Shakespeare as You Like It

The people of English theater prove they know both how to remain faithful to the tradition and to stage Shakespeare properly, how to surprise us and buck tradition, and nevertheless how to produce a fascinating and challenging show.

Michael Handelzalts
Michael Handelzalts
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Michael Handelzalts
Michael Handelzalts

I ask myself occasionally what draws me to London again and again to see theater. And occasionally I answer, among other things: to see how Shakespeare is doing.

I remind myself that there is some cause for concern. Even the theatrical institutions that specialize in the preservation and renewal of the Bard’s heritage the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Globe present Shakespearean productions in other languages and theatrical traditions. Is this because the British no longer trust their own interpretations of their national artist’s work?

Judging by a one-week visit to London and relying on the theaters’ regular seasonal programming, without special festivals it becomes clear that there is definitely no cause for concern. The people of English theater prove they know both how to remain faithful to the tradition and to stage Shakespeare properly, how to surprise us and buck tradition, and nevertheless how to produce a fascinating and challenging show.

We know quite a lot about Shakespearean theater, so much so that armed with knowledge and a respect for tradition it was possible to recreate the Globe Theater on the south bank of the Thames with the same materials as the original, and to stage the Bard’s plays with great historical accuracy.

Theaters have exhaustively toyed with the roles of the sexes and genders, but it always remains a fascinating subject to revisit. This is especially true for those plays in which a female character (originally written for and played by a male actor) dresses up as a man, falls in love with a man, and over the course of the play causes another woman (played by a man) to fall in love with her while she is disguised as a man.

Confused? That’s the intention.

In 2002, Mark Rylance, considered one of the top Shakespearean actors today, played Olivia in an all-male “Twelfth Night” at the Globe. That production, directed by Tim Carroll and designed by Jenny Tiramani, was intended as a precise restaging of the play as it was produced in the gay old days of Shakespeare. The production was a huge hit, and since then Rylance has also taken it on tour in the United States. Meanwhile, also in 2002, he played Richard II with the same cast.

In 2012 Rylance reopened the same production of “Twelfth Night,” but this time he is simultaneously playing Richard III. And this time, because it’s winter and therefore impossible to perform at the Globe, where most of the audience is under the open sky, the play is being performed at London’s Apollo Theater.

And there is another draw for the audience: The role of Malvolio, the steward, is played by Stephen Fry, a great stage and television persona in his own right. He is an entertainer, comedian, author, intellectual, and who knows what else. This is Fry’s first return to regular performances in the West End since he fled and went into hiding during a 1995 production in which he played one of the lead roles.

Fry’s performance is extremely charming, even if it seems to me that he is always two people onstage: the character of Malvolio, in his yellow stockings and cross garters, puffed up like a peacock; and Fry the actor, observing him with a critical and skeptical eye. And yet, when Malvolio erupts in anger the play is indeed far crueler to him than he deserves Fry and his character become one. Their cry of insult and pain lingers and reverberates after Malvolio exits the stage.

But Fry is not what’s important about the production. What’s important is the staging and tradition: At the Apollo Theater, the Elizabethan stage has been reconstructed to look the way it did when Shakespeare’s company was invited to perform it in closed spaces. The audience members who enter the auditorium (and also the lucky few spectators who purchase seats on the stage itself) get to see the actors changing costumes and putting on makeup in a large, shared dressing room spread out onstage.

In the midst of this, Shakespeare’s text, familiar to all who love him (“If music be the food of love, play on”) sounds lucid, clear and alive, as though it were only now being spoken for the first time before our eyes and ears.

That said, the real magic of this ever-so-traditional production lies not with Fry’s performance, nor with Rylance’s performance as Olivia, but rather in the many-layered significance of the scene in which the clown Feste sings to Count Orsino. (The performance is impressive in its straightforwardness, despite the Elizabethan sophistries.) Upon hearing the romantic song, the count places a hand on the thigh of his male servant or so he thinks (and the actor is indeed male). The spectators see Viola’s whole body tense up, and the count senses her reaction. Here, a gesture of friendship is given an erotic interpretation.

But between whom has this erotic frisson passed between actors? Between the character of a man and the character of a woman disguised as man? There is a kind of disturbing and enchanting uncertainty here, which adds another twist to the Shakespearean tangle of relationships that is so very endearing.

A feminist agenda

If “Twelfth Night” shows it is possible to bring theatrical tradition to the stage (and I haven’t written a word about the mischievous Sir Toby, Sir Andrew and Maria), then director Phyllida Lloyd takes her production of “Julius Caesar” in an entirely different direction.

Lloyd who among other credits directed the film “Mama Mia” doesn’t try to conceal her feminist agenda in the production, staged at the intimate Donmar Theater. In her opinion, every production, no matter the sex of the characters, must be cast with strict attention to gender equality. Half the roles must be played by men, the other half by women.

It’s not surprising, then, that Lloyd’s production of “Julius Caesar” features only actresses. The director explains her decision by noting that in the dramatic repertoire there are too few roles for angry women.

As this is an all-female cast, even though there are only two female roles in “Julius Caesar,” Lloyd sets her production in a women’s prison: The prisoners perform “Julius Caesar” and the play is interrupted from time to time when a jailer steps in or when one of the actresses breaks character.

This strategy resembles that of the recent film by the Taviani Brothers, who followed the rehearsals and performance of “Julius Caesar” at a high-security prison in Rome. Like the Tavianis’ film, Lloyd’s production features a number of actresses who really are ex-convicts and who studied theater in prison. Indeed, it makes sense to cast prisoners both male and female in a play about freedom and release.

However, it must be noted and I haven’t seen that the London critics mention this at all that one of the themes in “Julius Caesar” is that of the powerlessness of women relative to the strength of men. Brutus tells his fellow conspirators that if they do not rise up to defend the Republic (and assassinate Caesar), they will be behaving like women. And Portia, the wife of Brutus, says about herself “I have a man’s mind, but a woman’s might.”

Another thing worth mentioning: Both Harriet Walter, who plays Brutus, and Frances Barber, who plays Caesar, have enough anger to keep any number of men on their toes. Furthermore, their treatment of the Shakespearean text is impeccable.

In a single week in 2006, I saw both these actresses play one of the most feminine characters in the entire Shakespearean repertoire, in “Antony and Cleopatra.” Walter played Cleopatra in a Royal Shakespeare Company production in Stratford, and Barber played her in a production at the Globe. Here, in “Julius Caesar,” Walter has shorn black hair and sunken cheekbones, and every bit of her is a burning torch in the fight for independence and liberty. Barber plays Caesar, on the other hand, as a leader who enjoys abusing prisoners and bending them to her caprices, with Mark Antony as her male/female lover.

The intimate space of the Donmar makes the audience part of the plot. Audience members sit on gray plastic chairs identical to those onstage, and those same chairs fill in as props when needed. In the murder scene, a member of the audience in the middle of the front row is asked to switch seats; this is where Caesar sits when he is murdered, as the conspirators force him to drink bleach.

Mark Antony, played by a delicate-looking, dark-skinned girl, the actress Cush Jumbo, begins Antony’s famous speech lying on the floor as the conspirators threaten her with a toy pistol (after all, this is a prison there aren’t any real weapons there). Punk music performed by the prisoners serves as the soundtrack.

At the end of the play, the murdered Caesar returns in the character of a jailer who shatters the prisoners’ illusion of freedom freedom that they had supposedly obtained, for a moment, while they were performing. The play is over; the actresses form a line and leave the stage on the way back to their cells. The door is slammed behind them.

And so it appears we have Shakespeare times two. The first production is marked by stylistic faithfulness, endless charm, smiles, laughter and a kind of unclear relationship between the sexes. In the second production, we see impudence and subversion, poetic license and a kind of current realism, far from the conventional stylistic artificiality.

Both productions, meanwhile, are faithful to the text and the strength of the emotions, while also making a clear statement: Shakespeare is not a matter of masculine or feminine. He is sex and gender in and of himself.

Mark Rylance, left, and Stephen Fry, during a dress rehearsal for 'Twelfth Night.' Credit: AP

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