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July 29, 2015

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The date that appears above is the date of the most recent reviews. As new reviews are added, the date will change accordingly. The new reviews will appear towards the top of the page and the older ones will move further down. When the page is closed, the items will be archived according to the final date on the page.

Reviewed here: Twelfth Night (DVD); Old Wives' Tales (Play)

Twelfth Night (Play) by William Shakespeare; directed by Tim Carroll; designed by Jenny Tiramani; directed for the screen by Ian Russell; starring Samuel Barnett, Liam Brennan, Paul Chahidi, Johnny Flynn, Stephen Fry, Peter Hamilton Dyer, Colin Hurley, Roger Lloyd Pack, Mark Rylance; produced by Shakespeare’s Globe

I’d been hearing about this production for years: an all male version of Twelfth Night performed on the stage of London’s new Globe Theatre, a nearly exact reproduction of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in almost the very same location. Friends who saw it raved about it. What a pleasant surprise, then, to discover a DVD of the show, as performed before a live audience. Might this be the closest you’d ever come to seeing a Shakespearean play produced and performed very much the way it would have been in the author’s own time?

My knowledge of theatre in that era is far from expert but I am reasonably well informed at the level, let’s say, of a high school English student. So the males playing the female roles were no surprise to me. But the look of the Globe wasn’t what I expected. I’d always pictured the backdrop to the acting platform as a mostly bare wall but here was an ambiance that was almost rococo with its pillars and ornaments. Would Shakespeare’s Globe have had the resources for such elaborate decor? I was also puzzled by the abundance of greenery adorning the wall and pillars. Perhaps the intention was to create a Christmassy effect since, as we know, Twelfth Night takes its title from the holiday season and one can assume that the play was originally performed at that time.

I don’t know whether this was the custom in Shakespeare’s time, but the men who are playing women in this production have their faces painted white. If this is the way it was done back in the day, was it an attempt to affect femininity, to cover up the five-o’clock shadows? Or was it perhaps a question of following in the fashion of Queen Elizabeth I? Another performance style that I wondered about was the fact that Olivia and Maria walked with very tiny steps, so that you couldn’t see their feet moving beneath their gowns. This gave the impression that they were rolling across the stage. I know that this shtick was deployed in Victorian theatre but does it actually date back to Shakespeare’s time? Would it be possible to know whether or not it did?

One aspect of this production that strikes me as very authentic is the music, played by musicians ensconced in a balcony over the stage. Vintage instruments, probably with names like ‘sackbuts,’ produce what strikes our ears as a rather sour, plaintive sound, even when it’s supposed to be merry. At the end of the show, these musicians accompany the actors in a formal but sprightly dance that ends the proceedings on just the right note.

Of the men who play women, Paul Chahidi, as Maria, is the only one who is completely believable. He gives this stout woman a smug, somewhat constrained quality that makes her instigation of the shenanigans all the more delightful. As for Mark Rylance as Olivia, you have to keep trying to overlook the fact that he is decidedly too old and not at all beautiful. But he is such a good actor – some say one of the best on the stage today – that he eventually wins you over with his characterization of a woman who, being somewhat dithery and excitable, is constantly struggling to maintain her dignity.

I never could, unfortunately, accept Johnny Flynn in the role of Viola. A tall, strapping young man with masculine, sculpted features, he seems to do almost nothing to try to make himself seem feminine – other than adopting a somewhat tentative physicality. As for the vocal aspect of his performance, he seems to be trying for something mid-way between a falsetto and his natural baritone. The result is a breathy sing-song that never sounds genuine. It’s impossible to see how either Olivia or Orsino would fall in love with this character. For all I know, though, Mr. Flynn’s performance of the role could be quite in keeping with what one would have seen in Shakespeare’s day. Maybe it’s too much to expect verisimilitude from a male acting as a female acting as a male.

In the end, though, you could almost say that none of the problems with credibility matter to the overall impact of the production. It’s all about theatricality. It was as though we aren’t supposed to try to see the characters as real people; they’re performers acting out a story – almost like puppets; hence the effect of the women "rolling" around the stage. The fact that some of the actors are burdened with terrible wigs – stiff as straw – seems to drive home the point that we aren’t meant to see them as real people.

The actor-ish quality of the production is especially notable in the performance of Stephen Fry as Malvolio. He never seems to be speaking to anybody in the form of direct, interpersonal communication, as in real life; he always seems to be addressing himself to the audience, with an eye to his effect on them. His final plea, though, in which he complains about how badly he has been used, is truly poignant. The only other character who also has a touch of genuine humanity is Feste, as played by Peter Hamilton Dyer. A thin, wiry man, with a gaunt face, he has a wistful, wry wisdom that provides a touchstone of truth in the midst of all the tomfoolery.

Apart from such rare touches of genuine pathos, what you get from this production is not an intimate portrayal of relationships among people from real life, but a romp through a masterpiece of comedy that ticks like clockwork. The staging is so brilliant that drama students could study it moment by moment to learn many tricks of the trade. Thanks to the way that Olivia’s huge black skirt swirls around the stage, the students would learn that a costume can almost become a character on its own. The comic timing of all the actors is dead-on but a few examples from Mark Rylance’s performance as Olivia will have to do as examples of the high level of the art. There’s the moment when Malvolio enters in his yellow, cross-gartered stockings. Olivia starts to address him without actually seeing him, but then she turns and beholds the ghastly vision. Her line, according to this staging, is delivered as: "How now, Malvoli – oh!"

Then there’s the moment when she’s proposing marriage with Sebastian (whom she thinks is Cesario). She enters, finding him on stage, and suggests immediate matrimony. One would assume that, in most productions, the priest whom she has asked to perform the marriage would enter with her. Here, though, Olivia enters alone, says "Blame not this haste of mine," then frantically gestures to the priest to enter from the wings. The slight pause in her speech, accompanied by the significant gesture, makes for great hilarity.

Mr. Rylance even knows how to wring a laugh out of a line where nobody else might see one. As the plot is rapidly speeding to its conclusion – the true identities of Olivia and Sebastian and their relationship as siblings have been revealed – Olivia urges Orsino now to think of her as a sister, rather than as a potential wife. Her speech begins: "My lord, so please you, these things further thought on..." On saying the words "these things", Mr. Rylance makes a fluttery gesture of the hand as if to show that there’s no way to speak of this ridiculous turmoil other than as "these things." The audience, catching the spirit of it precisely, burst out in delighted laughter.

 

Old Wives’ Tales (Play) by Kevin Riordan; directed by Matthew Gorman; starring Sarah Machin Gale, Madeleine Donohue, Mike Petersen. Port Stanley Festival Theatre, July 8th to August 1st. www.portstanleytheatre.ca

For obvious reasons, it wouldn’t be appropriate for me to attempt an actual review of this production but that doesn’t mean it isn’t well deserving of mention as an item of interest in the cultural life of Dilettante’s Diary.

Kevin Riordan’s play starts on the morning of a wedding, with a young bride balking at the prospect of marching down the aisle. Her mother, in the attempt to bolster the bride’s conviction, resorts to the kind of folklore and common wisdom that often gets labelled with the faintly derisive "Old Wives’ Tales." But watch out – these two women are going to give those platitudes a good shaking out, turning many of them on their heads.

After the scene on the morning of the planned wedding, the play follows the women in three more scenes, charting their relationship over the next twenty years or so. The cast members perform with exquisite comedic elan: Sarah Machin Gale as the exasperated mother, Madeleine Donohue as the petulant daughter and Mike Petersen in the roles of a long-suffering priest, a sly waiter and a baffled lawyer. Much of the humour is very broad, the sexual content crass and vulgar, but the Port Stanley audiences are thrilled. In terms of dramatic structure, the play is a bit wobbly at times, but you’ve got to hand it to playwright Kevin Riordan: he has a quite the knack for outrageous situations and terrific one-liners.

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com