Twelfth Night, or What You Will

Twelfth Night, Olivia. E.B. Leighton, prepared as lithograph
Twelfth Night
by William Shakespeare

Shakespeare’s Globe in a limited run at The Belasco Theatre on Broadway
Directed by Tim Carroll
Starring Mark Rylance and Stephen Fry

Reviewed by Scott Klavan

Mark Rylance is usually a show unto himself, but in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, currently running on Broadway, he has the support of an accomplished troupe from Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre of London, a classic text of gender mix-ups, and an ambitious production design. Directed by Tim Carroll, the show features an all-male cast who, like the actors of Elizabethan time, play characters of both sexes; costumes made in the original style, with the same materials; and music played with period instruments, some of which have never been heard on Broadway. The set, too, is a replica of the period’s “oak screen,” a wooden backdrop that spans the stage, and according to production notes resembles old university dining halls such as the one still found at Oxford. Some audience members sit onstage in “standings,” enclosed wooden bleachers, as they did in the 16th and 17th century. Twelfth Night runs concurrently with the Globe’s Richard III, starring Rylance in the title role.

Twelfth Night, William_Powell_Frith,_The_Duel_Scene (1843)On the coast of Illyria, the story begins with lovesick Count Orsino (Liam Brennan) pining for Countess Olivia (played in full gown and crown by Rylance). Complications pile up when shipwrecked Viola (Samuel Barnett), thinking her twin, Sebastian, has been drowned at sea, dresses as a man, Cesario, and goes to work for Orsino. Viola/Cesario falls for Orsino; Olivia falls for Cesario/Viola. Add to this a Fool, Feste (Peter Hamilton Dyer), ne’er do wells Sir Toby Belch (Colin Hurley) and Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Angus Wright), who plot against Olivia’s steward, pompous Malvolio (Stephen Fry), the return of Sebastian (Joseph Timms) and…well, find your college Drama notes and finish it. Twelfth Night is one of Shakespeare’s most accessible and active comedies, and the Globe company, run by Rylance from 1996 to 2005, with its superlative verbal talent, makes clear the almost unbelievably contemporary theme of the absurd confusion and despair that accompanies love between men and women.

But while the production is meticulously, beautifully mounted and thoughtfully and amiably performed, it remains low-key. Here, Count Orsino is an older, somewhat dispirited courtier, rather than the dashing younger man often associated with the part; Sir Toby is short, petulant and red-faced, not the large and lusty Falstaffian fellow we expect; and Olivia, as played by Rylance, is something of a monstrosity, a repressed and spoiled woman driven into a passive-aggressive hysteria by her lust for Cesario. Even Feste is quiet and bummed-out.

Twelfth Night, first folio pageThese choices were certainly made deliberately and may have been fueled by the plan to emulate the simplicity of the Elizabethan theatrical experience—the production eschews microphones, and uses candles for some of the on-stage lighting—and/or illustrate the idea that people see what they want to see in their objects of desire: our need for a transcendent love is a powerful inner fantasy that overcomes the drab physical reality in front of our faces. But the panache-free style, the lack of charisma among the performances causes the show to lack a certain size and spirit: outrage, desolation, exultation and joy, are mostly absent. (Sword fights begin, then peter away; a kiss is a joke, with lips smudged idiotically with lipstick.) The concept of a Shakespearean show with unadorned, historical verisimilitude is admirable, but the result is that our patience is tested in the three hour running time and when our laughter comes, it is sporadic, and strained.

Twelfth_Night. R. Staines engravingMalvolio is an example. As played by the popular British author, wit and performer Stephen Fry in his Broadway debut, he is a peevish, but fairly innocuous bureaucrat. He doesn’t seem threatening or vile at the outset, nor ludicrously, touchingly transformed by the possibility of love with Olivia later. When he is taken down by Sir Toby, and his lover, Olivia’s “gentlewoman” Maria (Paul Chahidi), and Aguecheek, the scheme seems more mean-spirited than an example of Just Desserts. Malvolio’s ending fist-shaking vow to take revenge has little impact; he doesn’t seem capable of it. The same is true of Sir Toby’s final rejection of Sir Andrew. This moment doesn’t make all that much sense in the original text, but here, it comes out of nowhere and passes without notice. If the characters are kept small and somewhat weak, any kind of big emotional expression seems unjustified.

Twelfth_Night, W._Hamilton, Olivia, Sebastian, PriestAnd where is love, you might ask? Rylance, an acting virtuoso, who in performances ranging from La Bete to Boeing-Boeing to Jerusalem, has made himself into one of America’s few stage stars, does give Olivia an inventive, wacked-out exuberance, a departure from the rest of the cast. But we also see the hard artistic calculation. Olivia is never fully vulnerable, and real; it’s not believable for a moment that Sebastian would be taken with this kooky Countess. Since genuine, uncontrollable longing, the very romantic helplessness Shakespeare was lampooning—evinced in the text by virtually all of the characters, including Belch and Aguecheek—is never on display, we can’t view ourselves and our foibles. Because most everyone on stage stays grounded and dispassionate, (or exaggerated and easily dismissed), the audience is kept safe, spared from self-reflection, self-deprecatory laughter and the self-knowledge that might follow. If nothing is ventured, nothing is lost, and gained.

Of course, having men play women may tamp down the unsettling sexual/romantic electricity that might have occurred between players in a mixed-sex cast. But why should it? Isn’t the creative challenge of doing the play in the unisex Elizabethan style how to bring the passion out anyway? (Even if that’s not the way they performed it hundreds of years ago?) Otherwise, why do it? The fun of the mixture of the gender confusion of the script with the same confusion in the cast, goes only so far. It’s not enough to see men move about in corsets and gowns, however comic. Like the production as a whole, they’ve got the outside of the women down; but the inside is unexplored, up in the air.

It should be noted that Barnett and Timms, playing the twins, often scale the heights of the text; the audience actually believes that these two parts are played by one person, an acting (and directing) feat. Hamilton Dyer brings affecting world-weariness and beautifully nuanced singing to the role of Feste the Fool. Ultimately, Twelfth Night is tremendously adept, but shies from the ether, the hearts and souls of its script and characters. We visit the Elizabethan theater, but get stuck to the wooden floor.


Scott Klavan at websiteScott Klavan, theatre writer at Escape Into Life, is an actor, director, and playwright in New York. He has performed on Broadway and in many off-Broadway and regional productions. His stage adaption of Raymond Carver’s short story “Cathedral” was produced off-Broadway by Theater by the Blind (TBTB, now Theater Breaking Through Barriers), and his play Double Murder was published in Best American Short Plays of 2006-2007 by Applause Books. For twenty years, Scott was Script and Story Analyst for the legendary actors Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. He will serve as Visiting Playwright in July, 2014, at Heartland Theatre Company’s New Plays from the Heartland Midwest One-Act Play Competition.

Scott Klavan’s Website

Scott Klavan at Heartland Theatre Company

Shakespeare’s Globe on Broadway

The Belasco Theatre

Public domain images of Twelfth Night thanks to Wikipedia/Wikimedia

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