All-Male Productions Of ‘Richard III’ and ‘Twelfth Night’ Open On Broadway: REVIEW

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Performed in repertory by an exquisitely skilled company of actors, including two-time Tony Winner Mark Rylance, Richard III and Twelfth Night opened on Broadway November 10th at the Belasco Theatre. Transferring from London’s West End and marking the debut of Shakespeare’s Globe on Broadway, the productions make careful efforts toward material authenticity—including meticulous period costumes, candlelight, and of course, male actors in the female roles.

Shax 2Director Tim Carroll, previously an associate director of Shakespeare’s Globe, brings a fantastic vitality and freshness to these productions, making them into popular entertainment—the most authentic achievement of all. Whether modernized with movie stars or presented with Elizabethan trappings, good Shakespeare should feel both insightful about the human condition and as engaging as a Netflix marathon of your favorite nighttime soap—as these productions do much more often than not.

A frequently celebrated actor on Broadway in recent years and a renowned Shakespearean, Rylance is a pleasure to watch as the title character in Richard III, a deformed Duke determined to take down every obstacle between himself and the throne. Where actors with less experience tend to get lost in Shakespeare’s language or count on it to do most of the heavy lifting, Rylance is bold, specific, and grounded in a way that reveals the inner lives of his characters. On top of being well studied, his interpretations also happen to be wildly entertaining.

Shax 5Rylance's Richard is far from the monstrous villain with bloodthirsty ambition played often by many actors—including Kevin Spacey in Sam Mendes’ production at BAM last season. In this production the Duke of Gloucester is still a sociopath (there’s no getting around that), but one of a different sort—he is by turns wildly insecure, cloying, flippant, and more than a bit silly.

While his treachery out of weakness is both compelling and often funny to watch, by the time heads start rolling (off stage for the most part, to be fair), this Richard doesn’t seem quite ambitious enough to be the one behind the guillotine—nor do the weight of his actions seem to fully register with him. Rather, the tragic stakes of this production rest on superb performances by Joseph Timms as Lady Anne (whose husband and father Richard murders before wooing her to be his wife) and Samuel Barnett as Queen Elizabeth (most of whose family is also murdered on Richard’s orders).

Anne and Elizabeth are the play’s emotional registers by design, and Timms and Barnett are masterful in their carefully stylized portrayals. With faces painted pale white and smooth gaits by which they seem to float across the stage, their every move and expression is deliberate and captivating.

Shax 6The same actors play twins in the comedy of Twelfth Night, with Barnett as Viola (again in a female role) and Timms as her brother Sebastian. When the play opens, the twins are separated in a shipwreck far from home, each believing the other drowned. Viola disguises herself as a young man named ‘Cesario’ for her own protection and goes to serve the Count Orsino (Liam Brennan). Cesario is sent to woo Olivia (Mark Rylance) on Orsino’s behalf, a lady in mourning for the death of her father and brother. Olivia balks at Orsino's advances, but finds herself immediately smitten with Cesario (aka Viola, who is herself in love with Orsino). We’ve all been there.

Rylance reprises his role as Olivia from Carroll’s 2002 Globe production, employing the same smooth gait and deliberate physicality as the ladies of Richard’s court, though with a bit of exaggerated flair. Like his Richard, Rylance’s Olivia is a pleasure to experience on stage—his skill and prowess unmistakable. She is emotional, unpredictable, and very much alive. It is perhaps a testament to Rylance that his Olivia is more desperate in love than she might be were she not quite so much older than Cesario.

Shax 4But, it’s Barnett as Viola and Paul Chahidi as Maria (Olivia’s gentlewoman, and a member of the troublemakers who assemble the comedy’s secondary plot) who are this production’s MVPs. Barnett navigates his portrayal of a female character disguised as a man with extraordinary precision and a magical sort of grace that’s nearly impossible to look away from. Chahidi’s Maria has the impeccable comic timing of a classic old-school comedienne.

The cast of Twelfth Night also includes a charming Stephen Fry as Malvolio, Olivia’s steward and victim of a humiliating plot hatched by her cousin Toby, Maria and other members of the household. That Malvolio, so often a clear bad guy, deserves our sympathy in Frye's hands drives home a clear point made by both productions: everybody's human—especially in Shakespeare.

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  1. Charles says

    I saw this production of Twelfth Night at the Globe. Laughed from beginning to end! I’ve never enjoyed Shakespeare so much. Part of it was being at the Globe theater and standing in the pit.

  2. Randal Oulton says

    Here’s me eagerly racing to point out that this is of course how things were in Shakespeare’s time, which added to the complexity of Twelfth Night (as the reviewer notes.)

  3. Kissyfur says

    Finally an article that’s about more than just nudity and licentious smut! Now that you’ve reached your quota, can you post four articles related to smut and nudity? Thank you.

  4. scott says

    This production of Twelfth Night is one of the best things I have ever seen on stage. Run, don’t walk.

    And BABH – cut it out. Like there wasn’t just a gorgeous all-female Julius Ceasar at St. Anne’s Warehouse.

  5. David says

    Back to basics as far as I am concerned. I love Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre and think this should be the way it is presented often to represent it in historical retrospect.

  6. Graphicjack says

    I have two comments about this. 1. Those costumes are not the right period… They look roughly Elizabethan, but The era of Richard III was late medieval. I’ve seen a lot of modern productions of Shakespeare where they use costumes from different eras to illustrate that history repeats itself, but this doesn’t really make a lot of sense, since there is no historical parallel to Richard III’s era and Elizabeth’s. If the production is supposed to be “realistic” or “historically accurate”, the costume designer goofed big time. 2. I get the novelty of an all male cast for “authenticity” and for a lot of the comedies and romances, it actually adds another layer to the subtext and humour to have the female roles played by men—a lot of the comedies had gender swapping anyway. But I don’t see it’s value in a historical play and as someone else pointed out, there are so few good roles for women anyway. Why are we now going back to a sexist practice like this? I’m not sure I agree with this.

  7. Chaz says

    The best ‘Macbeth’ available for general viewing is the old 1979 McKellen/Dench production directed by Trevor Nunn. No kilts: just twelve people, dressed mainly in plain black, sitting in a circle in near-darkness around a single spotlight. And it’s absolutely terrifying.

  8. Chaz says

    Oh and regarding alleged sexism: there’s an all-female Julius Caesar with Harriet Walters as Brutus on at the same time. Nobody’s suggesting that the all-male thing is making a total comeback. It’s fun and productive to let both sexes play around with gender and see what happens. Fiona Shaw was a standout Richard II and Frances DeLaTour was one of the great hamlets.

  9. scott says

    @Graphicjack – The point of the Globe as an enterprise is to produce the plays in as close an approximation to their original Elizabethan form as possible. So, yes, the costumes are not, from our perspective, specific to the periods (or places) in which the plays are set, but they are similar to what the original Globe company would have done.

    Also – see Twelfth Night if you can. Again, it’s one of the best productions of anything I have ever seen. (And it’s not new – it’s a 12 year old production that just made its NY stage debut.)

  10. Rick says

    am so sick of Shakespeare plays a) being performed by all-female or all-male casts,

    b) being performed by “multi-cultural” casts (there were no non-whites in Hamlet’s Denmark),

    c) being set in historical periods other than the one in which Shakespeare set it,

    d) being performed in bare-bones, stripped-down fashion with no sets or props or interesting and appropriate costumes,

    e) being effectively re-written either through excessive cutting, or, in the case of the latest Romeo, literally having Shakespeare’s words replaced with more “modern” sounding phrases,

    f) being performed with some kind of “gimmick”, whether with a soundtrack of rock music or hip-hop or with Nazi storm trooper uniforms

    Sick of it all. What I would not give for a totally traditional, uncut version of a Shakespeare play performed by race- and gender-appropriate actors and set in the appropriate time period…..and I am sure lots of others feel the same way.

  11. Rick says

    But what I’m most angry about is the fact that I walk with the flat-footed yet hip-rolling gait of a queen who mistakenly believes that everyone thinks she’s straight.

    Basically, I’m sick of everything, and I should probably just die. It’s not as if anyone loves me.

    not the least my family who due to trans activists and fems always buy me lacy female lingerie every year for Christmas. I’d be less angry if they at least tried to get me sizes that fit, but typical gays make my family think that since I’m gay I must have a fit trim waist, when reality my waist is hidden under a few inches of Dorito.

  12. FakeOutrage says

    normally I DETEST people who appropriate others screen names to take shots at them….but, ” the flat-footed yet hip-rolling gait of a queen” had me laugh out loud….hahahahaha

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