We’ve become accustomed to our Shakespeare with a gimmick. In just the last few months, New York audiences have seen “Macbeth” in an asylum, a sexed-up Romeo who arrives on stage via motorcycle and a “Love’s Labour’s Lost” relocated to a modern-day college reunion in the Berkshires.
With the fascinating, if occasionally chilly Shakespeare’s Globe productions of “Twelfth Night” and “Richard III” just opened at the Belasco Theatre, we get back to basics -- by going back roughly 400 years.
Both plays, starring the company’s one-time artistic director Mark Rylance (the “Jerusalem” and “Boeing-Boeing” Tony winner) are performed with an all-male cast. Actors apply make-up on stage even as ushers seat theatergoers, as was also the ritual in Shakespeare’s day. The proceedings are lit by the glow from overhead candelabras.
This is old school Shakespeare. It demands attention to the language.
Performed in repertory, the plays offer Rylance in wildly different performances, first as a mincing, lovestruck Countess Olivia in “Twelfth Night,” then as the murderous titular madman of the history play. Though Rylance helmed the Globe company for a decade, it’s the first time he’s bringing the Bard to Broadway.
“Twelfth Night” also features the Rialto acting debut of longtime Hugh Laurie-collaborator and hyper-engaged Tweeter Stephen Fry, as the pompous Malvolio. The superb Samuel Barnett, who warmed hearts here a half-dozen years ago as a sensitive misfit in “The History Boys,” appears as Viola in “Twelfth Night,” and as “Queen Elizabeth” in “Richard III.” (A quick primer, since we’re on the subject of a man playing a woman who dresses as a man: In most cases, male actors in the female parts wear white face makeup.)
For a comedy that’s about characters carried away by sexual desire, there’s surprisingly little warmth in this “Twelfth Night,” from either Rylance’s otherwise-winning Olivia, who seems to glide across the stage as if on rollers, or Scotsman Liam Brennan’s Duke Orsino, who is falling for his handsome new page boy, Cesario (Barnett, as Viola, in disguise).
That leaves emotional matters in the hands of Barnett, who is appealing as both a man and a woman. In the scene where he and Orsino, a man’s man rather unnerved to find himself attracted to his young page, engage in a delightful wholly non-verbal flirtation, one’s hands grazing the other’s knees, Barnett’s performance brings to funny and delicious life the play’s message of the power of love and desire to transcend the limitations of gender.
Paul Chahidi is marvelous as Olivia’s servant, Maria. Angus Wright delights as the hapless Sir Andrew Aguecheek, particularly when he and the clownish Colin Hurley, as Sir Toby Welch, hide in a fake tree to watch Fry’s Malvolio fall into the romantic trap they’ve set. Fry’s then foolish attempt to woo Olivia delivers the laughs. The production has its lulls, but it may be that I’m just not conditioned to the purity of this real-deal “Twelfth Night.”
Viewers of the Netflix political drama “House of Cards” might detect the influence of Richard III on Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood (Spacey appeared as an energetic Richard III at BAM last year): Richard’s ruthless scheming, shameless manipulation and direct asides to the audience as he confides to us his monstrous plans pretty much set the bar for the cold-blooded quest for political power.
In Rylance’s performance, Richard’s creepy tiny arm and goofy stammer make him easy for his enemies to underestimate, even as he methodically plots their demise. As he slaughters his way through the nearly three-hour performance, Richard periodically turns to the audience with an upturned eyebrow: “Can you believe what I’m getting away with?”
This production highlights Richard’s isolation, with the audience his only confidante. As Rylance chews through the scenery, it becomes, regrettably, quite easy to love the old charmer -- even as you are appalled by the inhumanity, you have to respect the chutzpah.
Designer Jenny Tiramani has gone to extreme lengths to match the use of original costume materials as closely as possible to that which was available in London, circa the 1590s. And the simple set, the same for both productions, is dominated by a long oak screen that spans the back of the stage.
There's a surfeit of Shakespeare in the city today, with four plays running on Broadway alone, the first time in a quarter-century that's happened. (One, “Romeo and Juliet,” co-stars Rylance’s son-in-law, Christian Camargo, as Mercutio. I want to be at that Thanksgiving table.) “Twelfth Night” and “Richard III” should please the traditionalists -- for the non-purist, there's always Orlando Bloom and his purple underwear.
“Twelfth Night” and “Richard III,” through Feb. 1, 2014 at the Belasco Theatre, 111 W. 44th St. Tickets: $27-$137. Call 212-239-6200 or visit Telecharge.com.
Follow Robert Kahn on Twitter@RobertKahn