Do you like it ruff? How about laced, booted, gartered, gloved, and otherwise adorned in Elizabethan finery? If you come early to the Belasco Theatre, where two delightful productions from London’s Shakespeare’s Globe — Twelfth Night and Richard III — play in rep, you can see the laborious process through which the all-male cast step into the clothes, attitudes, and practices of 400 years ago. (Hopefully, there are limits. Insisting on white lead makeup would seem perhaps too scrupulous.)
Staging the bard in Renaissance drag is a comparatively recent innovation, and playing it with only men, as in Shakespeare’s day, even more so. (Of course,
adolescent boys would have acted the women’s roles, rather than the more mature lads on offer here.)
With so much buttoning and so many wigs, you could be forgiven for wondering why they bother. Surely much of Shakespeare’s appeal lies in his universality. No matter how specifically he located his plays — ancient Greece, coastal Bohemia — they transcend their place and time, speaking always to our own. Shaw may have quipped that Shakespeare was a poet “for an afternoon, but not for all time.” Most of us disagree.
But in these splendid productions, director Tim Carroll makes a strong case for all this authenticity. The painstaking attention to garb and posture pays handsomely, highlighting the themes of guise and disguise that are shot through these plays like so much silk thread.
To take Twelfth Night for example, seeing Mark Rylance’s Olivia immured beneath layers of silk and whalebone is to understand immediately the constraints she feels. And when her attraction to Cesario (a charming Samuel Barnett) forces her to unbend — at least as far as corseting allows — hints of gold brocade peek out from all that mourning black, matching the smile that overwhelms Rylance’s face.
Of course, these plays are more than mere costuming. Carroll takes a shrewdly perverse approach to each, emphasizing the melancholy in the comic Twelfth Night, the clowning in the tragic Richard III. The staging is lucid and economical, the speech as intelligible as anything you might hear on the street corner or subway. Musicians in a gallery above the stage provide tuneful accompaniment played on instruments the Lord Chamberlain’s Men would have recognized — like the pipe and tabor, the harmonic equivalent of rubbing your head and patting your belly, only much more impressive.
With a few minor exceptions, the acting is as playful and precise as you would wish with particular honors accruing to Angus Wright’s Andrew and Buckingham, Barnett’s Elizabeth and Viola, Stephen Fry’s Malvolio, Peter Hamilton Dyer’s Feste, and Paul Chahidi’s Maria.
Rylance, a wonderfully transformative actor, has received much praise for his Olivia. He deserves it. Yet his Richard is perhaps more interesting. With hunched back and withered arm, Rylance plays the scheming king as graceless buffoon, stuttering through his speeches with a simpering grin. Typically, we would expect the soliloquies to reveal the truth of Richard’s heart, but Rylance capers and japes his way through these, too. His interpretation suggests, chillingly, that Richard lacks interiority, perhaps he even lacks a soul. Rather, he is a monster of appetite and envy, empty of compunction or remorse.
Rylance shows that he can smile and smile and be a villain. Or a hero. Or a lady. Or anything, really.