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Broadway Reviews

Twelfth Night and Richard III

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - November 10, 2013

Shakespeare's Globe productions of Mr. William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, or What You Will and The Tragedie of King Richard The Third Directed by Tim Carroll. Designed by Jenny Tiramani. Music by Claire van Kampen. Lighting design by Stan Pressner. Production Stage Manager Arthur Gaffin. Cast: Mark Rylance and (in alphabetical order) Samuel Barnett, Liam Brennan, Paul Chahidi, John Paul Connolly, Peter Hamilton Dyer, Kurt Egyiawan, Matt Harrington, Colin Hurley, Terry McGinity, Jethro Skinner, Joseph Timms, Angus Wright, Matthew Schechter, Hayden Signoretti, Dominic Brewer, Dylan Clark Marshall, Tony Ward, with Stephen Fry as Malvolio. Musicians: Emily Baines, Samuel Budish, Arngeir Hauksson, Priscilla Herreid, Edward Hilton, Greg Ingles, Nicholas Perry.
Theatre: Belasco Theatre, 111 West 44th Street between Broadway and 6th Avenue
Running time: Approximately 3 hours, with one intermission.
Schedule: Twelfth Night and Richard III are playing in repertory. Please check the Telecharge website for performance schedules. Limited engagement through February 2
Twelfth Night Tickets: Telecharge
Richard III Tickets: Telecharge

Mark Rylance
Photo by Joan Marcus

Four hundred years old and not a speck of dust? Museums the world over—to say nothing of Broadway producers scoping out the next big old hit—must be clamoring to know how director Tim Carroll and the London-based Shakespeare's Globe company could accomplish such a stunning feat. But it's true: Their productions of Twelfth Night and Richard III that just opened at the Belasco are so fresh and exciting that you may be forgiven for thinking they were both conceived, written, and designed last week rather than four centuries ago.

To be clear, I'm not typically a William Shakespeare purist. Though I frequently question concepts applied to modern mountings of the Bard's plays, most vociferously when they stand in the way of the words, I've never believed that the only way to understand those plays is to see them As They Were Originally Done (plenty that have gone that route have been interminable). Nor have I ever thought that only English actors and directors really “get” Shakespeare; we have supremely talented folks here in America, too.

So I admit I approached Carroll's renditions with a bit of trepidation. I knew going in that these were truly traditional: a single all-male cast performing, in rep, on a unit set designed to recall the boards on which the Lord Chamberlain's Men and the King's Men once trod. Upon taking my seat and reading the Playbill, I learned that the company's dedication went further still, with even the costumes (like the set designed by Jenny Tiramani) and the seven-piece ensemble's musical instruments crafted as to resemble, as nearly as is possible today, what audiences witnessed in the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras. And though electric lights are (thankfully) used in Stan Pressner's design, six chandeliers bearing actual candlelight threatened to impart, before a single word was spoken, the outlines of stodginess.

Mark Rylance, Samuel Barnett, Peter Hamilton Dyer, Jethro Skinner, and John Paul Connolly
Photo by Joan Marcus

My fears were dispelled immediately, with everyone working to demonstrate that these plays can be as relevant and entertaining today as they were in the 1590s and 1600s. By the time they were over (all too soon), these weren't merely the best Twelfth Night and Richard III I'd ever seen, but they were also the best Shakespeare I've ever seen—period.

What makes the two evenings, both of which star the inimitable Mark Rylance (the best he's ever been on Broadway, and boy is that saying something), succeed is that they don't get trapped in their trappings. Authenticity is where they start, but not remotely where they stop. Every line in each script has been reconsidered, broken down, and built up from scratch, and nothing has been taken for granted. This is urgent, insistent theatre of the best kind, determined to prove itself but never so desperate that it lets wrong or, worse, false choices seep in.

Foreground: Angus Wright and Mark Rylance; background: John Paul Connolly, and Joseph Timms
Photo by Joan Marcus

The biggest overall surprise would be Richard III, which has been thoroughly stripped of Occasion and Importance and allowed to blossom as a tragedy in the truest sense. Rylance approaches Richard from the outset as brimming with guile but not a drop of visible outward malice; he lays out his plans to us in doddering, if measured, tones that defuse preconceptions and let you understand, as you're all too infrequently able, why those around him would be more likely to trust him than arrest him on the spot.

In fact, it's difficult not to like this Richard, whom Rylance has rendered as the prototypical star spot, referring to and interacting with the audience (seated on both sides of the stage as well as in the house) as though he owns them as securely as he perceives himself as deserving the throne. Rylance also does not shy away from comedy, making Richard borderline Falstaffian in his passions but without any demented underpinnings that may suggest that he, too, is in on the joke. Every word Richard speaks seems God's truth until the instant it's proven otherwise.

Mark Rylance
Photo by Joan Marcus

Seeing Richard as a villain who's likable, thoughtful, and above all capable (Rylance limps only slightly, and his withered left hand is depicted entirely through his costume) makes him infinitely more effective as a coercive antihero, and his avuncular charms paint the heights of his madness and the ultimate depths of his degradation as genuine losses. Power-hungry, duplicitous, and murderous he might be—but he offers you no reason to believe he wouldn't have also been a spectacular, effective king were circumstances different.

If Twelfth Night is (marginally) less revelatory, it's only because the play itself hasn't acquired over the last half-millennium a mantle of Serious Theatre that it must first shed; it's always been meant for fun, given its myriad mistaken instances of disguises, mistaken identities, and prank-pulling. But Carroll and company have approached it with no less care or dedication than they have its companion piece, and have therefore turned out something that is every bit as good in its own, albeit goofier, way.

Never, for example, have the complexities of the relationships that spring up around siblings Viola (Samuel Barnett) and Sebastian (Joseph Timms) been stronger. Barnett and Timms both assume dark manners befitting their tortured upbringings apart from each other, though their tense brows melt into weightless delight when around their beloveds, respectively Orsino (an excellent, restrained Liam Brennan) and Olivia (Rylance, astonishingly maybe even better here than as Richard). And, as dressed and made up, they look all but identical, which supercharges the confusion and the ensuing hilarity.

But everything is masterfully handled, even the often-troublesome subplot. Stephen Fry is a terrifyingly realistic Malvolio, who brings down the house specifically through his refusal to surrender to the role's basest, most scenery-chewing features. Even when goaded on by Maria (a divine Paul Chahidi), Sir Toby (Colin Hurley), Fabian (Jethro Skinner), Feste (Peter Hamilton Dyer), and Sir Andrew Augecheek (Angus Wright) to pursue the in-mourning-but-in-love Olivia, Fry ensures that Malvolio does so as someone who doubts his own powers of persuasion. The yellow leggings with cross-garters he wears to woo become even more ridiculous precisely because they so well match the man who'd dare to put them on and be proud of doing so; Fry's look of smug satisfaction at that moment is priceless.

Samuel Barnett and Liam Brennan
Photo by Joan Marcus

Alas, to mention any one moment in either play is leave out ten that are as rigorously wrought and impeccably executed. But a few in particular stand out. Let's start with the most obvious: Every actor playing a woman is utterly convincing as such, with Barnett especially outstanding as the pained duo of Viola and Queen Elizabeth. But the women are central to Richard III, and there Timms (as Lady Anne) and Kurt Egyiawan (the Duchess of York) are flawless, serene and moving. And though these performers effect a tight-ankled walk that, in conjunction with their dresses, makes them appear to float across the stage, the effect is only uproarious in Twelfth Night, though it's steeped in melancholy in Richard III. (This all leads one to suspect that Shakespeare's Globe would produce the definitive As You Like It for our age.)

Beyond that, Rylance's ministrations as Olivia pursuing her male paramour (whether Sebastian or Viola's version, named Cesario) are awash with anguished expectation that, combined with intense sexual yearning, results in an intoxicating chemical glee. Child actors Matthew Schecter and Hayden Signoretti are both superb in their roles as the doomed princes. The ghosts that haunt Richard before his final battle are portrayed simply, but with chilling effect. When that battle arrives, though all you see is Richard tilt with Richmond (Egyiawan), the way the actors storm into and out of the upstage doors make those offstage scenes those scenes tenser and more riveting than when the stage is full of clanking swords and tribal yells.

Colin Hurley, Jethro Skinner, and Stephen Fry
Photo by Joan Marcus

Let us not ignore Claire van Kampen (Rylance's wife, incidentally), who has charted up thrilling, majestic scoring for the musicians (located on a platform high above the action) to play. The instruments include recorders, shawms, rauschpfeifes, and sackbuts, but never sound gimmicky or fake—only right and appropriately royal. And though no electronic amplification whatsoever is used for either musicians or actors, you can hear every note and every spoken or sung line as though it were piped exclusively into your ear.

Of course, there are hundreds of other examples of the devotion to clarity that sets these two productions apart. Shakespeare—heck, theatre—does not get much better than this. But it's worth reiterating that it's not because of a slavish recreation of anything but rather a more vital return to first principles: that by exploring these plays' contexts and the reasons they succeeded when new their true cores and meanings will appear. At that, Carroll, Rylance, and their compatriots have unquestionably succeeded. But they have also made these staples of the English-language theatre smolder, sizzle, and sparkle again, as if for the first time.

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