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Twelfe Night and Richard III

Sonia Friedman Productions in association with Shakespeare Road productions, 1001 Nights, Bob Bartner and Norman Tulchin, Rupert Gavin, Adam Blanshay present Shakespeare’s Globe’s productions of TWELFE NIGHT (OR, WHAT YOU WILL) and The Tragedie of KING RICHARD THE THIRD at the Apollo Theatre, the West End, London.

I saw both these productions earlier in the year in London.

On this recent weekend (last one in December, 2013) I read of several productions that are currently packing them in, in the London theatres. Actors, who happen to be also film and television stars and are drawing not only ‘bums onto seats’ in sell out performances, but also critics to reach for superlatives. David Tennant is playing the title role in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s RICHARD II (1595-96) at the Barbican; Jude Law is giving HENRY V (1599) for the Michael Grandage Company at the Noel Coward Theatre in the West End; and Tom Hiddleston is a remarkable CORIOLANUS at the Donmar Warehouse in Shakespeare’s CORIOLANUS (1609). Leading actors giving outings to three works of Shakespeare, and making a case for Shakespeare to be the most successful writer in 2013!!!!!  Shakespeare our contemporary, indeed. And from what one can gather, the play texts are at the centre of the performances’ raison d’etre, told by Actors, guided by Directors. Writer, actor, director: the way it should be. The text at the centre of the experiences: clear, unadorned, passionate storytelling. No gimmickry from director or designer – a simple, and so the critics tell us, revelation and complete trust in the words, the ‘musical’ language of the author. If only, this year’s Sydney Shakespeare had had the same trust in the writer and the actors.

Last year in the West End TWELFE NIGHT, Or what you will (1599-1601), in repertoire with The Tragedie of RICHARD THE THIRD (1592) was transported from the Shakespeare Globe to the Apollo Theatre (these productions are now in an extended season in New York at the Belsaco Theatre). Mark Rylance was leading this company in both productions. I had heard of Mr Rylance, but had never seen him. Friends who had (in JERUSALEM and other plays) had encouraged me to make sure I did see him if he were performing, in anything – even in something as odd as the revival of a rather ‘dodgy’ (in my estimation) French farce BOEING-BOEING (1962) in 2007. My travelling companion gave the OK to book for TWELFE NIGHT as he could not bear the idea of sitting through another RICHARD III. So I did. We did. At the interval of the TWELFE NIGHT, my companion leaned in and said, we must see the RICHARD. With a skipping (and relieved) heart, we did, a few nights later. Both of these productions were luminous and illuminating . They gave evidence of what it is to be human and truly alive with a simple direct trust in the words and language of the author’s play to tell their stories, and an extraordinary feast of really good acting by all, led by a most remarkable Mr Rylance, and clearly, but, subtly directed, by Tim Carroll.

Director Tim Carroll, for both productions, has striven to find a manner to stage the plays as authentically as possible. To begin with he is using and all male company. Next, the program notes tell us:

Before they had their own indoor theatre space at the Blackfriars, Shakespeare and his fellow players performed not only at the outdoor playhouses, the Theatre and the Globe, but also indoors in the great halls of the aristocracy, the lawyer’s’ Inns of the Court and the university stages.
The setting we have created on the stage at the Apollo is based on such a hall, with an oak screen spanning its width and the kind of ‘standings’ that were temporarily erected for audiences attending performances in such spaces. Our screen is based on one that still exists in the hall at Wadham College, Oxford University.

There are side galleries, on the actual stage to accommodate audience, and the ‘standings’ include an upper musical balcony to accommodate the live orchestra – six instrumentalists on each show between them cover a staggering array of rauschpfeifes, cornets, sackbutts, shawms (or ‘hoyboys’), recorders, lute, cittern, theorbo, hurdy gurdy, pipe and tabour.

To match the use of original materials in the stage environment, the clothing for these productions has been made from materials as close as possible to those available in London during the 1590s and 1600s i.e. linens, silks, wools and leathers. We sourced alum-tawed deerskins from Montana, USA, hand woven silk velvet and fine linens from Genoa, Italy, and beautifully finished ‘moreen’ (watered worsted cloth) from Lancashire, England. Every performer is wearing a linen garment next to the skin – shirts for those playing men and smocks for those playing women. Over these linens they wear all the layers of of clothing customary in contemporary dress of the late 16th and 17th centuries. For the women, these generally consist of a ‘farthingale’ (either a padded role or a series of hoops of cane stitched into an under-petticoat to support the outer skin of the gown), a silk petticoat, a “pair of bodies’ (corset) stiffened with synthetic baleen strips, a gown, neck and wrist ruffs, a girdle, silk stockings and garters. In addition to these items Mark Rylance, as the Countess Olivia in TWELFE NIGHT, wears a silk veil, a Countess’s coronet, a lace hat, a wire rebato, (a ruff support), a pair of white gloves decorated with black bugle beads, a black silk velvet cloak and an embroidered forepart at various times in the play.” The Designer is Jenny Tiramani. The artisans involved in the making of these costumes number anything from 10 to 20. “In the case of Cesario and Sebastian in TWELFE NIGHT, a tailor and stitcher made their doublets and hose while another tailor made their cloaks, both decorated by loop-manipulated silk braids from a fourth person. A seamstress made their shirts, yet another their linen collar bands and cuffs (an embroiderer having worked them and a bobbin lace maker produced their decorative edgings). Their purses and sword harnesses were made by a leather worker, along with their glove hands, to which were embroidered silk glove cuffs from yet another maker. A further maker produced their silk-covered buttons. Together with their shoe maker, milliner, tassel maker, and the maker of their identical silk wigs and stocking knitter a total of 16 people collaborated on their clothing and accessories.

The daily maintenance of the costumes is intensive and this includes the helping of the performers to dress:

The fastenings are only those used in the Shakespearean period – there are no zips, no velcro or elastic, but only hooks and eyes, buttons, pins, laces and strings – and there is an element of arranging the garments symmetrically and gracefully on the wearer that requires a good eye.

On entering the theatre, on the stage, are some of the actors preparing vocally and physically, some of these actors, as well, are being dressed from undergarments to the almost finished details, by technical crew. In amongst this intense activity, on the stage, pre-show, some of the musicians create musical antics as if they were street entertainers, singing, dancing, playing, whilst some of the audience is being ushered to their side-bank seating. There is a hustle and bustle, an exciting, infectious buzz coming from the stage. The candle chandeliers are lit, and to signal the beginning of the performance are raised, with a fanfare summoning our focus, anciently blaring its period sounds with these original instruments, from the now balconied orchestra.

Twelfe Night was intelligently and amusingly given to us. The all male casting was a wonderful proposition to a modern audience. The play, in its schematic machinations, already has a deal of cross-dressing going on and so to see it as first presented, in Shakespeare’s world’s legalities – no women permitted onstage – gave even more challenge and delight to decode and embrace new facets of the comedy and the drama in 2013. Paul Chahidi playing Maria to the hilt of cheeky female ‘wickedness’ is both outrageously funny, but also, poignant in and around ‘her’ relationship with Sir Toby Belch (Colin Hurley). Whilst Johnny Flynn playing precisely and concisely within a very startling vocal range and pattern, captures a delicate and moving Cesario/Viola double – charming, vulnerable, perplexed and frustrated with love-lorness in a ‘forbidding’ disguise – the complicated love duet between Cesario and the Duke Orsino (Liam Brennan) – Act Two Scene four – has never been so moving and so complex in the problems that they present for us as a sympathetic audience to experience, and the lay-by of comedy they set up for us for the final act revelation, is glorious.

But this is topped with an outrageously measured/judged performance by Mark Rylance as the Countess Olivia. White-faced and seeming to be gliding on rollers, so smooth are her perambulations, around the space, not only is the phrasing and ‘thinking’ of the text astonishing in its intricate details but the female delicacies of movement and ‘clowning’ push envelopes of characterisation and farcical range to their limits without ever spilling into vulgarity. This an Olivia to be cherished with all the comic-empathetic-tragic griefs full on.

The entire company is remarkable. And one must register the simple and delicious Malvolio created by Stephen Fry (guest artist), for this is not a personality performance (or one of celebrity recognition), but an intimate and true characterisation of true sensible duty and pathetic delusion, that is cruelly extended beyond reasonable victimisation by the others in the household of the Countess. One laughs but one is also moved. (see, above clip – it has been filmed in the Globe Theatre and not on the Apollo stage).

TWELFE NIGHT written between the great love comedy AS YOU LIKE IT (1600) and, perhaps, the world’s greatest play HAMLET (1600) has elements of both those plays. It is, says Norrrie Epstein in his book Friendly Shakespeare: “… both manic and elegiac. It is festive but also skirts madness, despair, sexual ambiguity and cruelty.” The Royal Shakespeare Company tour in March,1970 at the old theatre Royal, with Judi Dench as Cesario/Viola, Donald Sinden as Malvolio, with Lisa Harrow as Olivia and Richard Pasco as Orsino, has been devastatingly eclipsed as the bench mark of indelible markings on my brain for this play.

This company, then, returns on alternate nights with a performance of The Tragedie of RICHARD THE THIRD. Again all, all this remarkably focused and disciplined company, who are apparently, evidently enjoying “acting” for us, are so clear in their careful thinking and speaking of the text (in iambic pentameter – yes, even thinking in iambic pentameter!) and so physically dexterous in supporting the poetries/poetics of the play, that I, after regarding the very many productions of the play I have seen, say that I have never heard so much of it before, and appreciated so much of it before, across the huge sweep of the moods of the play – comic, tragic, ironic, pathetic – and being confronted with so much shocking copings of bloody and murderous serialism.

The actors creating Lady Anne (Johnny Flynn), Duchess of York (James Garnon – who also plays Richmond), and a simply superb Queen Elizabeth (Samuel Barnett), are brilliant in their magnetic and concentrated presences – the Elizabeth/Richard scene is thrilling in its audacities and staggering psychological strategic turn-abouts.

All, however good, are, however, standing in the shadow of Mark Rylance as the Duke of Gloucester, later Richard III, who first appearing as a friendly and slightly old uncle-friend, balding and untidy, seeming to be tending to doddery forgetfulness, with a wry and gently wicked sense of humour (flirting with the audience gallery on the stage about him), with a frozen, shortened arm and hand dangling slightly ostentatiously before us from his shoulder, across his doublet chest, almost showing as a decoration of “honour”, gradually, as he gains more and more power, reveals the full brute force of a paranoid psychopath of ruthless and relentless ferocity. This Richard’s calculation and cold, cold manipulations is shocking and ‘scary’ to observe. One’s blood freezes watching this Richard, observing some of the daring that Mr Rylance creates in his characterisation, we are magnetically transfixed by the deftness of this painterly embroidering by this artist. For, at the interval to this Richard, I was, I confess, merely contented but not fully enamoured with what had transpired, but when Mr Rylance returned after the break, and had finished daubing the full canvas of his portrait of Shakespeare’s man, I was left gasping with amazement, full of shock and awe. His wiping of the eyes, salted tear-filled on the face of his throne-seated and stunned to paralysis Queen Anne, as he outlines her coming murder and his proposed new marriage, whilst licking the drops from his spidery fingers is ‘sick’ in the absolute old and modern meaning: sick. This sounds completely over-the-top, and so I recommend that you Google or You-Tube Mr Rylance and capture some of what, in the flesh, is even more gob-smackingly brilliant.

The Direction by Tim Carroll is deft. The complicated stagings of the war scenes in Richard are beautifully solved, for instance. The comic complications of TWELFE NIGHT are flawlessly staged. All the work is of a whole, and immersively complete. If these productions ever tour down-under do not miss (the TWELFE NIGHT has been screened in selected cinemas here, already. It is purchasable, as well).

The Globe finishes each of these productions with a dance, a jig. The live orchestra and all the company join in. These endings are choreographed elaborately and extremely generously (Sian Williams) – no mere sop to an audience of comic humour, but rather an extended coda to the evenings, that sweep one up into a recognition of the majesty of of the magic of the playing we have witnessed, and act as a transport back to the world we live in – enlivened and pulsing with the satisfied cycle of great storytelling, to allow us to continue our own life-stories as we now leave the the theatre, with optimism and new courage. If beauty is that suspended-time glimpse, that begins after the first apprehension of the ‘reality’ of actors arriving and dressing on the stage, and holds us suspended in a jointly shared imaginary place/world, of impossibly attractive spaces, until we rise to exit through the doors into the new ‘reality’ of Shaftsbury Avenue and a winter night, hours later in time, but  seemingly an instance in experiencing, then it is a gift that only a few, performers give us. And here were two nights of great BEAUTY.

 A quintessence.