At a good production of Shakespeare, you may be impressed by the production values. The innovative choices made by the director may, at a good production of Shakespeare, impress you. At a good production of Shakespeare, you will likely be impressed by the actors.
At a great production of Shakespeare, you will be impressed by the Shakespeare.
Tim Carroll’s production of Twelfth Night, currently playing at the Belasco Theatre, is a great production, precisely because its component elements all come together to articulate, embody, and enhance the creative genius of the play itself. All of the comic bits and stage business of this production found all of those fun moments and built on them to create a cascade of joy for the production’s entire length.
Mark Rylance is the standout in the all-male cast. He manages to create an Olivia who is able to display a wide range of emotions without ever descending into camp. With one notable exception, none of the humor of his outrageously funny performance comes from the fact that he is male. His Olivia is vain; she’s not interested in Orsino’s advances, but can’t help but be flattered by them. And when she does fall in love, she can no longer maintain her practiced detachment. We laugh at the character, and not the actor playing her.
The one exception is that Rylance affects a very funny gait that makes it seem like he’s gliding beneath his flowing dress. This is probably funnier because we know it’s a man, but for the most part, Rylance creates a comic performance that’s true to his character and not at all about cross-dressing. In fact, I would say the same about the compelling performances of Viola (Samuel Barnett) and Maria (Paul Chahidi) as well; they created believable realistic characters that brought out the humor of the moments and not the drag.
I thought the cast was amazing across the board, but a few more of the actors are worthy of highlighting. Peter Hamilton Dyer was riviting as an edgy Feste. Angus Wright created a very funny Sir Andrew. And Stephen Fry was outstanding as Malvolio, as you knew he would be. In the early scenes, he was less prissy and arrogant than most Malvolii that I’ve seen, and so his innocent glee at reading the letter becomes heartbreaking. We actually feel sorry for Fry’s Malvolio, and making this character sympathetic is no easy task.
Everything was designed to look as it had looked in the Globe, with sets, costumes, and music carefully calibrated for authenticity. An all-male cast talked to audience members on stage. But for me, the best part was the raw theatrical moment of being part of a shared experience with the rest of audience. The performance I saw got more instances of spontaneous applause than a State of the Union address. And when the curtain call came, we didn’t want it to end.
The actors did the curtain call as a dance. The audience started clapping and cheering while the actors danced. Gradually, some of the clapping fell into the rhythm of the music, and soon we were all clapping to the beat. When the music stopped, the dance ended, and the audience exploded once again into a cheering applause. I left with a new respect for the play, and for the power of what great theatre can do.
You may note that I loved this production, but not the other production by the same creative team. How can this be? Well, I think a collaborative artistic creation is more than the sum of its parts. There needs to be a chemical reaction that takes place, and the play has to be a part of that equation. One performance worked with the play it was interpreting, and the other worked in opposition to it. The results of those decisions were two very different evenings at the theatre, at least for me.
Twelfth Night will be running until February 16, but Stephen Fry’s last performance will be on February 13, so that’s probably the end date you want to use. If you enjoy a great production of Shakespeare, you won’t want to miss this one.