queen. Brennan cuts deep as Richard’s too-trusting brother Clarence, as does Hurley as the infirm King Edward IV, a broken figure who couldn’t be less like the actor’s hedonistic Toby Belch.
Also impressive is Kurt Egyiawan. He has little to do in Twelfth Night, but compensates in Richard III with double-duty as Richmond, the honorable Earl who brings down the tyrant; and Richard’s mother, the Duchess of York. Her prophetic curses resound with a poisonous rage that fills the gap left by the production’s excision of Queen Margaret.
As unconventional as it seems for Richard III to include so much crowd-baiting humor, the almost imperceptible shift to chilling gravity is masterfully handled. It makes for an ideal companion piece to the mirth of Twelfth Night. See one, see both, just don’t miss this rare chance to experience original-practices Shakespeare done so right.
Venue: Belasco Theatre, New York (runs through Feb. 16)
Cast: Mark Rylance, Stephen Fry, Samuel Barnett, Liam Brennan, Paul Chahidi, John Paul Connolly, Peter Hamilton Dyer, Kurt Egyiawan, Matt Harrington, Colin Hurley, Terry McGinity, Jethro Skinner, Joseph Timms, Angus Wright, Matthew Schechter, Hayden Signoretti
Director: Tim Carroll
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Set & costume designer: Jenny Tiramani
Lighting designer: Stan Pressner
Music: Claire van Kampen
Presented by Sonia Friedman Productions, Scott Landis, Roger Berlind, Glass Half Full Productions/Just For Laughs Theatricals, 1001 Nights Productions, Tulchin Bartner Productions, Jane Bergere, Paula Marie Black, Rupert Gavin, Stephanie P. McClelland, Shakespeare’s Globe Centre U.S.A., Max Cooper, Tanya Link Productions, Shakespeare Road
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