The *Great* in Shakespeare

rylanceThe New York Times

November 14, 2013

What Makes a Great Shakespearean?

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Tastes in acting, as in everything else, certainly vary, but a great Shakespearean performance is easy to spot. You know one when you see one, although it’s probably more accurate to say that you know one when you don’t see one: when the language no longer feels remote, when the humanity of the actor and the character seem indivisible, when the emotion being expressed is no longer veiled by poetic phrasing but revealed by it, creating a shock of recognition in your own heart.

A sterling example is Mark Rylance’s Olivia in the current Broadway production of “Twelfth Night.” The surface trappings of Mr. Rylance’s performance might seem to heighten the sense of falsity that can often prickle and distract us when we are watching Shakespeare. Mr. Rylance is, after all, clearly a man playing a female role — a convention drawn from the Elizabethan era, but one that in our day almost inevitably draws attention to itself. His face is plastered in white makeup and served on the platter of a stiff ruff around his neck. A pouf of hair like a charcoal brioche is coiled atop his head. The movement, too, is stylized: Gliding across the stage, Mr. Rylance seems to have roller skates under his black gown.

And yet when Mr. Rylance’s Olivia opens her mouth to speak, the melancholy in her voice and the air of distracted grief are so palpable that the carapace of theatricality quietly evaporates; before us is a woman in mourning, who will soon be transformed into a woman unsettled by stirrings of love, later a woman mystified by the apparently unhinged behavior of a servant, and later still a woman amazed and delighted (“Most wonderful!”) at the strange revelations that bring this most bewitching of Shakespeare comedies to a happy conclusion.

Mr. Rylance’s presence on Broadway this season, in “Twelfth Night” and “Richard III” running in repertory, provides a miniature master class in Shakespearean acting. And the preponderance of other Shakespeare productions taking place across the season — with Julie Taymor’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream” just opened and Ethan Hawke in “Macbeth” on the way — offers a chance to consider the different approaches actors take in bringing Shakespeare’s great characters to life.

And, of course, to reflect on why some actors excel where others fall short.

Tim Carroll, the director of both “Twelfth Night” and “Richard III,” has directed Mr. Rylance in 10 Shakespeare productions dating back more than a decade. What does Mr. Carroll consider to be Mr. Rylance’s particular gift? An “animal cunning” that gives him the ability to “smell the room” and shape his performance accordingly; the “verbal intelligence to understand in a very personal way every word he’s speaking”; and a practical savvy that allows him “to respond to problems with incredible speed,” a necessary attribute in negotiating the complex machinery working inside a Shakespeare play.

Having seen Mr. Rylance as Hamlet, Richard II, and the Duke in “Measure for Measure” among other roles, I have always marveled at how he imbues these various characters with a quality I can only call soulfulness, a sense that their interior landscapes are being revealed to us moment by moment. Shakespeare’s characters can seem remote in more studied or stilted performances, but Mr. Rylance always seems to be breathing the same air we do.

His tutelage in Shakespeare dates back to his teenage years in Milwaukee, where he first began performing in high school, under a teacher who revered the work of Tyrone Guthrie, one of the great classical directors of his generation. But styles in Shakespearean performance evolve over the years, and Mr. Rylance’s career exemplifies the manner in which ideals become conventions, and are eventually rebelled against.

When Mr. Rylance moved to London in 1978 to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, he had absorbed what he calls the “English style” through his Guthrie-enthralled teacher, “conscious, considered, very full of form and prepared effects.”

He found himself among a generation ready to rebel against this aesthetic reign. “I arrived in London and was very surprised to find that the actors I was working with didn’t care for Olivier or Gielgud,” he said in an interview. “They were admiring the truthfulness of Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando of course, Robert Mitchum and other film actors. So my focus was directed back across the pond to actors I hadn’t paid attention to.”

Mr. Rylance said he believes that when he was selected to be the first artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe, at 35, it was in part because the theater’s founders — notably the American-born Sam Wanamaker, the driving force behind its creation — “wanted to shake things up a bit.” The theater’s mission was to perform Shakespeare’s plays in a manner that evoked as closely as possible the experience of Elizabethan theatergoers.

Mr. Rylance felt that actors had for too long taken a secondary role in the shaping of Shakespeare productions, ceding the power to directors. The stage director, after all, was not a profession in the Elizabethan age. “Actors are creative artists themselves,” he said, and the first order of business at the Globe was developing “a more equal relationship between actors and directors.”

At the same time, Mr. Rylance and his collaborators sought to recreate the more informal style that held sway when Shakespeare’s plays were first presented, when the groundlings would come and go during performances, and the relationship between actors and audience was less distant.

“I’m always searching for more spontaneity, and the sound of spontaneity in speaking,” he said. (You can hear this in play in the stammer that, for example, comes over his Olivia in moments of surprise or stress.) “The audience is paying not to have last night’s leftovers repeated but to experience the play as if it’s never happened before.”

The waning of what Mr. Rylance refers to as the “English style” of Shakespearean acting — formal, rhetorical, presentational — has helped to erode the long-ingrained (if not necessarily acknowledged) sense that, when it comes to Shakespeare, it helps if you’re British, and particularly if you train at one of the great London acting academies like the Royal Academy or the Central School of Speech and Drama.

If you visit London with any regularity, you can easily fall under the sway of this thinking, particularly since you are likely to pick and choose — or even plan your visits around — only the highly acclaimed Shakespeare productions. The National Theater’s breathtaking “Othello” over the summer, with Rory Kinnear as Iago; Chiwetel Ejiofor’s wrenching Othello at the Donmar Warehouse; a sublimely funny “Much Ado About Nothing,” also at the National, with Simon Russell Beale and Zoe Wanamaker as Benedick and Beatrice: These are among the greatest Shakespeare productions I’ve seen.

And yet in recent years, I’ve seen equally superb Shakespeare here in New York, with John Douglas Thompson’s Othello equaling Mr. Ejiofor’s in its intensity of feeling, and a starry “Twelfth Night” in Central Park, featuring an enchanting Anne Hathaway as Viola, that signaled a (happily continuing) return to excellent form for Shakespeare in the Park.

Jack O’Brien, who is currently directing Mr. Hawke in “Macbeth” for Lincoln Center Theater, has overseen more than 30 Shakespeare productions, making him among the most experienced of American directors.

“I used to think pretty strongly that performing Shakespeare does require a major measure of technique, or training,” Mr. O’Brien said, “because you need to exercise the whole acting mechanism. These are symphonic works. They need a variety of voices. You need a string section and you need brass.

“But you can go too far with this,” he continued. “Joe Papp didn’t really cop much to that idea. And if you look at his leading actors in the years he was running the New York Shakespeare Festival, lots of them were not major classical actors, just wonderful actors with great appetite.”

Mr. Thompson first came upon Shakespeare in a book of monologues when he was casting about for material to audition for acting school. A life-changing visit to a production of August Wilson’s “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” had inspired him to leave behind a business career. He’d never seen a Shakespeare play, but reading Mark Antony’s eulogy for Caesar stirred something inside him. “There were words I had to look up,” he recalled, “but I immediately understood it, and I wept, because the essence of it was a man mourning his loved one. I became drawn to it and fascinated by it.”

Mr. Thompson enrolled at Trinity Repertory Conservatory in Providence, R.I., where his natural ability shone so brightly that he was cast as “Othello” at Trinity Repertory within a few years. Mr. Thompson said he believes that research, training and experience are all invaluable, but as with playing a musical instrument, or singing opera, all that preparation must be set aside, at least intellectually, when the time comes to perform.

“What you end up doing onstage is visceral,” he said. “You go through the research process, and then you forget that and trust that it’s all there and ready to go.”

Citing performances by actors like Antony Sher, Mr. Beale and Kathryn Hunter (currently playing Puck in “Midsummer Night’s Dream”), Mr. Thompson said he prized “the actor’s ability to make antique language sound contemporary, just like they are speaking to us right now in an everyday conversation. It still contains meaning and urgency, but it’s delivered in such a way that our contemporary ears say, ‘Oh, he’s speaking to me.’ ”

This is achieved, Mr. Thompson said, when actors bring “a certain amount of irreverence to the text.” He doesn’t mean improvising, of course, but that actors can stiffen up when they “follow the iambic pentameter religiously. When you follow rules like that rigidly, you can become a rigid performer.”

Harriet Walter, the veteran British actress who just concluded a run as Brutus in Phyllida Lloyd’s all-female “Julius Caesar” at St. Ann’s Warehouse, noted that Shakespeare plays require of actors a variety of skills — and a kind of physical stamina — that other roles do not.

She, too, compares it to playing a musical instrument: “You have to have an ability to hear rhythm and to know how to place an emphasis in a string of words, so the meaning comes through,” Ms. Walter said. “You do need technique in terms of breath control. It’s a physical thing. The lung capacity, the energy in your diction.” But she also noted that the “Julius Caesar” company includes actors who do not have years of playing Shakespeare to draw on and yet have found that the writing provides all the clues an actor needs to construct a convincing performance.

While ruminating on the qualities that make certain actors excel in Shakespeare, I dug out a set of DVDs, “Playing Shakespeare,” in which John Barton, the longtime associate director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, and many of the leading actors of the company at the time (a young Ian McKellen and his current Broadway co-star, Patrick Stewart, among them) demonstrated various aspects of preparing Shakespeare performances. In the first episode, Mr. Barton points out that Shakespeare himself left us a powerful clue as to how his work should be approached, in Hamlet’s famous speech to the players:

“Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this special observance, that you o’erstep not the modesty of nature. For anything so o’erdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end both at the first and now, was and is, to hold as ‘twere, the mirror up to nature.”

As my conversations with actors and directors immersed in Shakespeare this season made clear, this simple prescription remains as plainly applicable to his work today as it presumably did when the words were first written: “Both at the first and now,” indeed. We return to his plays — and cherish actors who can bring them to life before us — because no writer has surpassed his gift for observing, and recording, how we live, how we love, why we laugh and cry, how we suffer and die.

This entry was posted on Friday, November 29th, 2013 and is filed under Food for Thought. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.

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