Shakespeare in the Original
The two hottest Shakespeare tickets in New York right now, in a season chock-full of wildly divergent takes on the Bard, are, in a sense, the most old-fashioned productions of the lot. “Twelfe Night” and “Richard III,” both at the Belasco Theater and starring Mark Rylance, one of the most celebrated classical actors living, are “original practices (OP)” productions—that is to say, they seek to perform the plays as they were staged in Shakespeare’s time.
This theatrical movement, promoted by Shakespeare’s Globe in London—a faithful recreation of Shakespeare’s own theater where both productions originated—is centered on three principles: a close attention to the rhythms of the verse; a theatrical style that acknowledges the presence of the audience; and a rejection of modern stage contrivances that would not have been available in Shakespeare’s day. But these productions go further: they use all-male casts—as was the practice in Shakespeare’s day—build costumes out of traditional materials and with traditional fasteners, and incorporate traditional instruments and dances.
Elements like these suggest that OP is a kind of antiquarian fundamentalism, akin to Civil War reenactments—hardly a model for living theater, nor the basis of a Broadway smash. Is the point of OP to recover a lost theatrical tradition? Or is the point to give us the illusion of being Elizabethans for a day?
I decided to find out—by asking director Tim Carroll, director of both plays, what drew him to OP in the first place.
As it turns out, he was drawn to it largely by accident. He had already directed a couple of modern-dress productions when Rylance, then Artistic Director at the Globe, approached him about trying his hand at OP. He sees no contradiction between the two approaches; as he points out, doing Shakespeare in contemporary-dress—“playing the roles as ourselves”—is closest to Shakespeare’s own practice, which presented ancient Greeks and Romans as Elizabethans. Carroll was drawn to OP not for scholarly or antiquarian reasons, but for what he sees, ironically, as its immediacy.
Elizabethans didn’t go to see a play; they went to hear one. Productions didn’t show a scene with an elaborate set; they painted the scene with words. And the rhythms of the verse help achieve that kinesthetic objective. Each line contains a focal image or idea, and if recited as verse—with a slight pause at the end of each line—the effect is something like the individual frames of a film becoming a moving picture. OP begins with the urgency of recovering that faculty, both by the close attention to the rhythms of the verse and the elimination of visual distractions like sets and lighting.
Carroll contrasted OP with what he called the “Shakespeare in Love” style of period production, where the costumes serve as comfortable signifiers for the audience. But he also takes exception to the charge that OP productions are like museum pieces. (Though he does ask, “what’s so terrible about a museum? Museums are actually incredibly exciting places.”) As Carroll explains it, the aim of the painstaking work to recreate a vanished world is not authenticity, which can never truly be achieved, but a sense of reality. Candles dripping wax on-stage, an audience that is visible to the actors, all create situations rooted in reality for the actors to play off. They are what is actually on-stage, not part of an illusion. And clothing produced in a traditional Elizabethan manner feels like clothing, rather than a costume, which facilitates the actor’s inhabiting that role as a real person. You might almost say that there’s “Method” in the madness.
The rehearsal process as Carroll describes it reinforces that impression. Carroll rarely directs the movement of the actors (“you do have to work out the crowd scenes and dances and such”); the action should spring from the actor’s natural intentions, leaving room to play off whatever is happening on stage—and with the audience—in a given performance. “One of my favorite things to say” to an actor “is: that was great, now don’t do it again.”
Even working with the text, the actors start by using their own words, instead of or between the lines as written—whatever works to get at the emotional core of the scene, and make it their own. By the time the actors are on-stage, though, they return to the text as handed down. Although we know from Hamlet’s advice to the players (“let those who play your clowns speak no more than is set down for them”) that “clearly those actors at least did tend to go on a bit,” Carroll says he doesn’t approve of contemporary “riffs” even when the text seems to invite it, as in the Porter’s speech in “Macbeth.” “I don’t have any theoretical objection; it’s just a matter of taste.”
That process—a very open, unscripted rehearsal process married to a very strict attention to the meter of the text—can pose problems for some actors who aren’t familiar with it, Carroll admits. When there’s a conflict between the actor’s intention and the lines, the performance can become rigid, stilted. But over time the process becomes second nature; that’s one of the advantages of working with a company—as Shakespeare did. And once it’s second nature, the clarity of the language married to performance that is alive in the moment can be powerfully effective.
I was curious to learn how effective it would be for a Broadway audience.
“Twelfe Night” and “Richard III” are an interesting pair of plays to use to showcase OP. The first because the play is (among other things) Shakespeare’s greatest cross-dressing farce. Viola, shipwrecked and stranded in a foreign land, disguises herself as a man for her own protection. She offers her services to the local Duke, Orsino, who is in love with Olivia. Olivia spurns his overtures, so he uses Viola as a go-between to press his suit. Olivia winds up falling for Viola instead of Orsino, and meanwhile Viola falls in love with Orsino herself—but can’t reveal her love because she’s disguised as a man. The play loads on additional comic complications—more suitors, a mistaken-identity plot when Viola’s brother, whom she thought drowned, returns—but following the original practice of an all-male cast foregrounds the question of sexual identity and presentation.
But how “originalist” is that foregrounding? Shakespeare frequently alludes to the fact that we are watching a play—there’s a line in “Twelfe Night” about how improbable these events would appear on stage—as well as to the practice of men playing women. (Cleopatra laments the prospect of an actor in a future age who will “boy” her greatness.) But Shakespeare was commenting on his own conventions; a modern audience will inevitably understand this kind of casting as a choice. Moreover, we can’t wipe out the history of music-hall and drag from our consciousness; nor can we avoid our own preoccupations with gender identity, which may not track Shakespeare’s.
In our discussion, Carroll stressed that he labors hard to nip any hint of “camp” in the bud. “Twelfe Night” has three important female roles, the most central being Viola, played in this production by Samuel Barnett, who certainly avoided that trap. Barnett’s was a fully committed performance, and a beautiful one, capped at the close, when all has been revealed and Orsino finally turns his affections in Viola’s direction, by a half smile that would do the Mona Lisa proud.
Paul Chahidi’s performance as Maria was also delightful, if very much in the tradition of English music-hall. But it accords neither with Shakespeare’s practice nor with the logic of the play to cast a fifty-three-year-old man as Olivia, the object of universal adoration for her beauty. Rylance works with what he is, and delivers a hilarious and poignant comic turn as an aging and severe drag queen turned into a giddy schoolgirl by a crush on a young man. Hilarious and poignant—but is it “the play itself?”
“Richard III” is an interesting choice for a different reason. For Shakespeare’s audience, the play covered relatively recent history—foundational history for their political system. The play is a searing portrait of a self-loathing, manipulative psychopath, but there is a providential scaffolding around the action, the notion that Richard was the “scourge of God,” sent to purify England of the final stains of the Wars of the Roses, before being defeated by the man who would finally unite the white and red.
I was curious whether an “original practices” production would try to recover that political context. But this production goes in the opposite direction. Indeed, it goes so far in wiping out the War of the Roses that the part of “mad” Margaret, the character who directly articulates that providential theme, is cut entirely.
Without a resonant political context, either Elizabethan or contemporary, the audience inevitably focuses on the character study. But Rylance, as the title character, opts to play up Richard’s comic side, mugging in his soliloquies, and going for laughs even in the wooing scene—which, for that reason, felt to me more like a satire on women than a psychologically plausible encounter. Instead of seducing us, Rylance’s Richard panders to us. It works for a while, but by the time we’re alone in the tent with him, hearing how he has “no pity” for himself, this Richard has been revealed to be a very sad, and self-pitying, clown.
The biggest surprise for me at both shows was the degree to which Rylance refuses to play by the self-proclaimed rules of OP. Rylance is an enormously talented actor with impeccable comic timing, and he is transparently at ease working with classical text. But he relies heavily on idiosyncratic line readings that are often quite at variance with the rhythms of the meter. And he is willing to call our attention to the conventions of the production in ways that struck me as downright postmodern. For example: in both plays men signify their femaleness by wearing whiteface. When Richard III plots to kill his wife, Anne, so he can make himself available to marry Queen Elizabeth’s daughter—his own niece—and thereby unite the kingdom (the same plan that Richmond will execute on his way to becoming Henry VII), he announces his plans with Anne standing beside him, apparently narcotized. Richard notices her lack of reaction to his announcement of his intentions, and his strokes her face with his finger—covering his finger with white makeup, which he then streaks on his own face. It’s an electric moment—but it’s more Wooster Group (Willem Defoe’s experimental company) than Lord Chamberlain’s Men.
In the end, I got the feeling that OP’s restrictions on lighting and costume and so forth are not ends in themselves, but means to an end. By imposing formal restrictions, closing down the creative aperture, you allow the work to come into better focus. The goal is not to show us what Shakespeare’s audiences would have seen, but to reestablish, for a modern audience, what made theater an effective medium in Shakespeare’s day. As such, what I like best about OP is its emphasis on the awareness of the audience, that a play happens in a shared space. Its life depends on acknowledging that it is live.
Tim Carroll seems to agree with me. When I ask him how working on OP productions has affected his direction of more modern plays, he’s surprised by the question, but ultimately settles on the answer: always focus on the connection with the audience, regardless of the style of play or production. From his perspective, that is the essential purpose of the theater in every age, and in our age in particular. “We’re texting now as we walk down the street, we’re turning into isolated islands. And the essence of theater is being aware of that fact that we’re in the same place, together.”
I doubt that’s why Elizabethans went to the theater. But it’s a very good reason for us to do so.
Noah Millman is TAC’s theater critic. Both shows close February 16.