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Shakespeare Unimproved

By Jonathan Kalb

Twelfth Night
By William Shakespeare
Belasco Theatre
111 W. 44th St.
Box office: (212) 239-6200


Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night is a beloved and ubiquitous play. Many people, even casual theatergoers, have seen it numerous times. Whatever your past experience, though, this Globe Theatre production will likely hold something new for you. It is a triumph not only of extraordinary acting but also of cannily employed theatrical convention.

As with the remarkable Richard III, with which Twelfth Night runs in rep, the effort here is to come as close as possible to a private-theater staging from the Elizabethan era. Thus the female roles are played by men; the period costumes are all historically accurate; the setting consists only of an oaken rear wall with arched double-doors, real-candle chandeliers, a few benches, tables, and other portable odds and ends; and everything takes place in the same general illumination without blackouts, fadeouts or other lighting cues. Half a dozen musicians perch atop the rear wall playing madrigals and other Baroque music on period instruments.

New York has seen plenty of all-male Shakespeare before. Several excellent productions by Edward Hall’s Propeller Company have visited from the U.K. in recent years. Propeller, however, utilizes modern sets, costumes and music whereas these Globe productions (directed by Tim Carroll) wholly eschew contemporary trappings. The risk of museum mustiness was enormous with such an experiment, and yet the result vibrates with light, vigor and humor. And Mark Rylance has a great deal to do with this, as might be expected.

A star of his stature could have chosen any role he wanted in Twelfth Night. He could have hammed it up as a smug Malvolio or a witty Feste, say, or moped about pompously as Orsino, or dashed around antically by doubling as the twins Viola and Sebastian. Instead he opted for the widowed countess Olivia, a woman bent on seclusion and exaggerated mourning. Few actors consider this the play’s plum role, yet Rylance clearly had pointed ideas about it. In particular, he saw it as an ideal chance to splash bright anarchic colors—figuratively, that is—on a sedate black background.

Rylance’s Olivia is like a creature out of Kabuki: a pallid-faced, crimson-lipped prodigy of spinal rigor strapped tightly into a stiff, black, floor-length dress inside which she mince-steps so lightly she seems to glide about the stage on wheels. Her physical rigidity reads as a figure for emotional paralysis, for the artificiality of the character’s prolonged grief. It’s as if her body were constantly asking when she will ever loosen up and love again. But the sculptural dress is also a fabulous comic prop that Rylance uses to frame all his snappish and impulsive line-readings, which leave the audience in stitches. His Olivia is an amorous dynamo trapped in an uptight self-image, and his gestural choices all serve that portrait. After Olivia breaks up the duel between Sebastian and Andrew Aguecheek, for instance, she is so aflutter at having seen her beloved in mortal danger that she plants a sloppy kiss on him that leaves his whole face smeared with lipstick.

Rylance, it should be said, doesn’t generate the only refreshing cross-gender breeze. Paul Chahidi’s mannish and chunky Maria is also extraordinarily acute: a smart and hilarious study in lumpish submissiveness employed as an alibi for simmering resentment. And Samuel Barnett is scarcely less fascinating as an exquisitely androgynous Viola, disguised as Cesario in an elegant white tunic, gorgeous brown wig and immaculate whiteface. His/her sequence of hesitant hugs with Liam Brennan’s Orsino midway through the play is a veritable essay on erotic equivocation cum hidden passion.

Tim Carroll’s understated work as director also deserves mention. His ease with the old conventions, his utter indifference to modern flash, his steady management of tone, pace and balance: it all comes off as a tacit indictment of directorial excess elsewhere, the whole tradition of superfluous improvement that dominates our era. One effect of the Elizabethan techniques is to slow the show down so that one has patience to listen and take note of a thousand remarks, insinuations, encounters and references that tend to be lost to noise and distraction in other contemporary productions. The marvels of this Twelfth Night are many. But among the most inspiring, for me, is the sight of thousands of savvy, impatient New Yorkers sitting rapt for nearly three hours without an ounce of titillating modernity.


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