Twelfth Night Moves and Enthralls Audiences at the Belasco
by Michael Roach
When audiences enter a theatre in a play, more so than any other art form on the stage, there comes a feeling of immense intimacy and warmth. Theatres were built to establish this deeply personal link between an audience and the actors on the stage. This was no experience better on any stage in Manhattan today than in the Belasco Theatre.
The Belasco was showing the newest production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and Richard the Third in a rare ‘two plays in repertoire’ event.
On the occasion for which I went, my journey to this truly rare showing of two of the Immortal Bard’s most popular plays limited me, unfortunately, to just viewing Twelfth Night or What You Will, and thus this review will be on that play alone.
This middle period Shakespeare comedy tells the tale of the shipwrecked Viola, who disguises herself as her ‘late’ brother to both move undetected through the lovesick Duke Orsino’s court as well as to mourn the ‘apparent loss’ of her brother in the shipwreck. The Duke hires Viola, now named Cesario, to woo the also in mourning Countess Olivia on his behalf. However, when Olivia instead falls in love with Viola and Viola, coincidentally, falls for the Duke Orsino, a comedic love triangle ensues which is both heartwarming and hilarious.
While this play is a thespian’s dream come true, this particular production takes Shakespeare’s text and brings it to the authentic and brilliant level characteristic of a perfectly executed Shakespearian play. The cast of this Broadway festival, which is consequently all-male in keeping true to the play’s authentic, Elizabethan feel, is truly one to be matched by every other Shakespearian acting company in ‘rep’ today.
Leading the cast is the two-time Emmy award winning star of stage, Mark Rylance, who plays a love-hysterical Olivia. His presence on stage draws the eyes and full attention of every member of the audience. His voice is nuanced and unique. With every treble and crack, he builds his perspective on the character for us to see clearly. He creates a character who is modern, naturalistic, and deeply human that each person can relate and empathize with. Alongside Rylance is Samuel Barnett playing Viola/Cesario. A beautiful display of his character’s conflicted nature truly tugs at the heartstrings of the audience with his performance.
This extraordinarily exceptional cast also includes Liam Brennan as Duke Orsino, Paul Chahidi as Olivia’s gentlewoman or woman servant, Maria, as well as the famous British actor, author, and comedian, Stephen Fry as the humorously mislead, puritan steward, Malvolio.
Moreover, the cast is just one piece of the play, as the set, ambiance, and the theatre itself contribute greatly to the enormous success of this production. Entering into the Belasco, a theatre so superbly built as each member of the audience feels up close and personal to the action on stage, you’ll stumble upon the cast getting dressed and prepared on stage, accompanied by a band playing surprisingly enjoyable Renaissance theatre music. As stated before, the entire cast is male, thus the women roles in the play are played by men. This makes for an entertaining pre-show display of watching the transformation of middle aged men into Elizabethan middle aged women; Entertainment in and of itself.
Also to note is the stage setup. The on-stage lighting primarily consists of candlelight, lending to the time-travel like environment as well as the overall sense of familiarity between the audience and the actors. In addition, there is on stage seating where one can truly be as close as ever to the cast and maybe even join in the action as well.
At the end of the show, it is customary for the cast of the Globe Theatre Productions to engage in a full cast jig. Since this play and atmosphere reflects the classic Globe Theatre, they decided to carry on this tradition. As the authentic Renaissance band which perfectly performed throughout the play, I had to admit that this end show jig whipped the audience into a deliriously joyous mood and probably is one of the most enjoyable moments you can experience in a Broadway play and it truly compliments the aura and performance of this strong cast.
I would say that Twelfth Night was the greatest experience I have ever had on Broadway from a play and the production was indeed world class. I cannot recommend this production any higher; sheer brilliance, worthy of the author and text of which they perform.