NEW YORK — Anyone who has ever puzzled over the age-old question why do the Brits seem to do Shakespeare so much better than the Yanks? should hot-foot it to Broadway, where an answer can be found in a pair of performances by the English virtuoso Mark Rylance.
Once again the toast of New York, the mercurial Rylance is starring in the Shakespeare's Globe Theatre all-male productions of "Twelfth Night" and "Richard III" directed by Tim Carroll at the Belasco Theatre. About a mile uptown at Lincoln Center, Ethan Hawke is prowling murderously about in Jack O'Brien's production of "Macbeth" at the Vivian Beaumont.
Comparisons are odorous, as the linguistically challenged Dogberry contends in "Much Ado About Nothing," but they can also be instructive. These productions are a study in cultural contrasts, shedding light on the difficulty of translating Shakespeare from the page to the stage on either side of the pond but ours especially.
Of the three plays, "Macbeth" is the one I was most eager to see. I had already experienced the comic majesty of Rylance's Olivia in London (that production, featuring a different all-male cast also directed by Carroll, traveled to Los Angeles in 2003) and "Richard III" is an endurance test that I wasn't exactly raring to undergo again after seeing Kevin Spacey in the role a couple of summers ago at the Old Vic.
My adolescent love for the Scottish play has never left me, though I've yet to see in my more than four decades of theater-going a fully successful English-language production. (The "Macbeth" that impressed me most was a Japanese production directed by Yukio Ninagawa in 2002 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.) Hawke wouldn't have been at the top of my casting list, but I appreciate his gift for seducing audiences into a disturbing complicity with his characters.
Macbeth is a protagonist who needs to be illuminated from within, a particular challenge given the play's flamboyant witchery. Hawke may be short on Shakespeare experience (his slacker Hamlet in Michael Almereyda's 2000 film just barely counts), but he has certainly portrayed his share of decent characters who succumb to villainy (the brother in "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" is a favorite of mine).
All right, time to show my cards: "Macbeth" was a disaster, "Twelfth Night" was bliss and "Richard III" was mesmerizing whenever Rylance held center stage (which fortunately was a good percentage of the play).
I saw the Globe productions in a double-header and had a few qualms about my stamina beforehand. I needn't have worried. The matinee of "Twelfth Night," exquisitely pulled off by a cast that includes Samuel Barnett as Viola, Liam Brennan as Orsino, Stephen Fry as Malvolio and Paul Chahidi as Maria, galvanized me with its miraculous mirth.
Having fidgeted impatiently in my seat on countless occasions for the Malvolio subplot to reach its conclusion, I was convinced that the humor had expired in the 400 years that have passed between Shakespeare's era and our own. It's a happy occasion when a critic is proved wrong with laughter rumbling deep from the gut.
The play's cross-dressing levity was no doubt rejuvenated by the all-male ensemble. Rylance's makeup and drag lent the effect of Elizabethan Kabuki. He glided across the stage like an exotic doll on a wooden platform.
But the key to the success of this "Twelfth Night" was the way the performers made us privy to what was driving the play's cockeyed schemes. For once we weren't simply watching the romantic chicanery play out — we were actually seeing it conceptually hatched in the characters' eyes. Never before has so much madcap reasoning been so lucidly laid out.
Rylance does something similar, albeit in a darker vein, with his Richard III. He doesn't try to explain the Duke of Gloucester's malevolent nature. Rather, he draws us into the mental gymnastics behind his modus operandi, exposing the self-justifying decision-making of a tyrant who will do anything to attain and maintain power.
While stealthily pursuing the throne, this Richard understands that he must keep up appearances with the public. When Rylance delivers the play's famous opening soliloquy ("Now is the winter of our discontent"), he responds to the audience like a presidential candidate giving his first stump speech, laughing nervously when the audience laughs and cautiously adjusting his tone when he senses something is not going quite as it should. He knows he's a monster, but he confides in us because even monsters need accomplices.
The character's deformity (a shriveled hand rather than a hunchback here) is merely a pretext for his orgy of foul play. When his Richard confides, "And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,/To entertain these fair well-spoken days, I am determined to prove a villain," he chuckles like a man who has been so long cut off from his feelings that he can only speculate about them.
Scarier even than a homicidal maniac, Rylance's Richard is a political actor deprived of a conscience. Ready to pick off potential enemies one by one, he's careful to smile a smudgy Nixon-like smile whenever the spotlight lands on him.
In genre and wardrobe, Olivia and Richard couldn't be further apart. Psychologically too they have little in common: One has plunged somewhat self-protectively into mourning, the other perpetrates mourning in others. One has taken an unsustainable hiatus from love, the other is incapable of loving even his own mother. The only thing they share is noble birth. Yet Rylance adopts a similar approach to playing them, taking us inside their minds and escorting us down the path of their thinking.
If this sounds intellectualized, it isn't. Rylance's characterizations are the product of a remarkable theatrical intelligence able to translate complicated poetic language into human need and desire. The former artistic director of Shakespeare's Globe, he not only knows how to handle Shakespeare's verse but has an acute understanding of what it means. Language guides him toward consciousness, which has been defined as the meeting of intellect and emotion.
Hawke's orientation — more Method-based, as with so much American acting — is completely different. He tries to find the character within himself. To that end, he employs all sorts of odd tics and curious verbal inflections that put his own stamp on the character but do little to elucidate Macbeth's conflicted heart. This ruthlessly ambitious thane might sound familiarly contemporary, but he isn't any the more genuine for it.
Rather than reaching for new heights through the Jacobean dramatic poetry, Hawke personalizes the text, swallowing it in a reductive realism. The result is a loss of tragic stature (why, oh, why, the shuffling gait?) — and yet another jinxed outing for the Scottish play on an American stage.
O'Brien, the former artistic director of San Diego's Old Globe Theatre and a three-time Tony winner, is hardly lacking in experience. Yet working with actors of such disparate backgrounds, he wasn't able to achieve the unified style Carroll was able to pull off with Rylance and company. These Shakespeare's Globe offerings strove for Elizabethan accuracy. That's not a requirement for success in performance, but the lack of a stable classical tradition at Lincoln Center was glaring, never more so than in the handling of verse.
On the one hand there were fluent old pros such as Byron Jennings and Canadian Richard Easton, on the other there was Hawke, who wasn't helped much by the lightweight Lady Macbeth of the respected English actress Anne-Marie Duff.
Duff's presence in the cast demonstrates how precarious it is to nationalize these differences. The English-born Rylance, though he trained at RADA, grew up in the States, and of course there are plenty of Americans (Kevin Kline, Andre Braugher, Diane Venora, Liev Schreiber, Dakin Matthews, Michael Stuhlbarg, among them) who can mellifluously hold their own with their British counterparts.
But Shakespeare isn't simply a playwright. He's also a theatrical tradition demanding training that can't be fudged or caught on the fly.
Indeed, acting in Shakespeare is as distinct a discipline as performing in musicals. To do it well, one needs to do it regularly. (Look at the résumés of actors such as Rylance, Michael Gambon, Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Vanessa Redgrave and Simon Russell Beale and you'll practically find Shakespeare syllabi.)
The plays are treasure-troves of human complexity, but the minds of the characters are accessed through their rhetoric. The investigative starting point can't be "What am I feeling?" but must be "What am I saying and how am I saying it?"
The verse requires a technical proficiency that needs to become second nature before naturalness (forget about naturalism) can be achieved. Rylance adds stammering individuality to his lines, but it's only his mastery of form that allows him such colorful liberties. This discipline has the further effect of constraining his flamboyance from tilting into hamminess — a weakness in some of his contemporary work.
Of Edmund Kean, widely regarded as the greatest actor of the Romantic era, Samuel Taylor Coleridge declared (in a somewhat backhanded compliment), "To see him act, is like reading Shakespeare by flashes of lightning." To see Rylance act is like reading Shakespeare in an electric storm that leaves scarcely any dark patches.
Patriots, take heart: In the new year I'll be dreaming up my all-star American Shakespeare repertory company, and though we may not have a generational MVP like Rylance, the bench is deep.