Review: TWELFTH NIGHT & RICHARD III Burn Bright By Candlelight
It's best to arrive early for London's Shakespeare's Globe company's twin productions of Twelfth Night and Richard III, now residing at the Belasco for what can inarguably be called an historic limited run.Historic in that the repertory mounted by director Tim Carroll takes extraordinary care to re-create the experience of seeing the plays as they would have been done in Shakespeare's time. Designer Jenny Tiramani's oak-paneled set replicates the indoor halls used for theatre in the late 1500s, with boxes on either side for on-stage seating. Her costumes are constructed with period fabrics fastened with hooks, laces and buttons and lighting is supplied by dozens of candles, most of them hanging above the stage on chandeliers, causing the occasional dripping of beeswax onto the floor.
When the house opens a half-hour before showtime, the fully male company of actors (those playing female roles are heavily powdered and painted) are already on stage, going through the ritual of being helped into their costumes and bantering a bit with early arrivals. One modern concession is the minimal number of electric lamps enhancing the brightness, but you'll see no body mics being attached to enhance the trained voices. The absence of a Playbill credit for a sound designer seems to confirm that these are all natural voices clearly and fully filling the auditorium.
Up above are musicians playing Claire van Kampen's period compositions on instruments that would have been used on the original opening nights.
With the set providing no indication of location, the lights consistently bright and the costumes designed in the style of what was then modern-dress, few attendees will have likely seen a Shakespeare production so focused on the language to supply vital storytelling information.
The house lights remain on and the unamplified actors frequently face the audience to deliver their lines, creating a communal bond between patron and performers. This is especially evident in Mark Rylance's portrayal of the title role in Richard III, the physically deformed duke who murders and connives his way to the crown. With his famous opening lines ("Now is the winter of our discontent / Made glorious summer by this sun of York...") delivered in a rowdy, drunken growl, this Richard - though afflicted with the familiar hunchback and a misshapen hand - is played for more laughs than chills. Though Rylance adds no words to the text, he inserts a number of non-verbal grunts and mumbles intended for comic effect and is continually playing for the audience's approval in his character's bloody ascension to the throne, going so far as to give the fans a big thumbs up at one point and to respond as though it were an act of betrayal when a rival character earns exit applause. It's a crowd-pleasing interpretation, and probably more authentic than the subtler takes you come across today. Rylance certainly dives into it head-on, but the first half's focus on the actor's antics drains much of the drama out of the second half's tragedy.Still the supporting company, playing it straight, is uniformly excellent; particularly Samuel Barnett's crafty Elizabeth and Joseph Timms as the grieving Lady Anne. Even youngsters Matthew Schechter (Prince Edward) and Hayden Signoretti (Duke of York) play their doomed characters with conviction and eloquence.
Twelfth Night is more of an ensemble affair, though Rylance's physical comedy skills do stand out as the mourning Olivia who flips out for new boy in town Cesario, not knowing he's actually Viola, one of those Shakespearian heroines who travels strange countries disguised as a male for protection. Barnett is assigned the tricky business of being a man playing a woman who is playing a man and looks quite a bit like Boy George in the process. Carroll's staging seems intent on avoiding any glimpses of tenderness or romance and as a result Viola comes off as rather stiff.
But despite any minor quibbles, it's the novelty of seeing these plays as they were originally performed that makes both evenings treasured events. They're only in town until February. After that we can go back to seeing Shakespeare set in dude ranches, punk rock clubs and swimming pools.