NEW YORK – London’s Shakespeare’s Globe Theater, a replica of the 17th-century Elizabethan original on the south bank of the Thames River, has turned out to be a spectacular success, entertaining huge audiences for 16 years. This fall, the Globe group has brought two of its most admired productions, "Twelfth Night" and "Richard III," to Broadway’s Belasco Theatre on West 44th Street, where they play in repertory through Feb. 16.
The Globe seeks to duplicate Shakespeare’s ideas – like open staging, minimal settings and lighting, period costumes and make-up, and a live orchestra playing music of Shakespeare’s time. In his day, all the female parts were played by men and boys, and the Globe has created several all-male productions.
Mark Rylance, the company’s first artistic director, is the leading player, acting Countess Olivia in "Twelfth Night" and the tragic king in "Richard III" surrounded by 19 protean male colleagues in the other roles.
"Twelfth Night" is one of Shakespeare’s triumvirate of golden comedies, along with "Much Ado About Nothing" and "As You Like It." It was written for the feast of the Epiphany to celebrate the visit of the Magi to the infant Jesus. Some people feel the play combines too many similar playwriting conceits of the day, such as identical twins, a device Shakespeare used in his earlier "The Comedy of Errors."
The female twin in "Twelfth Night," Viola (Samuel Barnett), has been shipwrecked and fears her twin brother Sebastian (Joseph Timms) has perished. Stranded on the coast of Illyria, Viola dons gentleman’s clothes, adopts the name Cesario and becomes the servant of the city’s Duke Orsino (Liam Brennan). She becomes the duke’s messenger to his love Olivia, who, being a typical Shakespearean heroine, falls in love with Cesario. All of this confusion gets settled late in the play, when it is discovered that Viola’s brother is still alive, travels to Illyria and falls for Olivia, while his sister Viola drops her male pose as Cesario and gets together with Duke Orsino.
Mr. Rylance plays the Countess Olivia as an impeccable woman of society, with black hair and a white-powdered face and dressed in an elaborate gown with a white ruff. Her grieving for her father and her brother is broken by Cesario/Viola and her uncle, Sir Toby Belch (Terry McGinity), along with Toby’s drinking pal Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Angus Wright), who, Toby thinks, would be an appropriate suitor for Olivia.
Maria (Paul Chahidi), Olivia’s maid, forges a mocking letter and signs it from her mistress, proposing that the household steward, the mordant Malvolio (Stephen Fry), become her husband. Mr. Fry, in his Broadway debut, adds a touching lightness and sympathy to this well-known comic character.
The director of both plays, Tim Carroll, holds tight to Shakespeare’s text, but with "Twelfth Night" he easily mixes fun with seriousness so that when all the machinations start to fall into place, they seem to be burnished with the highest theatrical gloss.
In "Richard III," Mark Rylance is persuasive and sometimes exasperating, but always an actor whom you can’t keep your eyes off. Mr. Carroll has staged this melodrama with vitality, cutting through most of its problematical historical snarls.
Mr. Rylance’s approach to the part of Richard is reasonable. He emphasizes the comical side of Richard’s personality and the sardonic humor of his bloody march to the crown of England. Richard is not merely cruel; he is embittered. He is taking revenge on the world because of his physical deformities.
This aspect of Richard’s character is not that apparent in Mr. Rylance’s performance, and this is unfortunate. In his acting, the bitterness of Richard does not come through effectively.
Still, Mr. Rylance’s Richard III is impressive, and as an actor he has some fine moments, such as when Richard woos the Princess Ann, or in his fierce battle scenes. Mr. Rylance makes Richard human, which is a stunt in itself. But for me, he was never tough enough. The production is rousing, exciting and entertaining, even though its King Richard was at times disappointing.
Critic Bernard Carragher lives in New York and covers the arts and entertainment.