To start with, the prelude. The actors, consistent with Shakespearean practices, get into their costumes on stage thirty minutes before curtain. Mark Rylance, whose genius I will never understand, alternates between chatting with audience members who sit onstage, performing vocal exercises, and staring, eyes dilated, at some unremarkable point on the floor: at these moments, he appears like a man possessed, wholly unaware that he standing before thousands or that someone is sewing him, before Richard III, into a rather bulky outfit or, before Twelfth Night, into a dress.
These two plays, being performed in repertory at the Belasco Theatre, mark the peak of Shakespearean performance—they are executed flawlessly and with breathtaking intelligence. Mr. Rylance, it is clear, has eaten Shakespeare for breakfast, lunch, and dinner for decades, but the rest of the cast also embody the language with an ease and understanding that is not only rare but virtually nonexistent. It is a testament to director Tim Carroll that he finds moments of humor and pathos where the casual reader may only see exposition; in other words, he surprises us with the depth of his knowledge of Shakespeare, he reveals new layers to us.
There is, of course, a great benefit to performing Twelfth Night with an all-male cast. When Viola (Samuel Barnett) says—while in cross-dressed disguise—“I am the man,” or, “I am not that I play,” there is an added dimension hearing this from a male actor who is himself masked by drag. Furthermore, the thick white makeup applied to both Viola and Sebastian (Joseph Timms) provides this production with the most convincing confusion between the two; normally, any member of the audience has no trouble distinguishing the siblings, but here we are able to believe that, say, Olivia (Mr. Rylance) rushes off to marry Sebastian thinking him Viola.
Mr. Rylance, unsurprisingly, gives us a wonderful Olivia; her mourning (which is often challenged by scholars) is wholly genuine, her love for Viola/Sebastian both deeply felt and hilariously misguided. His voice has a slightly raspy timbre, and his occasional stammer is an absolute revelation—how much funnier Shakespeare can be when an actor has the audacity to make the dialogue his own, when he is unafraid of altering the text to suit the performance. It is an old joke that the worst thing one can do to a writer is to canonize his work, but with Mr. Rylance, one never senses anything but the immediacy of the writing, instead of an unemotional and distant respect for it. Angus Wright, as an ungainly Andrew Aguecheek, plays the poor man as wholly fascinated by his own lack of wit—he is full of such amiable delight when, hearing reference to a “foolish knight,” he cries, “That’s me, I warrant you. I knew ’twas I; for many do call me fool!” Watch for scenes where he is not the center of attention and you will find him absolutely transfixed by the most ordinary of objects on the stage. His booming, confident voice, paired by an undiluted idiocy, provides this Twelfth Night with its most hysterical moments. Stephen Fry, towering over his fellow cast members, is a fine Malvolio, who is best played not only as a foppish dunce but also as the play’s greatest victim: I’ve always found his “Madam, you have done me wrong. Notorious wrong,” a chilling reminder that Twelfth Night is by no means a story of successful romance. And Colin Hurley, as the drunk Sir Toby Belch (subtle name, no?), has mastered a kind of swagger stumble that perfectly suits this man with such simple interests.
If Richard III is not as overwhelmingly good as Twelfth Night, it is only because it is an inferior play. I thought I had seen the definitive Richard when Kevin Spacey played him as Groucho Marx at BAM, but Mr. Rylance’s take is equally compelling. Plagued by fits of giggles, he comes across as a mix between a petulant child who has never been punished and a tactical mastermind whose distance from others provides him with the ability to manipulate them—except that his tactics eventually extend his reach, and this production offers a greater sense of the riskiness of Richard’s plotting than any other I have seen. Mr. Timms stands out as Anne, the most thankless part in the play, and while floating across the stage like a levitating nun, he comes as close as any to convincing me that she could be so easily wooed by the murderer of her husband and father.
Orson Welles once rightly moaned, “Now we sit through Shakespeare in order to recognize the quotations.” But in the hands of Mr. Carroll, of Mr. Rylance, and of all the others, everything here is worthy of quotation.
Twelfth Night and Richard III run through February 16th at the Belasco Theatre. 111 W. 44th Street New York, NY. Twelfth Night runs 2 hours 50 minutes. One intermission. Richard III runs 2 hours 45 minutes. One intermission.