The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 13.1824 Tuesday, 3 September 2002
From: Richard Burt <
Date: Thursday, 29 Aug 2002 06:37:18 -0400
Subject: NY Times Review of Globe Twelfth Night
August 29, 2002
Boys Will Be Girls in Pure Shakespeare
By BEN BRANTLEY
LONDON, Aug. 25 - Remember that old sweetheart called "Twelfth Night"?
No, not the overdecorated, overeager stage productions that have been
going under that name recently, all dressed up in the latest fashions
and academic theories. What I'm talking about is the simple and
complicated comedy that was first performed four centuries ago and
remains one of the most engaging romances ever written.
Well, that play is on view again here at the Globe, the open-air theater
that seeks to approximate the experience of watching Shakespearean plays
as they appeared originally. For "Twelfth Night" the Globe has made its
most literal bid yet for authenticity, with a production that features
Elizabethan costumes, music and props, not to mention the period
convention of an all-male cast.
Yet there is none of the mustiness of the museum, none of the
tourist-courting quaintness of which the Globe has periodically been
accused since it opened in 1997. In frankly admitting its age, which is
just over 400 years, "Twelfth Night" has never looked younger. And in a
staging that consistently calls attention to its artificiality, this
play has rarely felt so real.
The back-to-basics movement in contemporary culture has somehow bypassed
high-profile productions of Shakespeare, which tend to bear the
relationship to their sources that a cosmopolitan does to the classic
martini. The consensus seems to be that if you're going to sell
Shakespeare, you need to spike it with novelty, by setting "Troilus and
Cressida" during the Vietnam War, say, or presenting Prince Hal as a
Sometimes the approach is illuminating. But there is often the
suggestion that weary old Shakespeare needs a head-to-toe makeover to
appear attractive, and all the high-concept camouflage can start to
smother the substance beneath. After sitting through too many such
interpretations of "Twelfth Night" (including this summer's star-studded
version in Central Park from the New York Shakespeare Festival), I had
started to think that the work I'd fallen in love with as a youth didn't
Now here is the Globe production, gleaming like a newly restored
painting by an old master. The distinctive and complex virtues of
"Twelfth Night," under the easygoing but steady direction of Tim
Carroll, are allowed to emerge unvarnished and unannotated.
Like its heroine, the cross-dressing Viola, the play speaks "in many
sorts of music," not all of them sweet. And it is to this production's
credit that while the audience members laugh heartily throughout, there
are moments when they fall into grave and wondering silences. Led by
Mark Rylance, the Globe's artistic director, who also plays Olivia, the
actors create stylized portraits that wind up going deeper than most
This is altogether fitting because "Twelfth Night" is about disguises.
There are, on one hand, the actual disguises adopted by the characters
for expediency or in jest, starting with Viola's dressing up as a boy.
But the play is also acutely aware of the forms of self-disguise. The
cast members bring out the actor in each of the characters: the poses
that reflect their distorted ideas of themselves. They also do not let
you forget that these actorly creatures are being portrayed by actors,
whose exaggerated and mannered styles are pitched directly to their
As a simulacrum of its Elizabethan prototype, with an open pit in which
most viewers (the groundlings) stand, the Globe makes theatergoing a
very public experience. The performers address their soliloquies in a
complicitous spirit to the audience.
"You're a part of this, you know," they seem to suggest. This means that
you feel especially implicated when the play changes tone. You may
experience vicarious guilt, for example, when the baiting of the steward
Malvolio (Timothy Walker) slips into sadism, or when the hedonistic Sir
Toby Belch (Bill Stewart) turns nastily on his best friend, Sir Andrew
Aguecheek (Albie Woodington).
Even the burlesque of the play's sexual confusions may at moments become
personal for those watching it. There is the scene in the second act
when it becomes embarrassingly obvious that the Duke Orsino (a defiantly
macho Liam Brennan) has a yen for his page, Cesario. Feste the clown
(Peter Hamilton Dyer) has been summoned to provide mood music, while
Orsino rambles on about the noble nature of men's love for women.
Yet he keeps casting furtive glances at his shy young minion and
brushing against him, as if by accident. The other courtiers pretend
nothing is going on. The audience of course knows that Cesario is really
a woman, Viola. On the other hand, the woman is being played by a man.
Mr. Carroll stretches the scene to the breaking point, so that different
levels of perception swim in and out of focus. It is sexy, uncomfortable
and highly disorienting.
(Remember the movie "The Crying Game"?) When Feste says to Orsino, as he
departs, that "pleasure will be paid, one time or another," it takes on
a newly sharpened edge. So does the play's subtitle, "What You Will."
The men playing women, who also include Paul Chahidi as Maria, are not
effeminate. They pitch their voices higher, but there is little mincing
or swishing. And while the interpretations are funny, they always seem
fully thought out, grounded not only in their characters' psychology but
also as social archetypes who would have been familiar to Elizabethan
All the actors are terrific, walking a fine line between emotional truth
and comic caricature. But Mr. Rylance, whom I last saw as a convincingly
clownish Hamlet, is a marvel. His Olivia is hilarious in her high-born
delicacy, which can assume a Monty Python-ish surrealism. She seems less
to walk than to glide beneath her floor-length skirt.
There is also, however, a sobering sense that Olivia, who only recently
lost her father and brother, has been thrust into a role for which she
is unready. Wielding a quill pen over parchment documents, she wears her
authority like battle gear. But when she speaks, there is a slight
stammer in her voice.
This Olivia is afraid of the world. She is hiding behind that veil of
mourning. Of course she would be drawn to the gentle Cesario instead of
the blustering, firmly masculine Orsino. The miracle is that as Olivia
sheds her defenses in pursuit of Cesario, Mr. Rylance makes her as
touching as she is silly.
"Most wonderful!" coos Olivia in the play's final scene, sliding her
gaze between the erstwhile Cesario, now revealed as Viola, and Viola's
twin brother, Sebastian (Rhys Meredith). That the twins, for once, do
indeed look almost identical makes the moment pay off as it seldom does.
They truly embody, as Orsino puts it, "a natural perspective that is and
That's what "Twelfth Night" is about. Come to think of it, that's what
theater is about. How satisfying it is to have that natural,
double-faced perspective brought back into focus.
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