Artistry, History, or Gimmick?

This fall, Broadway will be graced with a bit of tradition. The London Globe productions of Shakespeare’s Richard the 3rd  and Twelfth Night; or What you Will are coming to New York for a strict sixteen-week engagement. Both shows will begin previews October 15th and besides featuring renowned actor and former Globe artistic director, Mark Rylance, and actor-comedian Stephen Fry, they boast another important detail; both shows feature all-male casts. The choice of the all-male ensemble is justified by director Tim Carroll as presenting the shows in “the custom of how Shakespeare’s plays were first staged.” The actor’s will play all of the roles, male and female, prepare themselves in front of the audience, live music will be played, and one hundred on-stage candles will light a set built to replicate the victorian halls in which Shakespeare’s plays were performed when for the Queen and her court.


While this seems to be an incredible time capsule opportunity to Shakespeare the way it was meant to be performed there are a few details that stand out as interesting, if not puzzling. For one, as much as these productions are attempting to replicate a four-hundred year old experience, they are missing the nature. Shakespeare’s plays, when mounted at the Rose and the Globe – where these productions originated – were subject to all of the elements found at an open-air theatre, namely the transition of day to night. It strikes me as odd that since these productions began at the Globe, especially this production of Twelfth Night since it is actually a revival of a 2002 production, with the same goal of reviving the traditional Shakespearean staging sensibilities, the Globe team would be so willing to box the show in a West End theatre. Understanding that the main goal behind the move to the West End and now to Broadway is primarily to share the experience, I wonder if it’s even worth it, since it will be a compromised experience. Having been fortunate enough to be a groundling at a production of The Tempest this past May I got to experience first hand how amazing seeing Shakespeare in its natural habitat is. Watching a show from beginning-to-end, light-to-dark, huddled together with hundreds of other patrons through wind, rain, and sun brought a connection with Shakespeare’s text to nature: to the earth and to the people. I’ve never been able to experience something like that in a theatre, so I’m very interested to see how these productions make the transition from outdoor to indoor and what will be lost (or gained) in translation.

richard 3 at globe

Another element of these productions I find interesting is the use of an all-male cast. Once again, I understand the goal is recreate an experience, but I wonder then what the artistic call is. Why do we need a replication of traditional Shakespeare, aside from historical interest? What does having an all-male cast of Richard the 3rd and Twelfth Night reveal about gender roles, or the roles we put ourselves in? The main reason I’m so curious is because the all-male cast is being put at the forefront of all of the advertising of the show; it’s being sold as a gimmick over an artistic need. I know the only way these questions can be answered for myself is to go see the productions, which I fully plan on doing, but I can’t help but feel concerned about the artistic choices put in the forefront when the BBC and London Evening Standard don’t seem to discuss what putting men in women’s roles do to the message and purpose of staging these plays now. I’m curious to see the shows and hopefully to be proved wrong with my inquiries. To see that Richard the 3rd has all of the artistic merit and political drive it inherently packs and that an all-male cast will reveal a lot about the masks we put ourselves behind to conceal our baser intentions, and that Twelfth Night discusses gender roles in a new and interesting light while still being able to explore the lighter side. However, until I see the shows I remain an excited (and curious) skeptic.

2 comments on “Artistry, History, or Gimmick?

  1. I totally agree in that I wish there were more publications addressing the question of what it means to have an all-male cast. However, my first response to your post was, “well, they aren’t women’s roles. They were written for men. They are female characters.” For me, this question goes back to who you believe Shakespeare was. If you believe that he was a misogynist (perhaps based on your reading of Shrew) that will leave you with one impression. I believe him to be a feminist (based on my reading of several female characters, plays, blah de blah). I believe he used the convention of male actors playing female roles the same way he used other conventions of the time: to explore his thematic questions within his plays. And the best way to explore how he manipulated this convention is to work with it – to hear/see how male actors in female roles changes the performance of the text.

    Now. Whether productions (all male or otherwise) will explore these questions is another issue. I’ve seen some marvelous all-male productions and some utterly flat all-male productions. I’ve also seen solid and horrid all-female productions. Unfortunately, I’ve yet to see an amazing all-female production. Which I partly believe is because the shows weren’t written for that. That extra lift isn’t there because the script doesn’t speak to female actors in the same ways. (For example, Viola’s line “I am not what I seem.”) However, having seen this production of Twelfth Night in 2003 (wow ten years ago), I can tell you that it’s a favorite. I haven’t seen it since Michael Brown left the company and he was a favorite as Viola, but I have faith. And Mark Rylance’s verse work is just spectacular. I haven’t seen this RIII, but I can only assume it will be just as strong. I may have to get up there from Baltimore to see it…

  2. Having not yet seen the production, and since I doubt it will come to the states, probably never going to see it, I can only conjecture at what is going to happen, and being the optimist that I am, I have some high hopes.
    First let me say that, although as a history enthusiast the idea of an authentic staging with candles and the like sounds incredibly interesting, I do have to wonder what its relevance might be. I’m often much more interested in productions of Shakespeare that take it, distort it, and flipt it on its head, not for whimsy, but to find the universal themes within the text that were latent but weren’t jumping to the surface (Think “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” or “The Donkey Show”).
    To immediately contradict myself though, I have seen one performance by the American Shakespeare Center who did things fairly traditionally. It wasn’t an all-male cast, but they left the house lights up, the actors were on stage an hour early playing songs, engaging the audience, laughing and having fun. The audience was up on the stage with them. Ultimately, I found so much more humor and fun in the play than I ever considered possible, because the fourth wall wasn’t just broken occasionally, it simply didn’t exist.
    That said, I do see your concern for preoccupation with gimmick on the part of the artistic team, but I’d also like to keep some faith. I can only hope the gimmicky atmosphere is only coming from the marketing department, not the artistic team, if only because I would hope Stephen Fry would only sign on to do something worth doing.
    Too early to tell, but all good points in the post!

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