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Mark Rylance as Olivia
Photo by Joan Marcus

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A Discussion of Twelfth Night On Broadway

On Tuesday I saw the Globe Theatre’s production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night on Broadway. It is best known for featuring an all-male cast, with Mark Rylance as Olivia, Samuel Barnett as Viola, and Paul Chahidi as Maria. Even though the production has had outstanding reviews from virtually everyone who has seen it, I walked into the Belasco Theater thinking that the all-male aspect of the production was going to be a bit of a gimmick.

I have to confess that I generally don’t enjoy productions of Shakespeare where the director tries to impose an outside concept on Shakespeare’s text. Civil War Shrews and Las Vegas Romeos tend to leave me as cold as Sir Toby’s famous pickled herrings. Admittedly, of course, in Shakespeare’s day, only men were allowed to appear on stage, so an “all-male Shakespeare” was hardly a gimmick. Still, I was worried that after a lifetime of seeing women on stage, I would find the all-male aspect of the Globe’s Twelfth Night distracting.
I was so wrong.
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Samuel Barnett as Viola and Mark Ryance as Olivia, Photo by Joan Marcus

Within minutes of Samuel Barnett’s entrance as Viola (the first female in the play to join the action), I realized that men-playing-women – at least when the caliber of acting was this high – not only didn’t detract from the play, it enhanced it. Analyzing the production later that night, I concluded that this theatrical miracle occurred for three reasons.

First, the actors who played the women didn’t try to impersonate women but rather played the truth of the human beings in question, regardless of their gender. It wasn’t a question of Mark Rylance pretending to be a woman; it was Mark Rylance inhabiting the character of Olivia. Yes, Rylance did play Olivia as a woman, but only that specific woman created by Shakespeare, the woman who denies the love of her suitor Orsino and falls head-over-heels for his servant Cesario. Ditto Barnett, ditto Chahidi. The audience forgot about the gender of the actors because the truthfulness of the acting was so paramount.

Second, the all-male casting enhanced the duality we feel when attending any theatrical experience. In the theatre, one is always aware that are two things going on simultaneously: There is the illusion of the play being presented, as if the story onstage has its own reality; and there is the other reality of being a spectator in a theatre watching a presentation by actors on a stage. As J.B. Priestley points out in his essay “The Art of the Dramatist,” we tend to feel this duality most when we take children to the theatre. Children love to look around at the audience during the performance, and they’re innately relieved to know, when a death occurs onstage, that those are “only actors” up there doing the dying – actors who come out at the end, miraculously resurrected, and take a bow.

For me, the all-male casting of this remarkable Twelfth Night somehow enhanced this feeling of duality. I have seen literally dozens of productions of Twelfth Night over the years (it may well be my favorite play in the canon), but last Tuesday night I was, more than ever, wrapped up in the theatricality of the play. Partly this was due, I am sure, to the overall quality of the acting and design; but it was also due to my extra-awareness that the story was being told to me by a group of male actors.

Finally, if any play could be enhanced by all-male casting, Twelfth Night is the prime candidate. As we all appreciate, the play is about many things: it has much to say about the passing of time, the results of cruelty, and romantic attachment; it shines light after light on filial love, class structure, personal courage and notions of family. But among its many themes, there is one that is particularly illuminated by all-male casting, and that is gender.
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Paul Chahidi as Maria, Photo by Joan Marcus

In Twelfth Night Shakespeare goes out of his way to remind us that there is no single gender alignment that is “right” or “wrong.” Orsino is attracted to Cesario thinking he’s a boy. Orsino is then confused by this attraction, and his confusion adds depth to his character. Olivia is attracted to Cesario, but Cesario isn’t really a boy at all; he’s a woman pretending to be a man – and at some level Olivia knows this. Indeed, this same-sex quality enhances Olivia’s attraction in a visceral way that Shakespeare somehow magically imparts without coming out and saying it. Perhaps we understand Olivia’s feelings because she is surrounded by such a male-dominated household (Toby, Andrew, Malvolio, Feste); or perhaps it is because she has just lost two men in her life, her father and her brother. But however he does it, Shakespeare makes Olivia particularly susceptible to this “boy/girl” Cesario – and in so doing, he tears down the traditional gender lines of Elizabethan society. The Globe’s all-male casting makes this freedom-of-gender aspect of the play clearer than I have ever seen it.

I hope that the Globe will make this extraordinary production available on video so that everyone can see it. Or, if you’re lucky enough to be in New York in the next month or so, run to the Belasco Theatre and try to get a ticket. Rylance and his director Tim Carroll have created a Twelfth Night that gives all of us a new appreciation of Shakespeare’s many-leveled intentions, and they have done it by using genuine Shakespearean casting. I, for one, have been changed by the experience.

Ken Ludwig
December 12, 2013


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