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 artifice, 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 in 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 miked.
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 audience 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.