Broadway's theatre critics, I'm sorry to report, have been gulled. They've been turned into a mass of Malvolios, sporting absurdly over-the-top grins (if not cross-garter'd stockings), thanks to a Shakespeare comedy currently playing at the Belasco Theatre on West 44th Street.
Twelfth Night, in an "original practices" production imported from Shakespeare's Globe in London, is directed by Tim Carroll. That's the same fellow whose Romeo and Juliet at Ontario's Stratford Festival last summer – done, similarly, in a style meant to approximate how the play might have been presented in Elizabethan London – was the worst-reviewed classical production in artistic director Antoni Cimolino's first season.
Carroll has had a very different reception south of the border. Featuring an all-male cast that includes Tony-winner Mark Rylance as the grief-stricken Olivia, his Twelfth Night has been treated like the second coming: It's the best-reviewed production of any kind in New York right now (according to aggregator StageGrade) and made more end-of-year top-10 lists than any other Broadway show.
New York Times critic Ben Brantley set the tone, writing that he couldn't remember "being so ridiculously happy for the entirety of a Shakespeare performance" since 2002 – when he saw an earlier incarnation of the same production in London. Walter Kaiser in The New York Review of Books went ever further: "You may, if you're lucky, see another Shakespearean production that's as good as this one, but it's unlikely you will ever see one that's better."
I must be very lucky indeed, as I've seen many Shakespearean productions as good or better than this one, even recent Twelfth Nights that I have left happier – notably the 2011 version at the Stratford Festival, unforgettable due to Tom Rooney's masterful Malvolio; and the 2006 production by the British theatre company Filter, transformed into a rock 'n' roll pizza party by forward-thinking director Sean Holmes.
Now, I don't want to be guilty of hyperbolizing in the other direction: Carroll's straightforward production has excellent performances to commend it, notably an ever-so-sweet Sam Barnett as Viola and Angus Wright as a wonderfully dense Sir Andrew Aguecheek.
But it has a dud at its centre, too, in Stephen Fry's flat, unacted Malvolio. And Rylance's much-lauded white-face Olivia, while certainly a sight and occasionally outrageously funny, is not his most fully realized performance, pandering and marked by a stammer (the actor's trademark the way Brando's mumble was) that is beginning to seem mannered. (I preferred his very original take on Richard III, which is playing in rep with Twelfth Night.)
As for the "original practices" conceit, taken to further extremes in New York than it was in Stratford, there is a certain novelty in watching actors dodge hot wax falling from the candle-filled chandeliers. But the all-male casting, on the other hand, did not make me see the play in a new light. All it revealed was a barely hidden homophobic streak in the audience, where there was much tittering at the prospect of men kissing men.
While I've encountered unisex Shakespeare that justified itself from Edward Hall's Propellor company, here, in a production that takes plenty of historical licence elsewhere (for instance, in having a 54-year-old, rather than a boy or young man, play Olivia), the casting seems unnecessarily sexist.
I'm not surprised Twelfth Night has its fans, but I do wonder why the production has seemingly escaped any criticism by Americans – and instead inspired anxiety, such as a recent feature in the L.A. Times asking the "age-old question: Why do the Brits seem to do Shakespeare so much better than the Yanks?" ("Age-old"! When did the United States become Canada circa 1950, rather than the country of legendary Shakespeareans Edwin Booth, Charlotte Cushman, John Barrymore and Paul Robeson?)
My guess is that "original practices" – which, when done in London or at Stratford, is part of a larger conversation about the classics – is a bigger sell on Broadway due to the increasingly elite nature of its audiences. Overall attendance is slipping, while box-office haul stays stable – and the average ticket-buyer now reports an annual household income of $186,500 (U.S.).
Elite consumers, cultural or otherwise, are followers of 21st-century fashions that "original practices" are, in truth, designed for. Shakespeare's Globe, as it says in the program, is "striving for authenticity" – to the extent that the clothing is hand-stitched and made from materials as similar as possible to what was available in Elizabethan England.
Reading this in the program while eating Junior Mints in a theatre with indoor plumbing next to a woman fiddling with her smartphone, I had perhaps my biggest laugh of the evening. Historically accurate undergarments will not make actors speak Shakespeare's words any better, but upscale consumers are suckers for what Andrew Potter termed the Authenticity Hoax. They seek status (consciously or not) by buying products marketed with adjectives like "reclaimed," "rustic," "vintage" or "organic."
That's what Twelfth Night is – artisanal Shakespeare. Brantley reported in his review that Carroll's production made him think, "This is how Shakespeare was meant to be done" – a thought which is, of course, what is actually for sale at the Belasco, first and foremost. New York's supposedly sophisticated audiences have bought into it hook, line and sinker, helped along by credulous critics.
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