Thursday, 14 November 2013

Twelfe Night, or What You Will, Belasco, Broadway

Exactly what "traditional" Shakespeare means has been the subject of much debate for a good couple of decades now. Certainly, you'd think Shakespeare's Globe would have a handle on it - performing in a theatre purpose-built to recreate the original conditions of his work. So when the company goes on tour, what do they bring with them to keep the style alive?

In this case, a simple set design designed to resemble how Shakespeare's plays would have been presented in the great halls of the aristocracy - a screen, two doors, seating on stage for a few rows of highly visible audience, a simple single lighting state (there are something like 100 candles onstage, but quite obviously there's also additional lighting for visibility), no amplification, and a gallery for musicians to play rauschpfeifs, sackbuts, shawms, recorders lutes, citerns, therobos, hurdy gurdys, pipes, tabors, field drums and tympani, and, of course, an all male cast. (note, I have no idea what half those instruments are but they're listed in the program and ... we all have google).

To add to the feeling of this being an "event", when the audience enters the theatre the cast is on stage getting changed from a basic shirt or smock into their full garb (for the men who are playing women, this is of course a fairly complex operation - Elizabethan outfits for women were not exactly easy wearing - but even the men have a fair bit of clothing to stuff themselves into).

All these externals don't really matter, of course, if the acting style is a dead recreation of something long gone. But that's where the magic really hits. Because this is some of the liveliest Shakespeare I've seen in years. Leading the company is Mark Rylance in the not-obviously-a-starring-role of Olivia, and in this case, he doesn't re-centre the play to make it All About Him, so much as bring a character fully to life who could easily slip into the background - finding the funny in Olivia's high seriousness early on and the increasing disruption as her desire for the disguised Viola and the increasingly reckless behaviour of her servants (the delivery of the word "Malvoli... oooh" at the right moment particularly gets belly laughs). His dignified, stately manner of walking and speaking makes the comedy so much funnier when that dignity is cracked.

And of course, it really isn't all about him. Twelfth Night is Shakespeare's ensemble comedy par exellence, and the Globe brings fine ensemble playing - with Stephen Fry as the obivous interloper as Molvolio (which makes sense - Malvolio's puritan ways means he never completely fits into everybody else's world, and his attempt to ingratiate himself is quite ridiculously funny. As is Samuel Barnett's Viola (who's as confused by what's happening to her as everyone else), Angus Wright's gloriously thick-headed Aguecheek,  Paul Chahidi's smart, witty Maria (whose half-hearted "yay" near the end brings down the house) and Colin Hurley's charmingly disreputable Toby. Peter Hamilton Dyer's Feste rides across the evening as a wise, free-roaming sprit of misrule, charmingly mischevous.

So this isnt' good traditional Shakespeare - it's simply good Shakespeare. If you wanted to nitpick, there are definately line readings and performance approaches that would not have matched Elizabethan practice - but who really cares? The point of any play is in the moment, in the theatre, and it's there that this production shines gloriously.

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