Boy Players

3 Nikolai Petrovich Bogdanov-Belsky (Russian painter, 1868-1945)   Reading in the Garden 1915During this last week I’ve caught up with The Globe Theatre’s production of Twelfth Night curtesy of the wonderful system that allows those of us who can’t get down to London to see productions on the silver screen.  Appropriately enough, I went over to Stratford and saw the show in the very welcoming, tiny cinema tucked away down one of its side streets.  If I’m honest, I’m not actually enamoured of the work I’ve seen coming out of The Globe. I can appreciate the desire to replicate the conditions in which Shakespeare would have worked, but the productions I’ve seen make me question whether or not it will ever be possible to replicate the theatre practices of the Elizabethan and Jacobean stage, if only because there is no one around to verify the choices made.

Having said that, this production of Twelfth Night is undoubtedly the best of their work that I’ve seen, even though it is still what The Bears, with their enviable knack of finding the right word for the right occasion,  would call ‘eggy’; that is, like the curate’s egg, it is ‘good in parts’.  Perhaps predictably, the highlight is Stephen Fry’s Malvolio, never over powering in his self-aggrandisement, never pushed so far that he becomes ridiculous.  In fact, in a production that tries to milk the play for more humour than it allows, it is interesting that he is never made a figure of fun for the audience.  He is more sinned against than sinning; a man out of his depth but not aware of it until it is too late to retreat.  However, there are other first class performances, notably from Roger Lloyd Pack, superbly cast as Sir Andrew Aguecheek, and James Garnon, who actually makes a real character out of the underwritten Fabian.

But, I’m not in the habit of writing theatre reviews here and this is going to be no exception because what I really want to consider is what this production has to say about the practice of using men to play the parts of women on the twenty-first century stage.  Now I know that this is what would have happened in Shakespeare’s day when women were not allowed on the public stage, but the Globe’s performance really made me question the wisdom of our trying to replicate the tradition in the light of the point I made earlier: there is no one to tell us if we are replicating the practice authentically.

There are three major female roles in Twelfth Night, the lady Olivia, her gentlewoman, Maria and Viola, who spends most of the play disguised as a boy and each of the actors concerned appears to have taken a different approach towards their portrayal.  Unfortunately, given that it is the main role, Johnny Flynn, as Viola, was the least successful.  He clearly wanted us to keep the three levels of identity in mind all the time and in theory, this is no bad thing.  However, in the end, you have to believe in the character as an integrated whole, if you are going to empathise with them and it was completely impossible to forget that this was a man playing a woman disguised as a man.  The make-up, particularly, said I am a man trying to appear to be an Elizabethan woman, even though I want all those around me to think I am a man and the voice wobbled all over the place.  I never saw him as anything other than an actor playing a role.

Mark Rylance’s Olivia was a much more convincing woman.  The problem here was one of age.  Rylance is in his fifties and so I was never certain whether or not I was suppose to see this as an elderly Olivia, a problem I wouldn’t have had with an Elizabethan company.  If this is meant to be an older woman (and I have seen the part played that way, albeit never quite that old) then why does Sebastian fall for her?  Especially when, as here, she is made a figure of ridicule with a huge number of cheap laughs gained at her expense.  I have to be careful about this because I don’t like Rylance as an actor.  I still remember the problems he had playing Hamlet at Stratford, although to be fair, those pyjamas were far too big for him.  Anyway, I need to be aware that I might be biased here but I did think he was playing to the groundlings in a role that isn’t intended to do that.

And then there was Paul Chahidi’s Maria, which was just superb.  I cannot pinpoint how he did it (which is as it should be) but while I never for one moment failed to recognise I was watching a man, I never for one moment failed to believe that I was watching a woman. The integration of the two beings was simply perfection.

So, I know which approach I prefer, but that still doesn’t answer the original question as to which is authentic.  And it doesn’t solve the problem that when I see a so-called authentic production my attention is being taken away from the play by the individual performances.  I’m not appreciating what Shakespeare wrote because an historical facsimile is getting in the way.

I don’t want to detract from some of the wonderful work The Globe does, especially in the field of education and research, but the more I see of their productions the less I feel I want to see.  Am I alone in this?  How do others feel?  I would be really interested to know.

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19 thoughts on “Boy Players

  1. How interesting. Somehow I’ve always shied away from the Globe, preferring to sit in air conditioned comfort in a traditional theatre, but I would like to go at least once to experience it fully – so I don’t feel I can comment on the authenticity, but my gut feeling tells me that it would get in the way for me.

  2. Admittedly it’s been a few years since I was in England to see a play at the Globe — the last one was As You Like It, I think, in 2009ish? But I’ve loved all the productions I’ve seen there. I’ve always thought they have a splendid speech coach (or whatever it’s called? the person who makes them say Shakespeare like it sounds normal), and I’ve liked the way they set all the plays. But I’ve always seen them as a groundling, and I think there is something especially good about seeing a Shakespeare play as a groundling.

    I’m glad you liked Twelfth Night, mostly! The production is coming to New York in October, and I’m going to see it. All the original cast as well, I think.

    1. Yes, I think the cast stands, Jenny. Certainly, Stephen Fry is still playing Malvolio because I heard him talking about it the other day. I’ll be fascinated to see what you think of it.

  3. Interesting question. Olivia as an older woman with such a young suitor does sound stretching disbelief rather too far. I have a similar dilemma with the practice of doubling up on roles. I know the Elizabethan troupes did that regularly but I find it hard then to distinguish between the characters. A recent production of Midsummer;s Night’s Dream proved problematic because the same actor played Oberon as the Duke. He wore a different costume and used a different voice but it still was confusing and since that play has so many other confusing mixed of identities, it really didn’t help people to understand the plot

    1. The Oberon/Duke, Titania/Hippolyta double is a very common one, usually when directors are trying to make the point that the Athenian marriage is as trouble as the Fairie variety. I agree it can be disconcerting especially if you can’t see the point behind the director’s decision.

  4. I can’t speak to the Globe, since I’ve never seen their productions, but I know what you mean about how amazing it is when a gender-switched role works – I saw Brian Bedford as Lady Bracknell in ‘The Importance of Being Ernest’ a few years back, and he was phenomenal. I didn’t realize the Globe was trying to reproduce contemporary conditions – I get that it can be hard to make Shakespeare feel fresh, but that does seem an odd way to go about it. Anyway, thanks for the interesting thoughts on the play.

    1. In the early days they would only use those materials and means of construction for props and costumes that would have been available to Shakespeare’s company, although I don’t know if that’s still the case now. I saw a similar attempt to stage “The Importance of Being Ernest’ a couple of years ago but unfortunately it didn’t have an actor of Brian Blessed’s standing to help make it work.

  5. We saw two plays at the Globe during one of our trips to London; Doctor Faustus and a Shakespeare comedy so non-memorable that I can’t even remember which one it was. Doctor Faustus was wonderful–we had seats for that one on the ground level, and got to see all the fun the groundlings had, being tossed the “tongue” of an actor when it was cut out, and so on. For the Shakespeare, we got groundling admission, at Jenny’s urging. Nothing really happened except that the actors cut through the crowd at one point.

    1. I’ve heard Andrew Gurr (the guru on all things to do with the original Globe) suggest that modern actors haven’t really got the skills to use the open stage in the way that Shakespeare’s actors would have done. Too much television and film work means that they don’t really know how to work an audience.

      1. Reading Mary Renault’s The Mask of Apollo and thinking about my father’s years teaching Greek and Roman theater history makes me think that’s probably quite true.

  6. I’ve seen several performances of Twelfth Night, but only one (the last one) where males played the female roles and females the male. That was at The Courtyard some years ago. It worked for the most part, but I was totally unconvinced by the performance of the man playing the role of Viola/Cesario as there was no way that I could conceive he was a woman disguised as a boy, nor that Olivia could possibly find such an effeminate young man attractive, let alone fall in love with him and this grated and irritated me throughout the play. I think that is the problem – unless the performances are convincing it just doesn’t work, but that is the same for any play.

    Each performance I’ve seen has had a wonderful Malvolio, but I bet Stephen Fry would be up there with the best!

    I’ve never been to the Globe and the thought of the height of the seats scares me. When we lived near Aylesbury we toyed with the idea of going – one of my friends loved it and almost convinced me – but it was all too much for me.

    1. Don’t try the gallery in the new theatre at Stratford, then. We’d have to blindfold you to bring you down safely. Fry is superb as Malvolio. I’ve had a very mixed experience where the part is concerned, including last season at Stratford which I thought was the worst I’d ever seen. This one, however, is almost sympathetic.

  7. I can understand wanting to try and replicate the experience of how a play was performed in Shakespeare’s time but it is impossible all around not only because we can’t verify everything but because we are different. That said, I saw a short video recently of how the Globe does some plays in the “original” pronunciation and how that changes the way the lines sound as also makes available more joke and puns and other language tricks for notice because we don’t hear them in the modern accent. I thought it really interesting. Have you seen a play done in the original and if so, what did you think?

    1. I’ve done some work with the Crystals, father and son, who have carried out the research in this area and played around with short speeches but I’m not certain a modern theatre company would be able to put on a full play. It would be incredibly difficult for an actor to concentrate both on getting the pronunciation right and interpreting the role. Perhaps a radio performance where there was the option to go back as re-record a speech might work.

        1. One of the many advantages of living so close to Stratford. And David Crystal, the father, began his academic career working in the same linguistic discipline as I do.

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