Theater
12:00 am
Mon November 11, 2013

Here's A Wild Idea For Shakespeare: Do It His Way

Originally published on Sun November 10, 2013 12:54 pm

This season, New York audiences have seen wildly different interpretations of Shakespeare plays. They've seen the Romeo of Orlando Bloom make his first entrance on a motorcycle; they've seen a production of Julius Caesar set in a women's prison.

Now the London-based company from Shakespeare's Globe Theatre has landed on Broadway with what seems like the most radical concept of them all: plays staged in a style Shakespeare would've recognized, with all-male casts, period costumes and live music.

Not A Museum

As the audience enters the Belasco Theatre, there are immediate indications that they're being transported back to the world of Elizabethan England — the set, all carved wood, looks like an old Oxford dining hall. Actors mill about the stage in doublets and hose. Candles are being lit on elaborate chandeliers, then hoisted above the stage on ropes. Musicians play shawms and sackbuts, lutes and recorders.

And, most important, on either side of the stage, some members of the audience sit in a two-tiered gallery, in full view of the actors and the rest of the audience.

But they haven't entered some Shakespeare museum. The plays come to life with a vibrancy that's very much of the moment.

"When you play in the Globe, and you are all in daylight, it seems crazy to pretend the audience isn't there," says director Tim Carroll, who first staged Twelfth Night and Richard III — the two open today for a 16-week Broadway run — in the company's open-air London home.

"So we really began to explore the notion of 'What if you simply accept that they are there?' Shakespeare himself frequently reminds us that we're watching a play.

"He has Fabian say [in Twelfth Night], 'If this were played upon a stage now, I could condemn it as an improbable fiction,' which is about as direct a way as you can imagine of saying, 'You do know that we know you're there, don't you?'"

So the soliloquies, far from being internal monologues, are spoken directly to the audience — sometimes even directly to people in the galleries.

In this strict Elizabethan style, there's hardly any set to define where scenes take place. Sometimes it's just a table and chairs, says Carroll.

"The most important thing in this kind of work is, indeed, the actor," he says. "This style puts the emphasis on them to a degree which is very scary if you don't have the right actors."

An 'Aural Tradition'

Luckily, Carroll has assembled a company of veterans from the Globe that includes Tony Award-winning actor Mark Rylance, who plays the murderous Richard III as well as the love-besotted Olivia in Twelfth Night. Rylance says since there is virtually no scenery onstage, the audience needs to listen very closely to Shakespeare's language to know where they are and who they're with.

"In Shakespeare's day, people said they went 'to hear' the plays," he says. "No one wrote 'I saw Julius Caesar. Or I saw whatever.' They always say, 'I heard, or I'm going to hear this play, or I went to hear.' It was an aural tradition."

Rylance says this aural tradition actively engages the audience.

"The story is very clearly happening in the audience's imagination, not happening onstage," he explains. "We're prompting it with words and movements and things, but it's all happening in their imagination. So, there's a general spirit of playing with an audience, rather than for them or at them or to them."

How Shakespeare Would Have Done It

And audiences really need to engage their imaginations when it comes to the portrayal of female characters.

As in Shakespeare's day — there were laws — all the women are played by men. So, in Twelfth Night, the character Viola is played by a man. But for most of the play, Viola is disguised as her twin brother, who's supposedly been lost in a shipwreck. So there's a man playing a woman playing a man. And there's Mark Rylance playing Olivia, the woman who's falling in love with the "man" who's really a woman, who's being played by a man. (Follow?)

"People ask me a lot about the all-male thing and what you get from it," Carroll says. "And, of course, Twelfth Night provides the easiest answer, in that you get not only two twins who really can be mistaken for each other, but you also get the levels of confusion that Shakespeare wrote for his original company."

Actor and author Stephen Fry is making his Broadway debut as Malvolio, the comically pompous steward in Twelfth Night. He wears yellow stockings and crossed garters that are made exactly as they would have been in 1602, when the play premiered.

"Talking to the audiences afterwards, [it seems] the whole experience has been completely new for them," Fry says. "Which is sort of counterintuitive, given that we've gone right back to the very beginning, and we're giving it, as closely as we possibly can ... to the way that Shakespeare would've done it and his company would've done it. And that makes it fresher and newer than so many productions, where a director tries to write a kind of thesis on the stage."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

New York audiences have seen wildly different interpretations of Shakespeare this season, like when Orlando Bloom made his first entrance as Romeo on a motorcycle. They've also seen a production of "Julius Caesar" set in a women's prison. And now, Shakespeare's Globe Theatre in London has landed on Broadway with what seems like the most radical concept of them all - plays staged in a style which Shakespeare would have recognized, with all-male casts, period costumes and music.

Jeff Lunden reports.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: As the audience enters the Belasco Theatre, there are immediate indications that they're being transported back to the world of Elizabethan England. The set, all carved wood, looks like an old Oxford dining hall. Actors mill about the stage, in doublets and hose. Candles are lit on elaborate chandeliers and hoisted above the stage on ropes.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LUNDEN: Live musicians play shawms and sackbuts, lutes and recorders. And most important, on either side of the stage, some members of the audience sit in a two-tiered gallery, in full view of the actors and the rest of the audience. But they haven't entered some Shakespeare museum. The plays come to life with a vibrancy that's very much of the moment, says director Tim Carroll, who first staged "Twelfth Night" and "Richard III" in the open-air Globe Theatre.

TIM CARROLL: When you play in the Globe and you are all in daylight, it seems crazy to pretend the audience isn't there. So, we really began to explore the notion of what if you simply accept that they are there? Shakespeare, himself, frequently reminds us that we're watching a play. He has Fabian say: If this were played upon a stage now, I could condemn it as an improbable fiction, which is about as direct a way as you can imagine of saying: You do know that we know you're there, don't you?

LUNDEN: So, the soliloquies, far from being internal monologues, are spoken directly to the audience - sometimes even directly to people in the galleries.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "RICHARD III")

MARK RYLANCE: (as Richard III) What?

(LAUGHTER)

RYLANCE: (as Richard III) The sons of Edward sleep in Abraham's bosom. And Anne, my wife, hath bid the world goodnight.

LUNDEN: In this strict Elizabethan style, there is hardly any sort of set to define where scenes take place - sometimes just a table and chair, says director Tim Carroll.

CARROLL: Well, the most important thing in this kind of work is, indeed, the actor. This style puts the emphasis on them to a degree which is very scary if you don't have the right actors.

LUNDEN: Luckily, he's assembled a company of veterans from the Globe that includes Tony Award-winning actor Mark Rylance, who plays the murderous "Richard III," as well as the love-besotted Olivia in "Twelfth Night." Rylance says since there is virtually no scenery onstage, the audience needs to listen very closely to Shakespeare's language, to know where they are and who they're with.

RYLANCE: In Shakespeare's day, people said they went to hear the plays. No one wrote: I saw "Julius Caesar" or I saw whatever. They always say I heard or I'm going to hear this play, or I went to hear. It was an oral tradition.

LUNDEN: Rylance says this oral tradition actively engages the audience.

RYLANCE: The story is very clearly happening in the audience's imagination, not happening onstage. We're prompting it with words and movements and things, but it's all happening in their imagination. So there's a general spirit of playing with an audience, rather than for them or at them or to them.

LUNDEN: And audiences really need to engage their imaginations, when it comes to the portrayal of female characters, as in this scene between the Olivia of Mark Rylance and the Maria of Paul Chahidi.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "TWELFTH NIGHT")

RYLANCE: (as Olivia) Where's Malvolio? He's sad and civil and suits well for servant with my fortune. Where is Malvolio?

(LAUGHTER)

RYLANCE: (as Olivia) Where is Malvolio?

PAUL CHAHIDI: (as Maria) He's coming, Madam.

(LAUGHTER)

RYLANCE: (as Olivia) But in very strange manner.

CHAHIDI: (as Maria) He is sure possessed, Madam.

LUNDEN: As in Shakespeare's day, all the women are played by men. So in "Twelfth Night," the main character Viola, a woman, is played by a man. But for most of the play, she's actually disguised as a man.

Director Tim Carroll.

CARROLL: People ask me a lot about the all-male thing and what you get from it. And, of course, "Twelfth Night" provides the easiest answer, in that you get not only two twins who really can be mistaken for each other, but you also get the levels of confusion that Shakespeare wrote for his original company.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "TWELFTH NIGHT")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as Olivia) What will become of this? As I am man, my state is desperate for my master's love. As I am woman, now alas the day what thriftless sigh shall poor Olivia breathe? Oh time, thou must untangle this, not I.

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as Olivia) It is too hard a knot for me to untie.

LUNDEN: Actor and author Stephen Fry is making his Broadway debut as Malvolio, the comically pompous steward in "Twelfth Night." He wears yellow stockings and cross-garters that are made exactly as they would have been in 1602, when the play premiered.

STEPHEN FRY: It seems to be, talking to the audiences afterwards, that the whole experience has been completely new for them. Which is sort of counterintuitive, given that we've gone right back to the very beginning and we're giving it, as closely as we possibly can, according to all scholarship, to the way that Shakespeare would've done it and his company would've done it. And that makes it fresher and newer than so many productions where a director tries to write a kind of thesis on the stage.

LUNDEN: "Twelfth Night" and "Richard III" open on Broadway at the Belasco Theatre today.

For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.