Mark Rylance Roars (with Rage) at Richard III and Has the House Roaring (with Hilarity) on (usage deliberate) Twelfth Night in Rep
by Demetra M. Pappas, correspondent*
By curious coincidence, my first social outing after knee replacement was to the Belasco Theater (111 West 44th Street) to see Richard III (which the Playbill calls “The Tragedie of King Richard the Third). Having missed a number of this season’s best theatrical openings due to knee replacement, hospitalization and rehab, my choice to attend this play as my first was based upon two factors. First, I was giving a talk the next day at the Center for Crime & Popular Culture, where Crimcast co-founder Dr. Nickie Phillips is Director; I had some concern at the tender five-week point about my ability to sit for an hour at a time straight (though I was cheerfully prepared to engage in my usual teaching style of spending some time slowly pacing and some time seated). Second, and what ordinarily would have been first, not all the mind-numbing drugs or post-op soreness would keep me from a chance to see Mark Rylance, whose previous Tony Award-winning turns included mild-mannered distraction in Boeing Boeing (double deliberate) and frightening British squat criminality in Jerusalem. Simply contemplating what alternative being he could bring to Richard was enough to have me out on the town, in what may be poetically suitable as a re-entry to the social world.
Suffice it to be said that the feral ferocity was there, but so, remarkably, was humor (and sometimes in combination, such as after he takes on an unwilling bride and flings her about in faux romance). Rylance, under the subtly spectacular direction of Tim Carroll, makes this Richard hilariously snide while villainously evil. Audience expectation of slander, imprisonment and murder (though most violence is inferred) is matched and taken aback by moments of laughter; for example during Richard’s heartless efforts to persuade Queen Elizabeth (Samuel Barnett) to romance her young daughter to marry him (after he has had Elizabeth’s sons killed off to avoid their potential ascendance and to secure his own).
I offer two social observations, one expected and one not. The unexpected comment is that during this 3-hour long extravaganza, which had one intermission, I found myself fortunate to have an aisle seat that permitted me to take “timed” walks to the back of the theater, where I found other audience members variously stretching backs and limbs. In other words, I found that I had unexpectedly joined a very well-dressed and elegantly-coiffed cohort of those surviving knee wars, hip replacements and back injuries. This set of unanticipated findings fascinated me, and quelled my pre-theater concerns regarding seeing a play about a disabled man as my first post-surgery outing. (That said, a friend correctly commented that Richard outwitted, outsmarted and efficiently murdered off all other comers.)
The second observation, which was according to plan and execution (of the theater, not of the historical characters) regarded the pre-play, watching the all-male cast be dressed and sewn into their clothes, seeing the make up process and watching the set be restored to the players. Designed to be a recreation of the experience one might have had at the Globe, those who might want to poke their heads into their Playbills or other reading material (or even to engage in pre-play banter), should pay attention to what happens before the lights go dim. I offer this exhortation: do not forego this opportunity to see designer Jenny Tiramani’s work be executed by expert dressers and artisans who work as a seamless (pun intended) team with the actors. I now augment my comment that this spectacular viewing was in part used as an opportunity to post-knee replacement practice sitting before my presentation of prosecutorial discretion in the murder and assisted suicide trials of Jack (“Dr. Death”) Kevorkian (who was a dramatic character in his own right), and its place in doctor euthanasia/assisted suicide cases ranging from Lord Dawson of Penn’s euthanasia of English King George V to the post-Katrina euthanasia and prosecution of Dr. Anna Pou, Having ascertained that I had acquired the skill and confidence to sit still, I went the next week to Twelfth Night more focused upon the pre-performance artisanal opportunity. As in Shakespearean times, the lighting of the candles created atmosphere, as well as visibility (the candles were sold off after the performance for charity for Broadway Cares, with additional hilarity by Orsino-playing Liam Brennan, who humorously promised that the candles were actually from the original theater of the last millennium).
Seeing players engage in physical calisthenics and stretches prior to the performance likely made the room more appreciative, not less, of the running, fighting and jumps up onto ledges. A specific example of this is when the formerly grim Olivia (Rylance), first seeing long-lost twins Cesario a/k/a Viola in boyish garb (Samuel Barnett) and Sebastian-the-actual-boy-twin (Joseph Timms) together, jumps up and down, gleefully crying “how wonderful,” in a distinctly I-have-two-boys-at-the-same-time-and-you-don’t-na-na-na-na-na sort of way, which is something I have never seen in a rendition of this play before. Another example, with moulage makeup effects, is when Olivia (Rylance) rushes full-speed at Sebastian (Timms) after seeking to “save” him from a beating by competitors (of Viola/Barnett’s), with a kiss that leaves the delighted Sebastian with an inch of red around his surprised jaw-dropped mouth. This said, the loudest guffaws in a house of attendees that likely nursed charley horses the next day takes place when Malvolio (Stephen Fry) attempts (while wearing shocking wardrobe malfunctioning yellow stockings and black cross garters) to “thrust greatness” upon Olivia as he utters the phrase, “some are born to greatness … others have greatness thrust upon them.” This sort of playfulness befits modern times, and makes me wonder, would it perhaps have befitted Shakespearean times as well? A question for the sociological imagination to wonder at, indeed….
*The author was named the 2011/2012 SGA Faculty Member of the Year at St. Francis College, for her work in the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice. Her recent book, Historical Guides to Controversial Issues in America: The Euthanasia/Assisted Suicide Debate, (Greenwood Press, 2012) (100 year study of US and UK doctors prosecuted for medical euthanasia/assisted suicide and role of media) was recently nominated, for the 2014 International Qualitative Inquiry Book Prize and was also nominated and short listed, British Society of Criminology 2013 Criminology Book Prize. In addition to her criminological and legal writings about murder and mayhem, she also writes about travel, dining, theater and the arts, cultural and historical sights and visual sociology.