“Twelfth Night” On Broadway: A Mild Dissent

I don’t fully partake of the heaping helpings of pre-Thanksgiving praise plopped by critics on the Broadway production of “Twelfth Night” (running in rep with “Richard III”) that opened last night. I admit that I’m not keen on all-adult-male productions of Shakespeare, and not only because in the playwright’s day the roles were taken mostly by pubescent and post-pubescent men. Especially in comedy, the guyish productions rarely ‘scape sniggering. Certainly, the new “Twelfth Night” had plenty of adolescent moments, which the audience lapped up hungrily. Uproarious laughter is sufficiently rare for me not to notice it. In fact, I’m happy to recommend “Twelfth Night” to any theatre lover who doesn’t dislike Shakespeare. (You’d be surprised how many theatre lovers have to be dragged to see his plays.) Let me just say a few words about Mark Rylance’s Olivia, since a lot of today’s reviews have anointed him Greatest Stage Actor Alive. Except for his work in his last Broadway outing, “Jerusalem,” a performance that was indelible, I have found Rylance more and more puzzling over the years. His “Hamlet,” in the early 1990s, which I wrote about for The New Yorker, was full of surprise and spontaneity. As were, according to my London friends, his Benedick and his “True West” work shortly thereafter.

Twenty years later, his Olivia feels completely calculated, down to every “and” and “the.” Rather like Vanessa Redgrave, another performer in the Greatest Stage Actor Alive category, the tricks and ticks have increased over the years. Perhaps Mark and Van always designed their performances meticulously, and (as with Streep) we just become more aware of them. Perhaps I would have enjoyed Rylance as Olivia more thoroughly had I not become immune to his feminine charms. (He did the role a decade ago at London’s Globe.)

A final word: I can recommend the new “Twelfth Night” simply on the basis of Stephen Fry’s Malvolio. After an (in)famous leave-taking from the stage in the mid-90s, Fry is back on the boards, making his Broadway debut. I am happy to salute him and suspect his hordes of Twitter followers were making the Broadway show a hit even before today’s reviews made “Twelfth Night” a hard-to-get ticket.

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