There is surprising revelation in watching Shakespeare performed, as originally, by a troupe of male actors. Well, amend that. ”As originally” is quite an all-encompassing phrase. The more accurate phrase would be, “using the original device of,” because of course we have nothing but conjecture and extrapolation from spotty historical written record to tell us what playing style accompanied the casting; to suggest where the line of demarcation between formal declamation and a “naturalism” we wouldn’t quite recognize as such. But that device in league with acting that is somewhat stylized and somewhat naturalistic is revelatory nonetheless, for its obvious artifice takes us very quickly to a place where poetic, rather than literal, communication is taken for granted.
It’s one thing to read in, say, Peter Ackroyd's Shakespeare: The Biography, his entertaining conjecture, which occupies an entire chapter, in which he accounts for what might seem to us an exotic amalgam, wherein the psychological depth of Shakespeare's plays encouraged strides toward a kind of naturalism classified as "imitation," which sought to copy authentic behavior in a recognizable fashion; while still having to accommodate spectators numbering in the thousands, without amplification or magnification, necessitating as well the inclusion of a universally understood language of gesture (whence comes, no doubt, the concept known in contemporary acting terms as "indication"). But it's quite another thing to see the actors of the Shakespeare’s Globe straddling the historic distance, with a foot in the old world and a foot in the new.
We modern audiences usually watch Twelfth Night (or as it is spelled here, Twelfe Night) with a mild tolerance for the convention of separated twins—one male, one female—so similar as to be mistaken for one another, leading to comic confusion onstage; because the truth is, it’s always easy to tell them apart. But not so much when it’s two young men in female garb, face makeup in a foundation of white. Oh we still know who’s who, because the play makes it clear to us. But stand this Viola (Samuel Barnett) and Antonio (John Paul Connolly) side-by-side and the convention’s a little less poetic, a little more literal. And suddenly you understand Shakespeare’s time and his audiences a whole lot better.
Indeed, such connection to the past is the declared hallmark of Shakespeare’s globe, from the stage configuration to the materials used to make the costumes to the actual Renaissance instruments used by the small musical ensemble. (Amusing sidebar: On the evening I attended Twelfth Night, which runs in repertory with Richard III, I’d missed a late email from the press agent requesting that critics booked for that performance reschedule if they could, as the lighting board was out. So I just showed up at the theatre. And it never once consciously occurred to me that I was watching the entire show bathed in a single general bright setting. The absence of light cues went by unnoticed because it seemed entirely normal and intentional.)
Where the foot in a more contemporary era makes its presence known is in acting choices. Even in a stylized context, one must trade the attempted verisimilitude of historical accuracy for the more important verisimilitude of playing the roles sincerely, for real stakes and in a manner with which the audience can make a visceral connection based on what their relationship to actors is, and commensurate with a setting that, despite being a Broadway-sized house, is more intimate. And we are in an age where sound is routinely amplified. So within bold outline, there is much in the way of subtle nuance, especially where comic effect is concerned.
The most controversial exemplar of this mix is headliner Mark Rylance (who is also artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe). As both Olivia in Twelfth Night and the title character in Richard III, he affects bold portrayals that combine broad strokes for traditional values, and renegade interpretations for contemporary edge.
His Richard offers a new, possibly unique angle. Using the venue and style as an excuse to put broad characterization and grand style to purpose, he plays the scheming royal as a clown; the deflection from his evil is his utter foppishness; he counts on being regarded too much a fool to be taken seriously. This is fascinating and powerful up to s point: it allows for Rylance to display his singular gift for being able to turn almost any word construction to greatly comic advantage. But it’s also trure that Shakespeare was never one to let an irony go unexplained, and if Richard were meant to be played thus, a minor or supportung character (or Richard himself) would comment on the strategy. So there are those who may find that the interpretation limits the colors on the paate; for this Richard can never seduce or be insinuous. And after a time, despite star wattage and unmitigated brilliance, it does start to become more about the actor’s cool riff than the character. (I will add, though, that under Tim Carroll’s clean direction, the portrayal keeps focus such that this is my fist time seeing Richard III in which the war and battle scenes toward the end don’t seem as if Shakespeare has veered off into another kind of play.)
Rylance’s Olivia isn’t quite so off-the-beaten path, as she’s “merely” an infatuated noble in a romantic comedy. But here he seems less to be experimenting with the inner life of the character than the outer trappings; to see what he can mine from the wide hooped skirt, the hairpiece, the white pancake makeup. There’s no particular depth to Olivia, Rylance chooses to provide variatons on an essence, but that seems to be all anybody wants. Boeing Boeing established him as a master of physical comedy and Twelfth Night gives him yet another forum to remind us how good and how fearless he is.
Which is not to say he steals anyone’s thunder. In both plays, the supporting company is quite bold and wonderful, with chunky character man Matt Harrington and tall, grey-haired Angus Wright making especially strong impressions in vastly different roles.
The biggest surprise, in some ways, comes from the redountable Stephen Fry, who appears only in Twelfth Night, as the fatuous Malvolio. Unlike the others, he doesn’t wear a stylistic cloak over his characterization; nor, in a way, does he even seem to be “acting”; merely being Stephen Fry if Stephen Fry were a puffed up popinjay. It makes for a striking (and strangely compatible) contrast, and works like crazy—I think because, of all the characters, Malvolio is the most complex, and a realer (though just as comic) touch sits well (and marks him further as an outsider).
Anyway, as you can see, there’s much to appreciate, discuss and debate here and I’m cutting myself off almost randomly because I could keep going for many more pages. The ultimate point—the only crucial point really, if you’re reading this to decide whether these two evenings are worth attending—is that you’re in for a good deal of vibrant illumination. If you’ve never seen these plays before, you couldn’t have a better introduction. And if you’re an old hand like me, who sometimes feels as if you’ve had all the Twelfth Night you can take for a single lifetime (and maybe had your fill of Richard III too), you couldn’t be in for a bigger surprise.
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