I recently attended a matinee of Richard III at the Belasco Theater in New York City, followed by an evening performance of Twelfth Night. The all-male repertory company headed by Mark Rylance, former artistic director of the Globe Theater in London, attempts to perform the plays as they would have been performed in Shakespeare’s day. This includes having men play female roles.
One of the highlights of these productions occurred before they began. Arriving a half-hour early, we could watch the actors get dressed on stage. Rylance underwent a particularly wondrous transformation from a normal-looking sort of guy into the deformed and villainous Richard in the matinee, and then into the regal, lovelorn countess, Olivia, for the evening performance.
Every production of Shakespeare that I see adds to my understanding in some way. Even a bad production can help illuminate some neglected aspect of the play’s potential. But good productions, like these, are revelatory. They operate like brilliant exegeses on the play, but unlike a written essay, which imposes meaning, great productions jog new insights of one’s own.
Watching the actors in Richard III and Twelfth Night put on their costumes and perform, I understood better something that my students have always struggled with in reading Shakespeare: how a character’s disguise can thoroughly impede recognition. How can Viola, dressed as a man, fool everyone around her, and how can she be mistaken so easily for her twin brother, Sebastian—and vice versa? But given the elaborate costuming and make-up used for these period productions, it becomes easier to see how, at least on stage, the illusion could be carried off without difficulty.
Among other revelations that the Rylance performances inspired was how effectively male actors can impersonate female characters. In fact, the performance of female roles by men in these productions was perhaps even more effective than if they had been played by women. Why? In part, it was because “All the world’s a stage,/ And all the men and women merely players.” Men playing women brings this idea home with particular force. We all play roles, which extend to our gender identity. As the actors dressed themselves in female garb, we saw them being built, so to speak, from the ground up. Their laced corsets and the various pieces that underlay their final, berobed presentation were shown to us, with make-up and wigs rounding out the disguise. These constructed characters then acted with a grace and intensity of feeling that was enormously moving but that connected, nonetheless, with their dress and make-up. Rylance played Olivia with a bit of a stutter that seemed at once realistic and artificial—a kind of modestly coy femininity that reminded me of the artful simplicity with which many women “play” themselves.
Productions like these make us think about what is natural and what is staged, what is real and what is illusion, and to see how profoundly enmeshed these values are, how much our lives in all their facets are entangled with performance.
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