11.29.13 – The production of Twelfth Night – or Twelfe Night, or What You Will, as the playbill officially calls it – at the Belasco Theater on Broadway in rep with The Tragedie of King Richard the Third is a fascinating and fun exercise in historical recreation. The production originated in London at Shakespeare’s Globe and is performed by an all-male cast led by Mark Rylance (who has blown Broadwaygoers’ minds in recent productions of Boeing Boeing, La Bête, and Jerusalem) in a bravura performance as the Countess Olivia. The audience is invited to arrive early to watch the actors onstage getting made up, dressed, and sewn into their costumes. The stage is lit with beeswax candles (and also modern lighting equipment). Meanwhile, a band of musicians entertains on instruments played in Shakespeare’s time but not so much nowadays: shawms, curtal, rauschpfeife, theorbo, cittern, sackbut, and hurdy gurdy. Yes, you get to watch a guy playing hurdy gurdy, an instrument I associate with the circus and Donovan’s hit song “Hurdy Gurdy Man” but had never laid eyes on. Sackbut, too – it’s a kind of Elizabethan trombone. The show is performed with some audience members in boxes onstage and the musicians perched in a gallery over the stage. The three actors who play the female roles pull them off handsomely – besides Rylance (below right), whose outrageous royal costumes and clown makeup suggest The White Queen out of Alice in Wonderland, that would be Samuel Barnett as Viola (below left, he was also wonderful a few seasons ago in The History Boys on Broadway) and Paul Chahidi as Maria. Liam Brennan makes for a sexy and amusing Orsino, and even with his curious Irish (?) accent he nicely pulls off the scene where the Duke finds himself strangely attracted to Cesario, the boy that Viola is pretending to be.
Much as I enjoyed these things, ultimately it’s not the best production of Twelfth Night I’ve ever seen. The director, Tim Carroll, worked hard to ground these characters in believable reality but several of the performances feel like missed opportunities. I’m so not a fan of broad comedy, but certain roles demand it or they either don’t make sense or just wind up boring the audience, both of which are true of Peter Hamilton Dyer’s Feste. I’ve seen productions where Sir Andrew Aguecheek stole every scene he was in. I’m thinking of a production I saw in 1978 at Brandeis University in which Robert Moberly’s Sir Andrew surpassed Jean Marsh’s Olivia and Ellis Rabb’s Malvolio. That doesn’t come close to happening with Angus Wright’s anemic performance. It’s great to see Stephen Fry, a masterful performer and witty writer, undertake Malvolio, but the scene where he confronts the trio who humiliated him has zero emotional weight, strange after the effort put into making him a flesh-and-blood character. Always one of the trickiest scenes to pull off is the recognition scene where Viola in boy-drag comes face-to-face with her twin brother Sebastian, whom she thought died in the shipwreck that washed her ashore. Here, it does not succeed.
In many productions the music comes close to stealing the show. I still remember some songs from my college theater department’s production, and Jeanine Tesori’s score for Nicholas Hytner’s 1998 staging at Lincoln Center (prime candidate for Best Twelfth Night I’ve Ever Seen) stands up to this day. The music for this production, chosen and arranged by Claire van Kampen (Mark Rylance’s wife and longtime Shakespearean collaborator), is scrupulously faithful to the historical record – and dull. Oops.
I know, picky-picky. Most people are loving the production and you’ll walk away mostly with images of Rylance’s performance in your head, his gliding walk and the way he moves that dress around the stage.