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‘Authentic’ Shakespeare? Not Really.

‘Authentic’ Shakespeare? Not Really.

Samuel Barnett as Viola and Mark Rylance as Olivia in “Twelfth Night.”

This is so, SO interesting. Elizabeth Dalton writes in the Wall Street Journal about whether the current run of Twelfth Night on Broadway is really as “authentic” to Elizabethan staging practices as it could be:

These Shakespearean boy actors could indeed have appeared girlish. Although the age of puberty now seems to be heading rapidly downward towards kindergarten, in Renaissance Europe it was quite late. Even in mid-19th-century England the average age of menarche—first menstruation—was 17, so it must have been at least that late in Shakespeare’s day. The nutritional and other factors involved in the onset of puberty presumably applied equally to boys, who tend to mature later than girls. Thus the audience might well have believed Malvolio when he says of Viola disguised as Caesario: “Not yet old enough for a man . . . ; one would think his mother’s milk were scarce out of him.”

In the current production of “Twelfth Night,” the central roles of Viola and Olivia are played not by boys, but by mature actors wearing dead-white face paint, stiff black wigs, and voluminous long dresses. They look funny—not like women, but like men in drag—and the audience bursts into laughter as soon as they appear. Thus the distinctively ambiguous texture of the play is lost.

… In the current production, these bittersweet ambiguities are turned into farce. The male characters, Orsino and Sebastian, end up married to women who are plainly men, making the play a camp parody of itself. In the performance I saw in New York, even the actors were surprised by the amount of laughter they got. After the play was over, the actor portraying Malvolio came on stage to make a pitch for charity and said he had never heard so much laughter.

Let me get one thing clear: I don’t think there’s anything wrong with doing a campy, drag-influenced Shakespeare, especially not Twelfth Night, which is a play that often centers around “lol she’s in love with a girl/he’s in love with a girl he thinks is a boy” and ends with a mass “no homo” wedding.

But the point Dalton makes about women’s roles being played by boys rather than men, and that it’s not necessarily authentic to cast 54-year-old Mark Rylance as Olivia and 33-year-old Samuel Barnett (who, to be fair, does look like he’s about 18, but who does not sound girlish in the least) is incredibly interesting. Shakespeare in Love makes this historical point a plot point: when Sam’s voice drops, he can’t play Juliet anymore, leaving the cast scrambling for a replacement actor.

Daniel Brocklbank as Sam in Shakepseare in Love.

“I could do it this morning!”

Again — no disrespect to the Broadway production, because everything I’ve heard about Barnett and Rylance and Stephen Fry as Malvolio is hugely positive. And I suspect that the fact that Barnett and Rylance aren’t terribly “femme” (a word I put in scare quotes because gender performance is an arbitrary social construct and not an innate quality BUT ANYWAY) gives modern audiences some sense of the double consciousness Elizabethan audiences must have had. Everyone knew that characters like Cesario in Twelfth Night or Ganymede in As You Like It were boys playing girls playing boys, and that must have added to both the humor and the titillation of seeing a pretty boy in a breeches role.

Logan Lerman circa 2009.

Freddie Highmore circa 2009.

If you had, mm, let’s say Logan Lerman circa 2009 playing Viola and oh, I dunno, how about Freddie Highmore circa the same era as Olivia, both well made-up and costumed as girls, it’d be a very different viewing experience for the audience.

Also I would totally watch that Twelfth Night, I mean damn.

And but so anyway. The point Dalton is making is fascinating from a dramaturgical perspective, obviously. What effect does the knowledge, the inescapable perception, of men playing women have on the audience’s experience? What does it do to the story? And from a historian’s perspective, if the goal is a historically accurate production of Shakespeare, is it as historically accurate as it could be?

And from a feminist’s perspective, I ask with genuine curiosity and hopefully only a little combativeness — what’s the benefit of taking these interesting, well-rounded, iconic roles away from female actors? Why do we hail productions that remove women from the stage as “more authentic” and “groundbreaking” and somehow more deserving of Tonys than the co-ed Shakespeare down the street? What makes historical accuracy to a period where women were denied access to the stage laudable?

Hat tip to Izzy for the link!

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