Twelfth Night

Twelfth Night (2013)
 dir. Tim Carroll

On the evening of October 25th, I had gone to see the production of Shakespeare’s Twelfe Night at the Belasco Theatre in New York City. I had never read let alone heard of this play prior to purchasing my ticket, and had no idea what I was in for.

Upon taking my seat in the theatre, I was shocked to see the actors dressing on stage, as it would have been done in Elizabethan times. To add to my surprise, I realized the cast was entirely made up of men. I was thrilled to see a production observing the theatrical customs and rituals as they would have been done at the Globe in Elizabethan times, and I had never seen a play done with an all-male cast before.

It was really enjoyable to see a performance that tried to be historically authentic. The stage had seats for theatergoers installed onstage in two wooden tiers, and the only apparent light source was the glow of candles on iron chandeliers dangling from the rafters. There were also actually no sets, aside from this huge solid oak screen with two or three doors for entrances and exits, and a balcony for the musicians playing on 17th century instruments, along with a few pieces of furniture and topiaries brought on and off. The whole set up made you feel like you were at the Globe theatre, at least to someone (like me) who’s only ever heard and read about it.

But, the real fun was in the cross-dressing. It was a little bewildering at first to figure out what exactly was going on, but absolutely hysterical watching grown men squeezing themselves into women’s clothes and shuffle around in little shoes. Paul Chahidi’s performance was by far my favorite as the sassy wench, Maria, scuttling on and off stage, breasts pushed up to her neck, delivering witty punches while being the mastermind behind the retaliation against the brooding, self-righteous Malvolio (Stephen Fry). Colin Hurley was also kind of fascinating as the drunken Sir Toby Belch, slurring lines, stumbling about and playing off Chahidi and the lanky dimwitted fop, Sir Andrew, hapless in his suit for the Countess Olivia.

Aside from lewd comedy, there was also an unexpected seriousness about the story. Barnett was so convincing as the delicate Viola, who mourned for her twin brother she lost at sea. Her disguise as the young man and servant to Duke Orsino, Cesario, couldn’t even mask her ladylike sensitivity.  It was no wonder that Rylance’s Olivia responded so quickly to the supposed boy Cesario, especially when she was surrounded by comic fools, and forced to deal with the deluded Malvolio.  I have to say, there was so much hype surrounding this actor Stephen Fry “returning to the stage,” but I found his performance thoroughly unfunny (with the exception of his scene in yellow stockings). His sad, dry undertones really affected the comic performances of the play. He was also incredibly complacent, which made it difficult to feel anything for him despite him being the target of a cruel revenge plot.

Rylance actually gave one of the strongest performances of the night as Countess Olivia. He was mesmerizing, and really added to the totally wacky but charming romance of the production –  Duke Orsino (Liam Brennan) pining for Olivia (Mark Rylance), who chased after Cesario (Viola- Samuel Barnett) who longed for Orsino. I loved watching Olivia’s initial haughty prudishness give way to stammering as she couldn’t resist the love she felt for Cesario. It was incredibly funny, but you also really applauded her trying to get the man she wanted. And Hamilton Dyer’s Feste, Countess Olivia’s jester, tied the play together with insightful lines – “Better a witty fool than a foolish wit” – and his minstrel songs about the absurdity of love.

In the end, what I respected most about the play was the intimate relationship between the actors and audience. During the tedious onstage dress in the very beginning, and throughout the entire performance, the members of the company played directly to us in the audience, even involving the audience members sitting in the onstage seats, and they did it completely in character. I had never before seen a Shakespearean comedy performed, but I had a wonderful experience watching this one and I can’t wait for my next one. (M. Boldyrew, October 2013)


Twelfth Night (2013)
dir. Tim Carroll

The Globe’s acting ensemble brought two plays to Broadway this fall: Richard III and Twelfth Night.  Twelfth Night is Shakespeare’s gender-bending comedy of mistaken identity, and was received well in London.  Like Richard III and in keeping with the Globe’s philosophy, it was performed with an all-male cast, in Elizabethan dress and attempted to replicate the Globe’s stage by the candle lit performance space surrounded on three sides by audience.  The cast of Richard was redistributed for Twelfth Night, with the notable addition of public intellectual and sometime stage actor, Stephen Fry, playing Malvolio.

The production was respectable, and possibly a good vehicle for a more mainstream Broadway audience. It was performed at a fair pace and laden with lewd physical comedy.  Mark Rylance, playing Olivia, gave a much stronger performance than his Richard.  Once he settled down and got past his stage tricks – his mincing little steps in his first scene seemed particularly contrived – his Olivia became (ironically) one of the funniest characters in this play.  Perhaps it was the demands of comedy, or the demands of gender, but he operated with a far greater degree of precision as Olivia, and the result was mesmerizing.

Which was necessary.  The supporting cast was inconsistent, and rarely funny (Paul Chahidi’s Maria being a notable exception).  Angus Wright, who fared well as Buckingham, gamboled his way through Sir Andrew Aguecheek’s role, but had little to offer beyond his lanky physicality.  Stephen Fry was a particular disappointment.  It’s hard to criticize the beloved Fry, especially on his first return to the theater since he was crippled with stage fright during his 1995 production of Cellmates, but his performance was unoriginal, unfunny and occasionally unprofessional (he corpsed twice during important moments).

Although the play was, on the whole, underwhelming, the experience of seeing Rylance, (arguably) one of the great Shakesepareans of our generation, perform.  Rylance rarely engages in other media, and so watching Rylance perform is knowing that I was watching stage history.  The ephemeral nature of theatre has never been more clear to me, and as someone happily immersed in the accessibility of art that my digital culture affords me, it was a revelatory experience, and one that I hope to experience again. (L. Geddes, October, 2013)

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