After seeing the two Shakespeare’s Globe productions on Broadway, I am a convert. The 16th-century conceptual frame – a bare wooden set and period costumes designed by Jenny Tiramani, musicians tootling Claire van Kampen’s tunes on recorders and sackbuts – renders the text thrillingly lucid and the action transparent. In their staging and treatment of the verse, the all-male cast and (co-ed) crew of Twelfth Night (in rep with Richard III) revel in the spare but cozy Elizabethan aesthetic – from the initial ceremonial lighting of candles to the final full-cast jig. Now I want to see all the Bard’s works done this way – anything more will seem inauthentic.
What’s gained and what’s lost by thus historicizing the scene? To my mind, a great deal of clarity and textual innocence is gained, while the only thing lost is four centuries of directorial and academic humbug. We look at the female characters of Viola, Maria and Olivia – played by men – as stage creatures, not representatives of the Elizabethan feminine subject or camp objects of derision. In terms of scenery, we don’t need backdrops or elaborate props to follow the action. The Elizabethan theater, as some commentators have argued, was anti-mimetic and anti-naturalistic (admittedly, long before the term naturalism was even coined).
In the end, though, this is just another high concept, an experiment. In future seasons we’ll have Hamlet in the antebellum South, Rosalind in Yellowstone National Park and Pericles on a Somali pirate boat. But I can’t remember a performance of Shakespeare that so beguiled me with its simplicity and lyric vibrancy that feels so connected to the source.
Director Tim Carroll, working with a frisky and versatile all-male cast headed by Mark Rylance, coaxes forth a fresh, limber reading of Twelfth Night, the wistful gambol about a cross-dressed twin, mismatched lovers and a severely gulled butler in yellow stockings. Stephen Fry takes on the latter role of Malvolio, gracing the puritanical sourpuss with his inherent sweetness, but still bringing plenty of pomposity. Samuel Barnett makes a pert and droll Viola, who disguises herself as a man to serve Count Orsino (Liam Brennan), whom she secretly adores. Orsino, meanwhile, pines after noble, uninterested Olivia (Rylance).
The performances are all pitched perfectly between light comedy and pensive melancholy, which is precisely where Twelfth Night lives. Rylance tempers his typical eccentricities for Olivia, who is vain and impetuous, but adorable and demure. Paul Chahidi’s scheming servant, Maria, maintains a kind of quiet dignity, gliding along the stage as if on a skateboard. And there’s something touchingly plaintive in Peter Hamilton Dyer’s deadpan clown, Feste, who speaks truth to power, but seems just as bemused by more common foibles and frailties of those around him. This fool knows he’s one wrong joke away from prison. All in all, it’s a marvelous cast, and no one tries to “act” Elizabethan; they just serve the words and the words serve them.
David Cote is theater editor and chief drama critic of Time Out New York. He is also a contributing critic on NY1’s On Stage.