Dave Sikula writes us from New York, on Shakespeare, Broadway, and ritual.
Did you ever have something you were really looking forward to, and when it finally came, not only were your high expectations met, and wildly exceeded? Well, I had one of those afternoons.
I write this sitting in my hotel room in sunny New York (no kidding on that, either; in spite of the snow yesterday and the current temperature of 34 degrees, it’s supposed to get into the high 60s – if not 70s – this Sunday), having just returned from seeing Mark Rylance and the rest of the Globe company perform “Twelfe Night” (sic). The misspelling is part of the conceit of doing the show strictly in period. That is to say, authentically period costumes (no materials or conveniences that weren’t available in the 17th century – including [or not including, to be more accurate] zippers or Velcro; it’s all hand-stitched materials held together with buttons, straps, or ties); authentic period musical instruments (according to the program notes, these are the first shows in Broadway history to use authentic period instruments); no “artificial” stage lighting (they do use a general stage wash of lights, but there are no apparent cues from the time the audience arrives until they leave*, and real beeswax candles – which kept dripping onto the stage during the performance; I thought it was amazing nothing hit the actors); audience members in on-stage boxes; and men (or boys) playing all the roles.
I had heard that the pre-show was worth watching, and indeed it is. The actors (or most of them) are all over the stage before the show, being helped into their costumes (which seems no mean feat, given their complicated nature), talking to people in the front or in the boxes, warming up (Rylance was doing something that involved shaking his hands and moving his arms around – all while his dresser was adjusting his gown and undergarments [he plays Olivia in “Twelfe Night” and the title role in “Richard III”]), and generally being themselves. (In the evening performance, Angus Wright, who doubles as Sir Andrew Aguecheek and the Earl of Buckingham, was talking to a couple in front of me about the inscription on his garter.) As far as I could tell, there was no pretense at them acting in character as 17th century actors (thank the gods), but were just being themselves, squeezing themselves into these clothes.
A few minutes before curtain – precisely at 2:00**, I was delighted to note – some costumed stagehands came out, and the candelabra chandeliers were lowered. The stagehands went to an upstage candelabrum at lit tapers which were used to light the other candelabra, which were flown back up once everything had been ignited.
I was sure how the performance would actually start. I imagined they might pound the stage to get our attention (which was concentrated on the stage, anyway). Even though that’s a French thing, I thought it might feel “period.” I even wondered if they’d “fire” a cannon, as they did in ye olde days of Ye Globe. But no, the houselights dimmed and they just started***. (Side note #1: In all of the three shows I’ve seen so far, there hasn’t been either one “shut off your cell phone” announcement [though there is a great running gag about it in the marvelously entertaining “Murder for Two”] – and I’ve only heard one ringing vaguely. Have audiences finally been trained?****)
In the middle of experiencing the whole thing, I was struck with how ritualistic it all was. This goes along with my column from last time. Not only have all these people agreed to meet in the same place at the same time, but in this case, the ritual was really driven home. We all had jobs to do this afternoon. The audience was there to listen and react – and, in some cases, to participate. The dressers were there to help the illusion. The stagehands were there to light the candles. The actors were there to tell the story.
But there was something almost ceremonial about it. Konstantin Treplyev in “The Sea Gull” disparages the theatre his mother performs in by saying “these High Priests of Sacred Art represent the way people are supposed to eat, drink, love, walk; wear their jackets.” But in this case, it really did feel like we were a congregation watching priests don their vestments, light the candles, and deliver a prepared text that would entertain us and illuminate what it means to be human in the 1600s. (That the message is still relevant in the 2000s is both a tribute to Shakespeare’s understanding of human psychology and that that psychology hasn’t really changed much in 400 years.) All in all, the afternoon was electrifying; funny, melancholy, and human.
I have to leave in a few minutes for “The Tragedie of King Richard the Third” (I don’t want to miss the next robing ceremonies), and am looking forward to it greatly. I’ll have more thoughts about all of it when I return in a few hours.
Just back – well, just back after a late night supper – and it “Richard” was just as good as “Twelfe Night.”
The thing I meant to mention earlier (and forgot) was the presentational nature of the day. That, as part of the story-telling ritual – and Shakespeare’s dramaturgy – there was no doubt that the plays were being presented for the benefit, and participation, of the audience. Rylance’s Richard was an interesting approach to the character. Giggly, almost seeming stupid (though ruthlessly intelligent underneath), and really seeking the approval of the audience in everything. For example, there were a lot of entrances and exits through the audience, up and down stairs at the downstage corners of the playing area, and Richard/Rylance came down the stairs, and without breaking stride, shook the hand of the guy next to me (it went unnoticed by virtually everyone, I’m sure) in a classic politician’s move. The actors in both plays interacted with the audience members in the onstage boxes, and in the scene (Act III, scene vii) where Richard appears with two clergymen in order to seem pious to the crowd, his henchmen made sure – through gestures and expressions that were simultaneously cheerleaderish and threatening – that all the audience shouted, “Long live Richard! England’s worthy king!” Something remarkable about Rylance is that he has the amazing knack of seeming to pull blank verse out of the air. That is to say, to seem to discover the speech even as he’s saying it; adding pauses and non-verbal interjections that make it all seem spontaneous. It really is a pair of marvelous performances; fully rounded and invested, completely different, but wholly original.
At the end of “Richard,” I joined in the standing ovation, not so much to honor the emotional values of the play – even though it was probably the clearest and most entertaining “Richard III” that I’ve seen and certainly the funniest overall “Twelfth Night,” it was not the best Shakespeare (though it’s way, way up there) – but to honor the effort and accomplishment; the thought and care that’s gone into the whole thing. It’s a huge undertaking and I felt it deserved the kudos. (Side note #2: Just for the record, as much as I loved both “Murder for Two” and “The Glass Menagerie” earlier in the week, I didn’t stand for either of those. In the latter, I was conspicuous by my remaining seated.) (Side note #3: As much as I enjoyed the “Twelfth Night,” I was constantly reminded of Benjamin Stewart, one of the best actors I ever worked with and who passed away earlier this year. His Lord Capulet is the gold standard, and his Toby Belch was phenomenal. I never saw him give less than a stellar performance.)
To return to my theme, though, I was more aware of the ritualistic aspects of the performance tonight – if only because a) I had just written the first part of this post, and b) I was looking for it. It was a bit of a paradigm shift for me; to really be aware of what we all agree to do when we participate in a play (in whatever role; audience, actor, writer, director, designer, technician). We all have assigned roles and parts to play in the process, and from here on in, I’m going to be much more aware of the part I’m fulfilling in the ritual.
(*There were at least a couple of light cues in “Richard;” it was noticeable in the evening scenes before the Battle of Bosworth Field when it grew dark, reflecting both the time of day and Richard’s mood.)
(**The evening performance also started precisely on time; at 8:00.)
(***There was a trumpet blare in “Richard” that started things off.)
(****I had my cell phone out during Intermission, and just before the second act started, an usher came by and told me to shut it off, so I guess they’ve gotten much better at policing these things.)