Letters From the Editor

Greatness, Thrust Upon Us

We saw Sam Mendes’s production of Twelfth Night last night at the BAM Harvey Theater, an early Valentine’s Day present from my mother (who may not celebrate all holidays, but seems to buy us gifts for most of them) and I was out of my mind with anticipation. It’s been raved in almost every section of the Times, and BAM’s programming is known for spectacular hits. Plus, I haven’t seen Shakespeare in a while, and though Frances McDormand and her co-stars were hysterical in the bizarrely moving Far Away, it was time to go traditional.

The last time I saw Twelfth Night was July, three years ago, performed by an amateur company in Oxford, England, where I was teaching American high school students how to stay out of pubs. The play was set outdoors and for some reason it was freezing that night. Another teacher and I had taken our classes to the play, and everyone was disappointed, for many good reasons: the play was drowsy, the rest of the audience was American (including two rows of the Nebraska wrestling team who didn’t find anything funny), and when intermission came and we tried to become minorly less sober to survive the second act, they told us they only had non-alcoholic Pimms (!) and cocoa.

Honestly, if they expected anyone besides tourists, don’t you think they would have served something mildly mind-bending, knowing the performance was so boring? Spiked kippers on crisps? I really wanted one of those Nebraska sweatshirts.

Anyway, the production was awful but still fun since it’s a comedy that can’t be destroyed by the lousiest actors, and though the college’s open, bare garden wasn’t the best setting for a play where concealment is a virtue, if not a staging-necessity, the sun set behind the players halfway-through, putting the walled-off lawn in amazing, purple relief. Oxford in the summer is beautiful without being showy.

But last night’s performance could have been amazing: Sam Mendes, one of England’s best stage directors, touring with his last production as artistic director of the famed Donmar group (they’re also performing Uncle Vanya) plus a great cast, including Emily Watson (of the nausea-inducing Breaking the Waves – honestly, I puked in the theater bathroom) and an actor I’ve only read about: the allegedly mangificient Simon Russell Beale.

We were there early so we had snacks and drinks at Thomas Beisl, then ran to the theater for our seats. By design, the theater is gorgeous: it looks like an opera house bombed out then barely restored, and the set that greeted us – a bare wood floor, a large empty doorframe backstage, a hundred or so candles behind it, another hundred hanging from the rafters in glass pots – looked frugal and desperate but necessarily so, as if the manager had no money for staging, after having no money for paint.

Unfortunately, the heating bill hadn’t been paid either. We sat in our coats for the whole show, and during intermission, downstairs when we rushed to buy some sugar to restore our blood levels, it was even colder.

The play was fine. It was a faithful, tight, acted well in every part – very professional – and though the set didn’t exactly enhance the drama (the doorframe was used to remind us who the scene’s hero was pining for when Viola, Olivia, or Sebastian would appear silently in the frame while their besotted fought for or against loving them), the minimalism also didn’t hamper the performances, even in the second half when it looked like a one-trick pony. Some tricks, however, didn’t work at all. In the play, there’s often a monologue at a scene’s finish for the principal actor to sum up her feelings, and Mendes jumped at the opportunity to slow things down and crank up the palpitations, adding a weepy Sting-like soundtrack so we’d reflect while the lights went down. It should have enhanced the tension and tied the scenes together; it was sappy after the second time.

The only time it worked was for Malvolio, played by Beale, but then again, everything worked for him. He was incredible.

Malvolio is a great part: he’s petty, self-absorbed, a pure stick-in-the-mud out to ruin everyone’s fun, but he can also be pitiable by the end. The three times I’ve seen the play before, the part was never pulled off besides for laughs: Malvolio shows up in the last scene, having been tricked into embarrassing himself and then committed for insanity to a jail cell, and walks out like a fool, but since he’s always been the sort of fool we dislike, neither wise nor self-effacing, only a twit, we uncomfortably laugh and agree he deserved his cruelties, like watching the goody-goody get his face pounded. Beale, however, had us weeping the other way. His Malvolio was so large, he could barely keep himself cross-gartered, but Beale at all times is meticulous. You can see it in his nuances – he has every tic and inflection down, so dialogue cuts and turns as if it were written yesterday, and jokes turn up like they were accidents. Playing Malvolio’s self-pity against his actual pain, Beale was beautiful to watch prancing and thundering around the stage – he’s a big guy and carries it well, and when he shows up at the end dressed in a fetid strait jacket, it’s like an obese, endangered bird suddenly aware of its own extinction. Let’s pray he never diets.

The rest of the cast is good all the time and great in some moments, made better by Beale’s seasoning. Helen McCrory makes Olivia vampishly desperate, a real head-turner even though she looks like Anna Wintour. Mark Strong as Orsino leads the production like an icebreaker. The actors who play Sir Toby, the Knight, the fool (especially good) and Olivia’s maid are all perfect (I’d cite their names but they aren’t credited by part on the BAM Web site) though the characters don’t have much range since they’re drunk, singing, or caught up in riddles most of the time – still, fart jokes made it in, and everyone laughed.

So it could have been a great night out except for two things: 1) The BAM Harvey theater has two seats – I threw away the stubs or else I’d warn you specifically – that are so extremely uncomfortable my fiancée had to move at intermission because she was almost in tears with a hernia; and 2) In the middle of one of New York’s coldest winters, it is not fun to rely on 200 candles for heat.


Best,
Rosecrans



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Rosecrans Baldwin co-founded TMN with publisher Andrew Womack in 1999. He is the author of three books, including his latest novel The Last Kid Left (NPR’s Best Books of the Year). His nonfiction appears in a variety of magazines, mostly GQ. More information can be found at rosecransbaldwin.com. More by Rosecrans Baldwin

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