Monday, January 20, 2014

Celebration: Twelfth Night on Broadway

Stephen Fry and Mark Rylance in Twelfth Night 
Twelfth Night was first performed in Queen Elizabeth’s court, and Shakespeare wrote it for the end of the twelve days of Christmas. Tim Carroll’s all-male production, which originated at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, conveys the celebratory mood. Carroll and his actors imported it to Broadway for the holiday season, in repertory with Richard III, showcasing Mark Rylance’s performances as Richard and as Olivia. (The title cards for the two shows borrow the Renaissance spellings: Twelfe Night, or What You Will and The Tragedie of King Richard the Third.) I saw Richard III in November but I didn’t write about it because I’d already reviewed both Kevin Spacey’s Richard at the Old Vic and the brilliant production by Propeller Theatre, and I found the Globe version – also with a completely male cast that overlaps with that of Twelfth Night – uninteresting. Even Rylance’s depiction of Shakespeare’s busy, self-amused villain-king felt recycled, a compendium of tricks he’d pulled from his voluminous sleeves on other occasions. But Twelfth Night is something else again – a splendiferous entertainment in which Rylance’s hilarious, love-addled Countess Olivia is just one member of a grand ensemble.

You get into the spirit as soon as you walk into the house. The actors are still getting into costume, so those audience members who have purchased tickets to sit on the stage above the playing area become part of the general bustle as ushers escort them to their places. Once strove for a companionable cross-over between actors and audience, inviting viewers to hang out in the pub at the top of the show, and Diane Paulus’s revival of Hair encouraged dancing on the stage after the curtain call, but both these efforts felt forced. At Twelfth Night the immediacy of the actors from the start doesn’t pretend that we have some relationship with them, but it does get us excited about the treats in store.

Twelfth Night is perhaps the greatest of Shakespeare’s romantic comedies, and except for A Midsummer Night’s Dream it contains the most farce. First there are the misapprehensions caused by Viola’s cross-dressing as Cesario (Samuel Barnett plays the role here) while Sebastian (Joseph Timms), the twin brother she believes drowned in the shipwreck that she barely survived, is rushing around Illyria – a narrative device Shakespeare had already employed in The Comedy of Errors (where there are two sets of twins) but that he relegates here to a supporting part in the plot. Then there’s the sexual/emotional mistaken identity: Orsino (Liam Brennan), the duke Cesario serves, sends him to woo Olivia for him, not aware that beneath the guise of Cesario Viola pines for love of him (“a barful strife: / Whoe’er I woo, myself would be his wife,” she confides in an aside) – or that the immediate consequence of Cesario’s courtship of Olivia is that she falls in love with him (her). There’s the revenge that Olivia’s lady-in-waiting Maria (Paul Chahidi) engineers against her Puritan steward Malvolio (Stephen Fry) for his high-handed treatment of her, of Olivia’s drunken uncle Sir Toby Belch (Colin Hurley), and of her fool Feste (Peter Hamilton Dyer), writing a love letter to him full of absurd requests and making him believe it comes from Olivia. Finally, there’s Sir Toby devising a plan to have his drinking buddy, the ridiculous knight Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Angus Wright), wed Olivia, which climaxes in Sir Andrew’s challenging Cesario to a duel. Carroll’s staging and the gamesmanship of the cast make the most of all this farce apparatus.

Productions of Twelfth Night typically fall down in the scenes involving the clowns, but there’s none of that desperate straining to be uproarious here; the comedy is controlled and blessedly relaxed. I’ve never seen a Sir Toby whose drunkenness was as genuinely funny as Hurley’s, or a Feste who gets as much juice out of his epigrams as Dyer. (Also his plaintive a cappella rendition of “O Mistress Mine,” which Carroll stages very simply at a dinner table, is lovely.) The Mannerist gown Jenny Tiramani has designed for Maria and the Gable hood she’s placed on her netted hair give Chahidi a squarish matronliness in drag, like one of Lewis Carroll’s queens. The period is Cavalier, the era of The Three Musketeers, which allows for extravagant long hair for the men - so Viola’s flowing ringlets convert easily into a mane for Cesario – and marvelous plumed hats, the most excessive of which sits on Sir Andrew’s head. Lanky Wright plays Sir Andrew as an idiot who thinks he’s a card and who snorts delightedly on the rare occasions when he actually gets the joke. The preparation for the challenge and the misbegotten fight itself are comic gems. Often I find the painstaking clarity of Globe productions tiresome (as if the actors were footnoting everything for you), but here it’s matched to ideal comic timing and it makes the jokes funnier rather than beating them to death.

Samuel Barnett as Viola and Mark Rylance as Olvia

Shakespeare’s theme is the folly of love – how it makes us behave like lunatics, as Olivia in particular does (Rylance has tremendous fun with this, at one point hurling a shoe at Cesario to keep him from leaving), but also how it keeps us in the game, i.e., alive. Carroll doesn’t underscore the second implication by ridiculing Olivia’s remaining in mourning for her dead brother months after she should resume normal life; the way Rylance plays her, mourning is mostly a convenient excuse to dismiss Orsino’s protestations of love, which don’t interest her, and after she takes one look at Cesario you don’t hear another word about her grief. The production of Twelfth Night by the great English company Propeller, under Edward Hall’s direction, focused much more on Olivia’s mourning, using it as a way to explore Shakespeare’s to-everything-there-is-a-season comic philosophy. Propeller always performs Shakespeare with all-male casts, and in this case it employed the cross-dressing as a way of addressing questions of gender. Carroll doesn’t get into this topic either; his version of the play doesn’t go very deep, but I wouldn’t want to use that observation against him. Pulling off Twelfth Night is extremely difficult, and he and his actors make it look easy.

Terrific as Rylance is, the heart of the production, as it should be, is Samuel Barnett’s Viola. Barnett (who was the woebegone gay teenager, Posner, in The History Boys) has wit and buoyancy in the role, and his manipulation of the language is so limpid and pliable that as you listen to him the whole lineage of English Shakespearean line readings – the matching of the rhythm to the word – seems to shine through. That’s true particularly in his rendering of Viola’s soliloquy, when she realizes that Olivia has fallen in love with her (i.e., with Cesario). I’ve heard more emotionally rich versions of this speech but none, perhaps, that boasts such crystal clarity, and I love the way Barnett discovers Olivia’s affections in the course of the speech, so that “Fortune forbid my outside hath not charmed her” is a revelation, not merely a statement of the source of Viola’s bemusement. As Orsino, Liam Brennan, wearing a silly little tuft of beard, comes across as a man of good looks and charm who’s just slightly past his prime. Carroll gives these two ample opportunity to explore the romantic and sexual confusion arising from their proximity: Orsino’s efforts to convince himself that his desire to touch Cesario is merely comradely and Viola’s responding to his touch with increasing enthusiasm. Joseph Timms is a little dull as Sebastian, but the fact that he and Barnett are the same physical type and are costumed and wigged to look like twins goes far toward making his performance work. Carroll hasn’t done anything with Antonio’s affection for Sebastian (in contemporary productions, it’s generally portrayed as homosexual) but John Paul Connolly brings color to Antonio’s speeches. The same can be said for Terry McGinity, who is likably merry as both the Sea Captain who rescues Viola and the Priest who marries her twin to Olivia.

Stephen Fry as Malvolio

The problem performance is Stephen Fry’s as Malvolio: he isn’t funny, except when he follows the dictates of Maria’s letter and presents himself to Olivia in yellow stockings and cross-gartered. You can see what Fry is up to here. His lack of humor stands in stark contrast to the cavorting of the clowns, and yes, we understand that he’s a Puritan; that, excessive as their conduct is, they’re life-embracers; and that, by throwing a wet blanket over their partying, he’s begging to be made the butt of the joke. Still, it doesn’t seem to be a good choice, any more than it is when a production turns Malvolio into a tragic figure. And Carroll doesn’t solve the big Malvolio issues: how to stage the scene where he believes he’s imprisoned in a madhouse and what tone to go for when, just a few lines before the end of the play, he storms off stage proclaiming, “I’ll be revenged on the pack of you.” It’s a mistake to give his exit too much weight; this is Twelfth Night, not Measure for Measure – we have a right to expect an unalloyed happy ending. But that’s the mistake Carroll and Fry make. Three decades ago I saw a production of the play by Ariane Mnouchkine’s company, Théâtre du Soleil, that managed to honor every tone along the spectrum of Shakespeare’s play; at the end all the characters turned upstage and paused to look at the sunset, acknowledging in that single gesture the place of death – of implicit tragedy – in the comedy. It was the only time I’ve seen a Twelfth Night that found a way to get all the sadness out of the gulling of Malvolio without betraying the play’s comic impulse. But the production was more than four hours long and the greatest thing I’ve ever seen on a stage. For everyone else besides the Théâtre du Soleil, I recommend lightening up Malvolio’s departure. However, given the sweetness of the Globe production, this is a nitpicking complaint. Two of my friends told me, independent of each other, that as soon as they’d seen it they immediately wanted to return and see it again, but by that time it was sold out. As it richly deserved to be.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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