Friday, November 22, 2013

Shakespeare's Globe on Broadway: Twelfth Night and Richard III at the Belasco Theatre

Oh, for a Shakespeare Production that firmly believes that the text should dictate the performance rather than a director's misguided vision that the Bard desperately needs updating.  What's that you say? There are two, count them two such productions on Broadway this Fall season. Three hearty huzzahs for London's Shakespeare's Globe Productions of Twelfe Night, or What You Will and The Tragedie of King Richard III now in repertory. What gimmicks there are is in the service to promoting original staging practices, including using an all-male cast. There is an American Shakespeare company that is also devoted to original staging practices (the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Virginia), but Shakespeare's Globe takes us two steps further. The first is in using the aforementioned entirely male cast. The second is deciding to use authentically hand-sewn costumes, which the actors don in front of the audience.

Designer Jenny Tiramani was director of theatre design at Shakespeare's Globe from 1997-2005, and her meticulous research has paid off with stunning costumes that clearly aid the actors in developing their characters. From shirt or chemise and hose, to ornate doublets for the aristocratic gentleman and stunning gowns for ladies, the costumes truly serve to enhance the performances.  Be sure to arrive early as the actors get dressed on stage before the performance. Lighting Designer Stan Pressner uses a few stage lights to augment the beeswax candles that light the stage. The audience finds itself lit as well as the house lights remain on for these shows. Along with the decision to place several audience members in tiered box seats on the stage this permits an easy rapport between actor and audience. When Richard III or Viola confides in the the audience there is a genuine connection to that audience that gets lost in the darkness of modern theatrical practices.

Music, all period pieces adapted by Claire van Kampen is played on Renaissance instruments. This particularly enhances Twelfth Night, one of Shakespeare's most musical plays.

Richard III is the more difficult production to get tickets for as it is only being performed twice a week. Shakespeare's gleeful deformed villain is given an unusual interpretation by Mark Rylance. His Richard appears to be a slow-witted buffoon, and his victims seem to embrace him as a genuine ally never seeing the betrayal coming until it is far too late. Mr. Rylance perhaps takes this characterization too far as several times the outright mugging for laughs from the audience detracts from the horror of Richard's monstrosity. It is to Mr. Rylance's credit that he does not shy away from his decision to play Richard so over the top.

Highlighted performances from Richard III include Liam Brennan as the devastated Duke of Clarence and Peter Hamilton Dyer as Catesby, never wavering in his loyalty to Richard.  Angus Wright is a proud Buckingham and Joseph Timms a sweet, melancholic Lady Anne. Kurt Egyiawan doubles as the contemptuous Duchess of York and the saintly savior of the future Tudor dynasty, Richmond.

Samuel Barnett is a revelation as Queen Elizabeth. Nemesis of Richard and his allies, Mr. Barnett makes Elizabeth a tower of strength. Written to not be swayed by Richard's tricks, Mr. Barnett gives a commanding performance as this maligned Queen consort who turns to steel once her sons are dead.

Richard III is a bit of a jarring production, mostly due to the decision to overplay the macabre glee of Richard's villainy. The more satisfying production is that of Twelfth Night. It is here that the conceit of a woman pretending to be a man being subsequently mistaken for her identical twin brother genuinely works.

For Twelfth Night's comedic tale of two women, Viola the shipwrecked maiden trying to survive disguised as a boy and Olivia, the newly empowered Countess forswearing the company of men whilst in deepest mourning for her brother. The choice to use an all-male cast provides true revelation in the in the performance.

Mr. Rylance portrays Olivia with the character's emotions bare to all. At first reserved and steady in her grief, it is a riotous joy to see Olivia just let go with giddy joy when she falls in love with the disguised Viola.  Here the over-the-top nature of Olivia in love works as a natural part of the romantic comedy.

This is perhaps one of the few productions of Twelfth Night in which the mistaken twins, one male the other a disguised female actually works. It helps that Joseph Timms is as close to a twin to Samuel Barnett as possible thanks to a physical resemblance aided by costuming and makeup. One cannot forget that there are men playing the women, but Mr. Barnett makes the audience look past it. His Viola is a genuine sweet lady deeply distressed by her circumstances, in love with her employer, Duke Orsino, yet forced to woo on his behalf the lady Olivia who has in turn fallen in love with her. One hopes Mr. Barnett is not overlooked come awards season.

Twelfth Night is filled with many excellent supporting performances. Stephen Fry is practically bursting with pomposity as the haughty steward Malvolio. We will pity his gulling, but Paul Chahidi's Maria lets you understand why she orchestrates Malvolio's comeuppance. Colin Hurley makes for a bawdy drunk Sir Toby and Angus Wright a wonderfully dense Sir Andrew Aguecheek. Peter Hamilton Dyer is the wry melodious fool, Feste, who, while acknowledging his own professional tomfoolery, delights in pointing out that the rest of the cast is just as delightfully foolish as well.

Twelfth Night is a marvelous good time for an evening of theater. Richard III, despite some shortcomings,  is equally welcome this Broadway season. The other productions of Shakespeare proliferating this season could learn a thing or two from Shakespeare's Globe. The best productions do not necessarily require fancy sets or strange directorial interpretations. The best Shakespeare productions let the text speak for itself.

William Shakespeare's Twelfe Night, or What You Will and The Tragedie of King Richard III are being performed in repertory at the Belasco Theatre in New York City through February 2, 2014.  For tickets and other performance information please visit

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