How can I begin to describe the joys of the impossibly wonderful “Twelfth Night” now on Broadway? It’s simply one of the best productions I’ve ever seen IN MY LIFE!
The two-time Tony Award winning genius Mark Rylance is probably on his way to another award (or awards) for his astounding performance as Olivia in “Twelfth Night.” Not usually considered a memorable role in Shakespeare’s comedy, which is usually played, as always by a woman, and as a sort of wan, sad, elegant lady,who is mourning the death of her brother. Olivia is usually the straight person in a cast of characters who are off-the-charts loony.
And here the masterstroke is Rylance plays Olivia as the looniest toon of the lot. He seemed to be channeling Margaret Dumont of the Marx Brothers movies. His love-struck Olivia becomes the absolute center of this production, and the play, too, and it seems absolutely right. AND HILAROUSLY so.
The audience, some of whom were seated on the stage, was absolutely getting EVERY SINGLE Elizabethan joke and laughing so much, it made this marvelous “Twelfth Night” the longest “Twelfth Night” I’ve ever sat through.
With a half-hour pre-show added, wherein you get to see the actors get into their costumes and make-up right on stage and the musicians tune up their authentic, period instruments, this un-cut version was heading to the four-hour mark. But I didn’t mind one bit. I was in theatrical heaven!
One always wishes, if one is a bardolator, that one could travel back in time to Elizabethan England, and see just what it was that made Shakespeare so great. And the brilliant thing that Rylance and his director of many productions, Tim Carroll have done is that they are so exact in a replication of how this comedy of Shakespeare’s was probably done, you absolutely believe you are in Elizabeth’s England, and that you’re discovering this great play for the first time and finding it to be one of Shakespeare’s most enjoyable. In the hands of Rylance and co., all of whom are on their Elizabethan A-Game, “Twelfth Night” really ranks among one of Shakespeare’s greatest.
It’s an absolute delight from start to finish. All four hours of it.
And we, the press, were warned off coming to see it last night, because the light-board failed, and so we were not going to see it as it was meant to be performed, I was told, by the worried press agent. I decided to go anyway. And we discovered, when we entered, the stage was flooded with candle-light!
And that just made it magical! We were time-traveling!
There did seem as the play went on to be more and more stage lights focused on it, so perhaps the lighting board was being repaired as the show went on, but they were all white or a very pale blue lights
But of course, Shakespeare’s King’s Players DID perform by candle light.
And the stage at the Belasco was full of candles. There were six or eight chandeliers that were dropping candle wax on the actors, and an upstage set piece with more and more candles on it. sort of in the shape of a Christmas tree. So the stage was ablaze with honey-colored light. Which had a warming, charming, and totally disarming effect, which was just right.
And all the female parts are played, as they were in Shakespeare’s time, by men. Rylance’s Olivia dominating every scene, as we watch the character go from a very demure, lady-like, mournful royal in widow’s weeds atop a small tiara, to a hyped-up matron who is hiking up her skirts and losing her beads, as she falls head-over-heels in love with the young Cesario, who is really a girl Viola, dressed, in disguise as a page-boy. Rylance,who usually blows everyone off the stage, he is such a strong performer, but here he is matched quite evenly by the great Samuel Barnett as Viola, equally convincing as a man or a woman. Tony Nominee and Drama Desk Winner, Barnett will be familiar to Broadway audiences from “The History Boys” a few years back.
I knew he had greatness in him, and the promise he showed in “History Boys” comes to full fruition as this glorious beautiful Viola/Cesario, who matches Rylance’s antic, love-crazed Lady Olivia, beat for comic beat.
And he’s not blowing the great Stephen Fry off the stage as Malvolio. Oh no! Making his American and Broadway stage debut, Fry a major stage, film and television star in England is simply magnificent as Lady Olivia’s simpering steward.
Fry is a towering figure. He’s a huge man, and he makes Rylance’s Lady Olivia seem dainty by comparison.
Also, the large and bosomy Maria of Paul Chahidi, a maid servant of Olivia’s, who is also daintiness personified, as well as the mischievous mischief-maker, who sets much of the plays comic stratagems in motion. Chahidi and Rylance, who are both wearing floor-length gowns, move with such humorously mincing small steps they seem to be floating across the stage, or on roller skates! Hysterical!
The men, who actually play men in this cross-dressed production are at a kind of comic disadvantage, you’d think, against Rylance’s Olivia, Barnett’s Viola, and Chahidi’s Maria(or Mariah or Mary as she’s variously called), but Rylance has wisely peopled the supporting cast with very strong character actors who are as funny as the “women.”
Colin Hurley is a pint-sized Falstaff as Sir Toby Belch, who has to play all manner of drunkeness throughout, and his extremely tall co-hort Sir Andrew Aguecheek is perfectly matched by Angus Wright. Sir Toby, Sir Andrew and Maria form the toxic trio of tormentors who want to bring down the supercilious steward Malvolio, leaving a letter supposedly from Lady Olivia that tells him “Some are born great, Some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.”
Well, “Twelfth Night” itself is having greatness thrust upon it by this astonishing, laugh-riot of a production. Sub-titled “Or What You Will,” which is the Shakespearen equivalent of saying “Whatever”, or “This play is just a trifle. Don’t pay any attention to it. Don’t take it seriously.” And “Twelfth Night,” or as the bill-boards are spelling it “Twelfe Night,” was a name just tacked on to it at the time, because it was performed for Queen Elizabeth I as part of the twelfth night after Christmas celebrations. As if Shakespeare didn’t know what to call it.
The words “Twelfth Night” are never mentioned throughout the play. But I did catch, I think it was Viola saying “What You Will”.
This historic production is a dream come true, and is thrusting a greatness upon “Twelfth Night” as one of the best comedies ever written. It will now always be referred to by all who attempt to match this magic. It’s an impossiblity.