In the last few months, New York has seen bong-wielding noblemen in Love’s Labour’s Lost, an all-female Julius Caesar, and two separate productions featuring hoodie-wearing Romeos. But those craving Shakespeare with more than a mere hint of authenticity are in luck. The great British actor Mark Rylance, who led Shakespeare’s Globe in London for a decade, heads up fascinating, unforgettable revivals of Twelfth Night and Richard III (in repertory at Broadway’s Belasco Theatre) that are as close to Elizabethan-era performances as one can hope to find in the 21st century. Could this be the winter of our contentment?
The first-rate cast of both shows is all male, with guys made up in white-face to play the female roles. There are no visible microphones on the stage, which features a long wooden wall with two sets of doors for entrances and two-storey stalls on either side for a few dozen audience members — who sometimes get drawn into the action (to hold a flask for the tipsy Sir Toby Belch in Twelfth Night, for instance). The lighting remains constant, with electric lights supplemented by a large upstage candelabra and six candle-laden chandeliers hanging overhead (lit by attendants just before the play begins). And the costumes, designed by Jenny Tiramani, are wonders — made entirely of materials (linens, silks, wools, leathers) available in 1600. No Velcro, no zippers. Those who arrive early are treated to a kind of Elizabethan pre-show, with actors being made up and dressed on stage.
All of this may sound a little precious, like stuffy museum pieces preserved in amber. But director Tim Carroll bends over backwards to make these Shakespearean classics broadly accessible. The period music helps, as does the jig-like dance that ends both shows. (And the 250 seats sold at each performance for a bargain $25.) But the cast isn’t shy about adopting a somewhat less restrained performance style than we’re accustomed to seeing — complete with fart jokes, oinking noises, and various jabs at the fourth wall. At times, Rylance can seem like a Borscht Belt comic feeding off audience reactions and milking punchlines for every possible chuckle. This is an approach that works better in Twelfth Night, where the two-time Tony winner plays the noblewoman Olivia, a figure who is startled out of her black-veiled mourning by the shipwreck survivor Viola (History Boys’ Saumel Barnett), in disguise as a boy. After their first encounter, Rylance’s Olivia flutters about the stage like a flustered schoolgirl, and later flops onto the ground in lovesick dejection.
Curiously, though, Rylance plays the humpbacked and murderous conniver Richard III with much the same comic brio — he pats his shriveled (fake) baby hand when he speaks of being ”rudely stamp’d” and ”not shaped for sportive tricks,” then during his coronation flashes both thumbs up and whips his oversize cape about in childlike triumph. His Richard, while consistently entertaining, throws the play’s more tragic elements somewhat off-balance, particularly in the many (more serious) scenes when he’s off stage. Still, Rylance exquisitely manages Richard’s tricky seduction of Lady Anne (Joseph Timms), whose husband and father-in-law he has killed. And there’s a delicious crackle to the late scenes with Barnett’s Queen Elizabeth, who responds to Richard’s entreaties to woo her own daughter with a bold and surprising response. (No spoilers here.)
The supporting players are consistently excellent. Angus Wright is an appropriately weaselly Buckingham in Richard III and a hilariously dim-witted fop as Andrew Aguecheek in Twelfth Night. Barnett, his face pancaked for both plays, is finely expressive as both Elizabeth in Richard III and Viola in Twelfth Night. And in Twelfth Night, several of the comical performers stand out: Stephen Fry as the ultimately sympathetic spoilsport Malvolio, Peter Hamilton Dyer as the quick-witted fool Feste, and Paul Chahidi as Olivia’s mischievous maid Maria.
For all the attention to period detail, Carroll’s Twelfth Night and Richard III still feel fresh, and the Bard just as vital as he did four centuries ago. There is no need for modern glosses or strained attempts at relevance — though it never hurts to play on audience sympathies (and baser instincts). As Elizabeth tells Richard: ”An honest tale speeds best, being plainly told.” Plainly speaking, this Twelfth Night is a triumph. (And Richard III well worth seeing.) A?