Mark Rylance will have you pealing with laughter as he plays a repressed noblewoman in William Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night.” He’ll also, rather astonishingly, do the same as Richard III.
The superstar English actor finally reveals his Shakespeare skills to a Broadway audiences and it’s worth the wait: His Olivia is as wonderfully mad with passion as his “rudely stamped” monarch in “Richard III” is simply mad, veering from farcical buffoonery to a glint of the savage.
Both plays from Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London that were also hits in the West End are being performed in repertory here and opened Sunday at the Belasco Theatre, offering a darkish comedy the lightest of stagings and a pitch-dark tragedy played for laughs.
They bring the plays alive, brilliantly and made immediate, even if “Twelfth Night” nudges ahead of its more homicidal cousin if the cost of seeing both is prohibitive, although the producers have admirably offered huge student discounts. Taken together, these are pure sweet and sour joy.
The plays are directed with aplomb by Tim Carroll and celebrate Rylance’s attempt to get as close as possible to original staging, costumes, music and acting styles. The stage, for instance, is illuminated by chandeliers packed with real dripping candles, and there are seven musicians playing traditional Elizabethan instruments in a gallery above the stage. Jenny Tiramani’s pale wooden backdrop and carved banquet table and benches are keeping with the minimal theme, though a tad unrelenting.
Entering the Belasco, audiences will also witness the pre-show ritual of actors dressing and preparing their makeup onstage and some customers will actually be seated on the stage in towers on either side, a nod to the intimate theaters of The Bard’s age. (Rylance graciously waves and shakes hands with stunned-looking ticket holders before the tragedy). At the end of each play, everyone dances, even the dead king in the tragedy.
There are also no women acting, keeping with the theater traditions of yore. All female roles are played by men and this device adds a layer of winking meaning to the comedy, since it plays with gender-swapping already. The homoeroticism is played for laughs perfectly in 2013.
Rylance, the Globe’s first artistic director and celebrated on this side of the Atlantic for “Boeing-Boeing” and “Jerusalem,” shows his decades of ease with Shakespeare, particularly his reprising of the white-faced and trembling Olivia, who finds herself unglued in the presence of a young man, who is, in fact, a young woman in disguise. Her gliding about like a Kabuki character is a highlight of this rich Shakespeare season.
But Rylance’s Richard III doesn’t have the customarily slow burn into madness that others have taken. There are times it’s hard to separate him from a buffoon, bumbling about like a twit with oddly little charisma. He gets laughs — but not scared ones — for delivering such lines as “He cannot live” and “I’ll have her; but I will not keep her long” (”What?” he asks the audience in a humorous aside).
Instead of dread, Rylance with a withered left arm and crocodile tears seems to be reaching for a kind of psycho fool, and so doesn’t reach the horror of a “minister of hell” or a man who does the “inhuman and unnatural.”
The 19-member cast also includes a regal Stephen Fry making his Broadway acting debut as Malvolio in “Twelfth Night.” He plays his role to the pompous, supercilious hilt, but you also sort of feel bad that he is so mistreated. (The play also contains a triumphant scene in which he is watched reading a forged love letter.) Fry is not in “Richard III,” which is a shame for us.
Others who shine in both are Angus Wright as a daffy knight in “Twelfth Night” and a too-crafty-for-his-own-good Duke of Buckingham in “Richard III,” Paul Chahidi as a hysterical Maria in “Twelfth Night” and he dual roles of Hastings and Tyrrell opposed to Richard III, and Samuel Barnett, who is a glorious Viola in “Twelfth Night” and Queen Elizabeth in “Richard III.” Liam Brennan is a dashing Orsino.
The productions offer memorable moments — the worst duel ever by two unwilling participants in the comedy, an ominously stabbed strawberry and a grotesque head on a pike in the tragedy, and a powerful scene in which a mad Richard wipes the tears from his stunned wife and dabs them on his own cheeks.
With a “Romeo and Juliet” behind us and a “Macbeth” to go, this is a purple patch for The Bard. But seeing Rylance in his element on Broadway is rare and special. Get thee hence.
Shakespeare done as in Shakespeare’s day — how obvious, and how revolutionary.
Theatergoers have come to expect the Bard’s work to be saddled with weird conceits (In modern times! In the Wild West! In a swimming pool!). Enter Broadway’s elegant and eloquent “Richard III” and “Twelfth Night,” which are being presented in repertory and doing it old school. Really old school.
That means an all-male cast and dudes that look like ladies, courtesy of powdered faces, wigs and rouged lips. There are also musicians plucking and tooting period instruments in a loft overhead, a set illuminated by candles and actors dressing on stage 20 minutes before the show. As tapers in chandeliers are ceremoniously lit, we’re transported.
Directed by Tim Carroll and designed by Jenny Tiramani, the plays come from Shakespeare’s Globe in London. They were custom-built for the talents of British actor Mark Rylance, who won a Tony for the farce “Boeing-Boeing” and the contemporary epic drama “Jerusalem.” He’s famous for characterizations that are quirky and one-of-a-kind. And in both, he’s on his game.
As the crook-backed brute who murdered his way to the crown in “Richard III,” Rylance has the signature hump and a shrunken paw. Nothing new there. But everything else about Rylance’s Richard defies expectations. He plays Richard with a jokey and demented good humor and punctuates fatal orders with a cheeky-creepy giggle. The outer goofball makes Richard’s inner devil all the more chilling.
In “Twelfth Night,” as Olivia, the princess who goes from mournful to boy crazy, Rylance creates a delightful concoction of movement and emotion. His Olivia, cocooned in a billowing black gown, appears to float above the stage — a monarch butterfly. Credit Rylance’s pitter-pattering baby steps under the skirt. Olivia’s wit is just as irresistibly fleet-footed.
But it takes more than one great actor to make Shakespeare really click. Rylance is surrounded by a sublime company, who move seamlessly between the plays. In “Twelfth Night” Samuel Barnett’s endearing Viola; Paul Chahidi’s foxy Maria; Stephen Fry’s maligned Malvolio and Angus Wright’s absurd Andrew Aguecheek are invaluable. In “Richard III,” Joseph Timms and Liam Brennan stand out, respectively, as Lady Anne and the doomed Clarence.
Faced with good fortune that has magically been multiplied by two, Olivia expresses her sheer joy this way — “Most wonderful!”
Same goes for this double-decker delight.
No argument about who’s the king of Broadway right now: It’s William Shakespeare. The guy’s got four shows on the Great White Way — the first time since 1987 that there’s been such a pileup — and he doesn’t get royalties or take forever for rewrites. A producer’s dream!
Unlike Orlando Bloom’s “Romeo and Juliet” and Ethan Hawke’s “Macbeth,” the alternating productions of “Richard III” and “Twelfth Night” that just opened at the Belasco don’t boast a big marquee name.
Well, they happen to be led by Mark Rylance, but this two-time Tony winner (“Jerusalem,” “Boeing-Boeing”) is an actor’s actor rather than a Page Six fixture.
And here he pulls off a total stage-freak feat: Depending on the day, Rylance either plays the titular crippled schemer in “Richard III” or the noble lady Olivia in “Twelfth Night.”
The shows are presented in repertory by London’s Shakespeare’s Globe. They kick it old-school: with an all-male cast in period 17th-century costumes — which they put on in full view of the audience in an entertaining pre-show ritual.
The result, directed by Tim Carroll, is a feast for the senses.
A band positioned at the top of a gallery in the back of the stage performs a live score on sackbuts, recorders, lutes and the like. Much of the lighting comes from candles, and you occasionally hear the splat of hot wax hitting the stage. As for the outfits, they were made using only fabrics and techniques available in Shakespeare’s era.
Men playing women also adds a fascinating layer — even if back then it was boys rather than adults. You do get used to it, though the hall-of-mirror effect is particularly troubling in the gender-bending “Twelfth Night.”
That play creates an enchanting atmosphere — and a very funny one. Rylance looks fantastic in his huge black dress and corpse-white makeup. Gliding around as if on a hidden moving platform, he milks all the humor and pathos out of his character’s sudden passion for Cesario — who’s really Viola, a young woman disguised as a boy.
Samuel Barnett (“The History Boys”) is a winsome Viola, as eloquent as she is romantic. And the comic second bananas take advantage of every single opportunity to score laughs, especially Paul Chahidi as a deceptively prim Maria, the scheming lady in waiting.
Too bad Stephen Fry, the gadfly actor and writer, doesn’t sell his oddly demure Malvolio. He looks so noble that the idea of Olivia falling for him isn’t entirely preposterous.
We lose Fry in “Richard III,” where Barnett strikes again as Queen Elizabeth, while Joseph Timms — a dead ringer for Viola as her twin brother in “Twelfth Night” — gives us a hauntingly sad Lady Anne.
But this show belongs to Rylance.
His Richard uses his deformity to look pathetic and better manipulate his victim — watch him make people uncomfortable with his atrophied hand, which hangs from his cape like a mummified monkey paw. Acting like a sad, bumbling clown, Richard gets laughs. It’s a fascinating choice, even if we lose a lot of Richard’s evil edge.
“Twelfth Night” is the better show, but seeing both productions lets you watch the actors slip into completely different roles. You’re not just going to the theater — you’re experiencing what makes it magic.
The man dressed as a woman dressed a man declares, with understandable agitation, that disguise is truly “a wickedness.” But don’t ask anyone lucky enough to be at the Belasco Theater, home to a peerless production of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night,” to agree with him. I mean her. I mean him.
In this imported production from Shakespeare’s Globe of London, deception is a source of radiant illumination for the audience, while the bewilderment of the characters onstage floods us with pure, tickling joy. I can’t remember being so ridiculously happy for the entirety of a Shakespeare performance since — let me think — August 2002.
That was the last time I saw the Globe’s “Twelfth Night” (in London), directed by Tim Carroll and starring the astonishing Mark Rylance, in a bar-raising performance as the Countess Olivia. And how thrilled I am that our wandering paths have crossed once more, rather like those of the separated twins at the play’s center.
This “Twelfth Night” — which opened on Sunday in repertory with a vibrant and shivery “Richard III” that allows Mr. Rylance to show he’s as brilliant in trousers as he is in a dress — makes you think, “This is how Shakespeare was meant to be done.” That’s appropriate, since the mission of the 16-year-old Shakespeare’s Globe (where Mr. Rylance was the original artistic director) has been to recreate the experience provided by its namesake, which existed back in the Elizabethan heyday of you-know-who.
So the costumes for both productions are of the period in which they were written. So is the live music. And all the roles are portrayed by male actors, as they once were.
The congested Times Square theater district doesn’t allow for the re-creation of the capacious, roofless “wooden O” that is the Globe. But with artful lighting (by Stan Pressner) that makes sure the audience is never in the dark (literally as well as figuratively), these shows create a sense of open complicity between actors and theatergoers, such as was said to exist five centuries ago. There’s seating onstage, by the way. But whether you’re up there or in the balcony, you’re never going to feel excluded, unlike the unpopular Malvolio from “Twelfth Night,” portrayed by the polymath Stephen Fry in a felicitous Broadway debut.
These productions are suffused with that most fundamental of Shakespearean virtues, faith. The performers here trust wholly in Shakespeare’s words and in the ability of the audience to understand them. So many interpretations of the canon now are tricked out in the condescending, high-concept garb of anachronistic settings, with comedy that exaggerates the (yuck, yuck) bawdy parts with broad, illustrative gestures.
Mr. Carroll and Mr. Rylance are having none of that, nor is any of the consistently excellent supporting cast. They let the language lead them to the characters. Because they know what they’re saying — and where what they’re saying comes from — we do, too. And even if you’re an inveterate bardolator, you may find lines that you never fully grasped before making sense.
This is the more remarkable when you consider that both plays are about illusion. In “Twelfth Night,” a young woman (Viola, splendidly embodied by Samuel Barnett) dresses up as a boy to woo a woman by proxy for the man Viola secretly loves. In “Richard III,” a fiendish politician (the title character, portrayed by Mr. Rylance) hoodwinks a nation.
Of course, theater is one big illusion. That reality, or unreality, is fully acknowledged by the actors being onstage, donning their Elizabethan garb, when we enter the theater. Yet somehow once the plays proper start, we eagerly accept what’s happening not as a substitute for reality but as a heightened, truer version of it.
If “Twelfth Night,” a celestial comedy, and “Richard III,” a grisly history play, share a theme, it is that in life, disguise comes before a fall. All the characters are in some way not what they seem. And all are ultimately revealed to be what they really are, which they themselves do not initially understand. Before the end, pretty much everybody takes a tumble, physically as well as metaphorically. The forms and consequences differ.
The falls in “Twelfth Night” are pratfalls, and people get up again, usually in morally improved conditions. (The characters in “Richard III” are not so lucky.) All the main characters, even the drunkards and simpletons, are so much on their dignity when we first meet them that we know some equivalent of banana peels figures in their future.
Chief among them, the posturing Duke Orsino (Liam Brennan), who loves, with a fatal passion (or so he thinks), the Countess Olivia (Mr. Rylance), who is mourning the death of her brother and has sworn to love nobody. Olivia’s preening, self-important steward, Malvolio (Mr. Fry) is clearly deluded.
But so in their ways are Olivia’s ale-soaked cousin, Sir Toby Belch (an eye-openingly un-jolly Colin Hurley); his dimwitted companion, Sir Andrew Aguecheek (the blissfully slow-on-the-uptake Angus Wright) and even Olivia’s lady in waiting, Maria (a superb Paul Chahidi). Only Feste (wonderfully underplayed by Peter Hamilton Dyer), the jester, sees himself for what he is. And that’s because he’s a professional fool.
Contrary to most versions of “Twelfth Night,” the foibles of these characters are never exaggerated into grotesqueness, just as the men playing women do not speak in falsettos or flounce about. Even the Puritanical Malvolio, usually an ugly gargoyle, is refreshingly embodied by Mr. Fry with the complacency and affectation of someone you might recognize from your own office. When he becomes the target of a sadistic revenge plot, for once you feel for the guy.
Mr. Rylance’s Olivia, the best I’ve ever seen, is a vulnerable woman newly come into power after the deaths of the men in her family. (You may find yourself thinking of the young Elizabeth I.) Of course she’s loftier than thou; she’s hiding her uncertainty behind protocol, and an occasional stammer gives her away.
When love finds this Olivia — in the inconvenient form of Orsino’s page Cesario, who is really the shipwrecked Viola in disguise — the noble primness crumbles. (Olivia even winds up exchanging her careful, gliding lady’s walk for something more like a gallop.) But though you laugh at the transformation, you also applaud it. And you share in the richly mixed admiration and compassion that Mr. Barnett’s mellifluously tuned Viola brings to the scenes with Mr. Rylance.
Mr. Barnett, previously seen on Broadway in “The History Boys,” memorably plays opposite Mr. Rylance in “Richard III,” too. In this case, Mr. Barnett is a stately but fierce Elizabeth (queen to Edward IV), the one person clever and resolute enough to hold her own in dialogue with the conniving title character. As played by Mr. Rylance, Richard otherwise dominates the proceedings in spectacularly high style.
His interpretation of the crookback king is as thoroughly thought out as it is daring. From his famous opening words (“Now is the winter of our discontent”), this Richard is unafraid to come across as a clown, as a seemingly none-too-bright goofball uncle, who happens to be handy with a sword.
Even when he’s confiding his diabolical schemes to us, we don’t quite take him seriously. And like the succession of rivals he gulls, we pay for our misperception. Only in the second half, do we fully realize we’re in the ice-cold company of a madman. I won’t tell you how Mr. Rylance achieves this, except to say that in switching between what he seems to be and what he is, this Richard has stripped his own gears. He ends up in limbo, without a part to play.
Such is the danger, it seems, of imposing your will upon everybody who crosses your path. In Shakespeare’s world, it’s always better to go with the flow of providence. When in “Twelfth Night,” Olivia comes to see that she can’t resist the love she feels, she acknowledges that greater power with exaltation and humility.
“Well, let it be,” she says. And this actor disguised as an actress playing a woman who has imprisoned herself in a pose makes us feel the unconditional importance of being your natural self.
The visit from Shakespeare's Globe is Big-Event Theater at its most deeply satisfying, least hyped-up and prepackaged best. In other words, the fascinating and eye-opening all-male "Richard III" and, especially, "Twelfth Night," presented in repertory in more-or-less authentic Elizabethan style, are centuries and sensibilities away from any suggestion of theme parks, drag shows and Renaissance Faires.
The ostensible justification for these exhilarating productions is, of course, Mark Rylance. The preposterously gifted acting chameleon and showman ran Shakespeare's rebuilt Globe in London for the first decade after its 1996 inception and, not incidentally, has won Tonys for just about every word he has ever uttered on Broadway.
But Rylance, who makes an irresistibly self-possessed yet vulnerable Olivia in "Twelfth Night" and a daringly clownish evil Richard, is just a part -- if an inextricable part -- of this special occasion. The plays begin onstage 15 minutes before curtain, when the excellent actors let us watch their transformation into 16th century men and women. (Women were banned from the wicked stage in Shakespeare's time.)
Musicians entertain on historic instruments, several I know I have never seen before. Two onstage boxes fill up with theatergoers who should prepare to be brought into some action, but not obnoxiously so. It is a very welcoming pre-show, capped with the lighting and rising of chandelier candlesticks.
Then there are the clothes, recreated by designer-costume historian Jenny Tiramani, which time-travel back to men in bloomer puffs, lace ruffs and felt hats that look like thimbles. And the women -- oh, the women -- are in long, intricately structured gowns and topped with hair that appears to be tightly woven, like rugs.
There is no camping, no winking when a man plays a woman who disguises herself as a man. The only concession to impersonation -- and it's an enchanting one -- is the quick, tiny steps that make the women appear to be floating.
Director Tim Carroll stages both on a plain jewelbox of a set. As always, ultimately, the play's the thing. And Shakespeare's language, as well as his meanings, have seldom been as clear.
"Twelfth Night" is the centerpiece that gives the most chances for nuanced sexuality and comic delight. In "Richard," Rylance chooses to play a villain who dissembles as a joking bumpkin, his guileless eyes betrayed by sinister eyebrows. Still, an almost cuddly Richard, despite his creepily effective dead and withered hand, lowers the stakes of the tragedy.
It feels unfair to single individuals from this exuberant company, which morphs seamlessly from the tragedy to the comedy. But Angus Wright amazes as he goes from the dashing Buckingham in "Richard" to a deliriously ridiculous Andrew Aguecheek in "Twelfth Night." Samuel Barnett makes a horrified Elizabeth in "Richard," then gets lyrically feisty as Viola disguises herself as a man in "Twelfth Night."
The ever-formidable Stephen Fry makes such a noble Malvolio in "Twelfth Night" that his humiliation by the clowns seems awfully cruel, while Paul Chahidi turns Maria, Olivia's gentlewoman in "Twelfth Night" into a genuine star turn. If you get there early enough -- and you really should -- you can watch him get into his corset.
The revered British actor Mark Rylance last appeared on Broadway, in 2011, as a larger-than-life hedonist and derelict named Johnny "Rooster" Byron in Jez Butterworth's Jerusalem. Several critics likened Rooster, who earned Rylance his second Tony Award, to Shakespeare's Falstaff in his exalted folly.
So it makes sense that Rylance, who has a long history with the Bard, would return to him, in a suitably meaty part. In fact, the actor has chosen two: the title role in Richard III (*** out of four) and Olivia in Twelfth Night (***½) in repertory productions that opened Sunday at the Belasco Theatre.
The stagings, which mark the Broadway debut of Shakespeare's Globe, find Rylance — a former Globe artistic director — leading an all-male company helmed by Tim Carroll. Other practices of the playwright's day are observed; Jenny Tiramani's handsome, resourceful set is lit chiefly by candles, and her costumes hand-stitched based on 16th-century designs.
Musicians play traditional Elizabethan instruments from a gallery above the stage, and cast members mill about before each performance, dressing and applying makeup.
What matters, of course, is the actors' authenticity once the plays begin; and they are, generally, as magnificent as you would expect. Twelfth Night is, under Carroll's robust guidance, a joy — sly and bawdy and finally touching, without ever losing its glorious naughtiness.
As Olivia, the countess who falls for a woman she believes is a man — Viola, disguised as the servant Cesario — Rylance, his face slathered in white, moves with such exaggerated delicacy that he sometimes appears to be gliding on wheels, his teensy-weensy footsteps all but invisible.
Samuel Barnett, the superb younger actor cast as Viola, is a more natural ingenue — a contrast that works, given the differences in their characters' stations and the high comic style. The latter is enhanced by marvelous performances by Colin Hurley and Angus Wright as, respectively, Olivia's buffoonish cousin, Sir Toby Belch, and addled suitor Sir Andrew Aguecheek; and by Stephen Fry, deliciously pompous as Olivia's steward, Malvolio.
Rylance's Richard, if undoubtedly compelling, is more challenging. He bellows the famous opening words — "Now is the winter of our discontent" — with a curious giddiness that quickly dissolves into sardonic self-loathing. Laughing nervously at himself, Rylance can make the murderous madman seem as wilted in spirit as he is physically.
It's an interesting take, but doesn't quite explain how Richard manages to woo Lady Anne (a haunting Joseph Timms) after killing her husband and father-in-law, or secure his reign of terror over England. Rylance does gradually — and rather predictably — reveal the rage festering in Richard; as the tension and the killings increase, he acquires a formidable rival in Barnett's bracing Queen Elizabeth, and is supported by other fine performances too numerous to mention here.
Suffice it to say that you needn't be a Rylance devotee — or even love his work here unconditionally — to enjoy either production.
What sounds like a gimmick — a troupe of Shakespearean actors getting into costume and makeup in full view of the audience — turns out to be a stroke of genius when executed by the all-male company from Shakespeare’s Globe in residence at Broadway’s Belasco Theater. Toplined by Mark Rylance (“Jerusalem”), who plays the title monarch in “Richard III” and makes a lovely Olivia in “Twelfth Night,” these amazing thespians faithfully observe the theatrical rituals and customs of Elizabethan times, including the tradition of playing broad comedy directly to the rowdy groundlings in the cheap seats. And how we do love it!
On a contemporary stage, defined by a formal proscenium arch, high-tech artifices, and strict segregation of actors and audience, these Elizabethan traditions seem quite radical. There are no sets as such, aside from a solid oak screen with two doors for entrances and exits and a balcony for the musicians, along with a few sticks of furniture that won’t obstruct the sightlines for theatergoers installed onstage on two tiers of wooden seats. The only apparent light source is the glow of 100 candles from iron chandeliers. As was the custom in Shakespeare’s day, female roles are all played by pretty young men. And, needless to say, no one is mic’ed.
But the last word in historical authenticity — even more so than composer Claire van Kampen’s faithful approximation of the Renaissance music played on 17th century instruments, or the traditional materials designer Jenny Tiramani uses for the meticulous hand-cut and hand-stitched costumes — has to be the intimate relationship between actors and audience. During the onstage dress and throughout the performance, members of the company play directly to us — and they do it completely in character.
Tuning up for his wise fool antics as Feste in “Twelfth Night,” the agile Peter Hamilton Dyer demonstrates a tricky piece of fingering on the recorder for goggle-eyed patrons. Suiting up for his sober role as the tragic Lord Hastings in “Richard III,” Paul Chahidi twinkles and waves at a groundling who has recognized him for the scheming Maria he plays in “Twelfth Night.” And one onstage aud member is clearly gobsmacked when Rylance’s grotesquely obsequious King Richard comes crawling to her for attention.
Comedy or “tragedie,” if we are to judge from this thrilling double bill, the Elizabethan theater seems to have been as much rowdy fun for the players as it was for the audience.
Under Tim Carroll’s helming, this extraordinary intimacy pays off in fresh, even profound insights into characters and plays we thought we knew. The prime example, not surprisingly, is King Richard. In Rylance’s innovative interpretation, the stunted monarch doesn’t present himself as a “subtle, false, and treacherous” devil, but as a comic buffoon whose misshapen physiognomy and foolish antics would seem to present no threat to the royal court. Affecting the physical and vocal mannerisms of a good-natured halfwit (“Dogs bark at me,” he cackles), he gleefully seduces us into becoming co-conspirators in his cruel and cunning schemes.
The secret villain that Rylance unmasks in Richard’s soliloquies also goes against the grain, an assassin consumed less by envy and hatred of his victims than loathing for his own twisted self. It isn’t political ambition but psychic pain that compels him to destroy all the people who genuinely love him, among them his brother Clarence (Liam Brennan, a manly Orsino in “Twelfth Night” and here a most poetic murder victim); his nephews, the young Princes in the Tower; and, most fatefully, his loyal partner in dark deeds, the Duke of Buckingham, played by Angus Wright in full, sonorous voice (at least, on those nights when he isn’t making a wonderful honking fool of Sir Andrew Aguecheek in “Twelfth Night.”) In the end, Richard has no one left to hate but himself, which he finally acknowledges in his last soul-baring soliloquy (“Alack, I love myself / Alas, I rather hate myself”) on the eve of battle at Bosworth field.
If the tragic seems comic in “Richard III,” the comic becomes tragic in “Twelfth Night,” largely due to the compassionate view that Stephen Fry takes of the melancholy Malvolio. Instead of mocking Olivia’s haughty steward for his pride and vanity (“I will be proud!” sounds more like a weak, pathetic cheer than a boast), Fry dares to acknowledge the feelings of inadequacy that make this gloomy fellow such an easy victim.
A tragic Malvolio doesn’t diminish the beguiling romance at the heart of the play — the ambiguous relationships between Duke Orsino (Liam Brennan), who pines for Olivia (Mark Rylance), who pines for Viola (Samuel Barnett) who pines for Orsino. In fact, both the cross-dressing thesps and the lithe Sebastian (Joseph Timms), a girlish mirror image of his twin sister, Viola (herself in disguise as the boyish Cesario), add another layer of subtlety to the gender confusion.
The delight we take in this cross-dressing is due, in part, to the fun of watching grown men squeezing themselves into women’s clothes and mincing around in pretty little shoes. But it has far more to do with the psychological validity of their performances. Barnett (remembered for the sensitive lad he played in “The History Boys”) is so convincing as the delicate Viola, in silent mourning for the twin brother she lost at sea, that her pageboy disguise can’t mask her feminine tenderness. It’s no wonder that Rylance’s Olivia, who is also in deep mourning for a beloved brother, would respond to the womanly side of this supposed boy.
The tragic undertones of these comic performances do have an impact, however, on the shenanigans of the comic fools in Olivia’s household.
Colin Hurley (so tragic as Edward IV in “Richard III”) and the irrepressible Chahidi are rollickingly funny as, respectively, the drunken Sir Toby Belch and that saucy kitchen wench Maria. But there’s no getting away from the brazen cruelty of the jokes they gleefully play on poor Malvolio and that foolish fop, Sir Andrew. You can read it best in the lachrymose expression of Hamilton Dyer’s Feste as he sings his melodic but melancholy songs about the absurdity of love (“Many a good hanging prevents a bad marriage”) and lovers (“Better a witty fool than a foolish wit”).
It isn’t so much that these astonishing actors are well-schooled in playing both comedy and tragedy, more that they see the tragic side of comedy and the comic side of tragedy.