by: JK Clarke
It’s difficult to review The Globe Theatre’s production of Twelfe Night or What You Will (now on Broadway at the Belasco) without gushing, but to tone it down would be dishonest.
In this year of seemingly dozens of Shakespeare productions, many of which attempt to draw in new, younger audiences with hip, contemporary settings or marquee-worthy celebrities, this one reverts dramatically to the traditional, setting the play in Elizabethan England. It is an atmosphere that, by all historical indications, mimics a production which Shakespeare’s troupe, The Lord Chamberlain’s men, might have produced. The details are exacting. Elaborate costumes that could and would have been worn during the period; nothing is anachronistic, even the buttons on the garments. And, as was the practice at the time (by convention, not law) this play features an all-male cast, even in women’s roles. The latter touch would seem, at first, like overkill; there are not enough roles for women as it is. But, quite unexpectedly, the male-only troupe makes a significant impact. It is not a juvenile or bigoted mockery of cross-dressing. Rather, it is merely men playing women’s roles in a play that already deals with gender and identity confusion: recent shipwreck survivor, Viola (a charming and convincing Samuel Barnett) enters the court of Duke Orsino (courtly Liam Brennan) dressed as a servant boy in order to help the Duke woo the mourning Countess Olivia. That a man is playing a woman who then pretends to be a young man adds an unexpected dimension of complexity as well as provides additional, layered meanings to dialog that was already nuanced and clever.
But what really makes this Twelfth Night stand out as one of the great productions of all time is the performers’ pure excellence. There’s not a weak link in the cast: all are immersed in their roles and are having the time of their lives pulling off this charming farce. Every actor delivers his lines as if they were his very own — not dialog written by some other, but words delivered from the spleen; all living in the emotion of the moment. Stephen Fry’s Malvolio, often played as absurdly stern, rigid and Puritanical, here, is a serious manager who dislikes tomfoolery and wants to keep his mistress’ house in order. He sees Olivia’s uncle, Sir Toby Belch (hilarious Colin Hurley), and his drunken idiot friends, as an impediment to his rule and order. But by chastising them, he invites their playful, but ultimately damaging, humiliations. This is a Malvolio whose final wrath we understand, a sympathetic and ambitious person who believes in himself, thus making him more relatable and complex than usual. Sir Toby’s motley crew is a perfect counterweight: Sir Andrew Auguecheek (Angus Wright) is a well-meaning moron, goaded by Sir Toby and Maria (the sublime Paul Chahidi, who adds a charming and likeable wickedness to the housemaid); clowns Feste (Peter Hamilton Dyer) and Fabian (Jethro Skinner) deliver their witty commentary with liquid precision.
The play’s real standout comes in the form of Mark Rylance’s Countess Olivia. Normally an important straight character who’s a foil for all the surrounding shenanigans and foolishness, Rylance’s Olivia becomes the centerpiece. She is convincingly the stern head of her household at the outset and her unexpected undoing by her lust for this boy, Cesario, precipitates her comic unravelling. Elements of Rylance’s performance are a subtle, yet incredibly impactful, physical comedy. She glides across the floor under a floor length gown that makes her appear to be on wheels. And when she begins to lust for Viola/Cesario, we see her fierce struggle, both physical and emotional, with self-restraint. Rylance is having the time of his life in the role, and both he and his character delight in the abject humor of the situation. He is not striving for laughs, but by inhabiting his character to the fullest, they come automatically. Both his mesmerizing laugh and his all-consuming passion are infectious. Every moment he’s on stage is absolutely riveting.
Other elements of the production powerfully round out the perfection and authenticity. Designer Jenny Tiramani’s remarkable, period-perfect, class-appropriate costuming, which the actors don in the half-hour prior to curtain, as the audience wanders in and watches. It’s a sort of “breaking of the ice,” allowing us to already be familiar with the mood and setting when the story begins. The stage “screen” and standings set (small jury-box like galleys on stage where some audience members sit) match the 16th century Wadham College hall in Oxford, where Shakespeare’s players actually once performed making this as close as one gets to time travel. It is a production with an eye toward exacting detail in every imaginable facet. One would be hard pressed to detect a flaw.
What is remarkable about Shakespeare is the innumerable approaches to both interpretation and presentation. There is arguably no “wrong” way to do Shakespeare: the themes are largely timeless and universal. But what’s so wonderful about the Globe’s production (among so many other aspects) is that the company, and Director Tim Carroll, give us a realistic glance into the past at what one of the Bard’s own productions might have felt and looked like. What’s more, they ably demonstrate that modernization and sleight of hand are not necessary for providing an utterly delightful evening of entertainment via Shakespeare. The passion for the material is surely what drove the players in the Bard’s day, and it is what still works now. Feste, in one his prescient songs, captures the play’s overarching sentiment, and one that guides this production best:
What is love? ‘tis not hereafter;
Present mirth hath present laughter . . .
Twelfe Night or What You Will. Through February 2, 2014 at the Belasco Theatre (111 West 44th Street, between 6th and 7th Avenues).www.shakespearebroadway.com