It would be hard to imagine a Twelfth Night more sublime than the one currently playing at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Quiet, elegant, lush, mysterious and romantic, it features Emily Watson as Viola and Simon Russell Beale as Malvolio and—like the production of Uncle Vanya with which it runs in rep through March 9—was directed by Sam Mendes, late of London’s Donmar Warehouse Theater, where the two productions premiered last fall.
In an earlier life, the Donmar—known simply as the Warehouse Theater—had been the Royal Shakespeare Company’s second stage in London; that was when the RSC still used the Aldwych Theater as its London base, before the Barbican Centre for the Performing Arts (the company’s current home) was built in the early 80s. Ten years ago, Mendes rescued and renamed the space and almost immediately turned it into one of the city’s most vital sources of new work.
In the meantime, he has met with success in other, more commercial arenas, as a filmmaker (he directed American Beauty and Road to Perdition) and as a sort of latter-day, sophisticated Hal Prince. (Mendes’ revival of Cabaret, which began at the Donmar and is currently in its fifth year on Broadway, has become one of New York theater’s money machines.) Last December, Mendes announced his intention of stepping down as head of the Donmar and forming his own production company. Twelfth Night and Uncle Vanya were Mendes’ farewell productions.
Performed by a single cast, they offer New Yorkers a chance to see classical theater performed in repertory, a pleasure we have not had since the mid-80s, when the Royal Shakespeare came to New York with Terry Hands’ productions of Much Ado About Nothing and Cyrano de Bergerac. The BAM engagement mirrors that earlier transfer in a number of ways, in fact. That, too, was a pairing of productions—one Shakespeare, one not—built around two headliners (Derek Jacobi and Sinead Cusack), but whose actual impact and memorability had less to do with individual performances than with the pleasure to be derived from watching great ensemble acting. There’s an extra cleverness to the casting here. The two plays were chosen for the echoes that exist between the respective patterns of unrequited love they explore. In Twelfth Night, Viola loves Orsino, who pines for Olivia, of whom Malvolio absurdly dreams. In Vanya, Sonya loves Astrov, who pines for Yelena, of whom Vanya—but you get the idea. It’s an ingenious insight and it has Ms. Watson, over the course of both plays—which, incidentally, you can see in one day if you opt for a weekend double-header—consistently mooning (as Viola and Sonya) over Mark Strong (as Orsino and Astrov) and Mr. Strong and Mr. Russell Beale (as Malvolio and Vanya) over Helen McCrory (as Olivia and Yelena). More interestingly, perhaps, it gives Mr. Russell Beale a chance to play two very different versions of the Malcontent and Ms. Watson comic and tragic versions of hopeless love.
As was the case with the RSC repertory productions, Vanya and Twelfth Night share a design team: Anthony Ward (sets), Mark Thompson (costumes) and George Stiles (music). Indeed, a preponderance of music was another element that, Mendes saw, the two plays have in common—or perhaps an attention to the idea of music. Twelfth Night is among Shakespeare’s most music-oriented plays (consider Orsino’s famous opening line, Viola’s "Make me a willow cabin at your gate" speech and the raucous midnight serenade that gives rise to Sir Toby’s "Dost thou think that because thou art virtuous there shall be no more cakes and ale?"). Vanya, too, has that heartbreaking second-act close, which never fails to shock, no matter how many times we’ve seen it, in which Yelena, about to sit down to a rhapsodic session at the piano, is forestalled by the bald, prosaic, "He says no." There’s also the figure of the broken-down former landowner Telegin (he of the poor complexion) hanging about the Serebryakov estate constantly strumming a guitar.
Stiles’ settings for Feste’s songs in Twelfth Night are among the production’s many charms, another being the performance of Anthony O’Donnell, who plays both Feste and Telegin (he even uses the same guitar in both plays). It’s one of the two most all-round-successful pieces of double casting, here in New York at any rate, the other being Mr. Strong’s quiet, restrained—and consequently wildly sexy—Astrov and Orsino. Brian Friel’s extremely free translation gives O’Donnell a lot to work with, inventing for Telegin an amusing (and audience-pleasing) fixation with Germany.
In other respects, Friel’s Vanya seems less felicitous. It’s long on wit, a little short on grief, though. Unlike his Dublin-tinged Three Sisters, it doesn’t seek to draw a parallel between the impoverished Russian and Irish aristocracies, and in contrast to David Mamet’s version of Vanya, which achieves a kind of poetry of inarticulate disappointment and disillusion, Friel’s grants Vanya a verbal agility and acumen that leave you wondering what keeps him weltering in his abyss of frustration. Anyway, that’s one of the excuses I found myself making for why Ms. Watson’s and Mr. Russell Beale’s performances in the Chekhov seemed disappointing. Friel’s translation turns Vanya into a kind of proto–Sheridan Whiteside, all withering scorn and biting irony, and this gives Mr. Russell Beale a chance to show us only a more extreme form of the irascibility we see in his Malvolio. We get little sense of the essential needlessness of Vanya’s plight: the degree to which he is keeping himself there. It also leaves him ranting in the great confrontation with Serebryakov, and ranting Vanyas are something we’ve seen many, many times before. It’s the sort of performance that’s critic-friendly (i.e., easy to describe) but that doesn’t really move anyone to the depths of their soul.
Ms. Watson and Ms. McCrory also come off better in Twelfth Night than they do in the Chekhov. As Viola, Ms. Watson shows an uncanny ability to bring a contemporary logic to the cadences of poetry and an even more uncanny ability to walk and stand and move like a very young man. (This seems to have something to do with denying the existence of her waist.) She’s so luminous and charismatic, though; with Sonya, hiding her light is a bit of a problem. It’s hard work for her to try to make herself homely and pathetic, and the result is that she succeeds in making Sonya merely irritating. Ms. McCrory, for her part, who makes a winning Olivia (she looks and sounds a little like the very young Glynnis Johns), plays all Yelena’s unconscious motivation on the surface. She actually seems hot for Astrov and contemptuous of Sonya rather than merely careless and unwittingly destructive.
In general, it’s an absence of subtext that keeps this Vanya from rising above the level of any other production. There’s nothing going on beyond what the characters themselves think and say is going on. Great Chekhov—like the version of Vanya we get in Louis Malle’s Vanya on 42nd Street and the production of the play that Gregory Mosher directed for television—shows us a gap between how his characters see themselves and what they are really doing. Here, the way the characters see things is the way they are.
Attention in New York has focused mostly on the Chekhov, but it was Twelfth Night that really blew me away. It’s an example of an approach to Shakespeare that seems second-nature to the British and that we very rarely see. (The vastly underrated Globe production of Cymbeline that BAM presented last year was another.) It’s hard to know what to term it—"academic" would be wrong, though it’s a style hugely driven by textual analysis. That makes it sound static and the whole point is that it rests on a dynamic realization of Shakespeare’s systems of imagery. Chiefly, it’s characterized by two things: non-realistic and non-literal staging. The first consists in a refusal to deny at any point that we are watching a play. It often begins with a refusal to set the play in any given particular time or place. Ward’s set for Illyria is an evocation of nowhere. The stage, open to the back of the theater, is dominated by a single outsized picture frame, centrally placed, that stands midway between the apron and the back wall, at about the point where we would expect a backdrop. Between it and the back wall is a sea of flickering light created by hundreds of candlesticks of differing lengths laid out on the floor and hundreds of lanterns hung from the flies at varying heights. Such scenic elements as there are are either non-specific (a huge vase of arum lilies) or eclectic (a contemporary sofa, an antique French chair). Similarly with the costumes, which rhyme with clothing from a number of different periods: Edwardian (Malvolio), the 1930s (Maria and the other serving women), Restoration (Viola and Sebastian), late Victorian (Orsino).
What this kind of staging does is disarm us, intellectually, taking the onus of plausibility off the play, with its unlikely elements and plot devices, and placing it on the human element. We’re seduced into "believing" what’s happening between Viola and Olivia or Orsino moment-to-moment because, say, an inconsequential scene with servingmen was played like a staged reading. The result is that we experience the multiple emotional levels and layers of meaning more viscerally and more immediately.
In Mendes’ Twelfth Night, that picture frame is the key to the production’s non-literal aspect. It serves several purposes, functioning sometimes as a literal portrait—as at the beginning of the play when Orsino seems to be gazing at a portrait of the Lady Olivia because Ms. McCrory is standing motionless behind the frame—and sometimes like a doorway, through which characters enter a scene. From time to time, characters will go and stand in the frame when there clearly isn’t supposed to be a literal portrait present, simply because another character is speaking or thinking of them. There comes a point where we’re forced to ask ourselves whether the frame was ever, even in the opening scene, meant to represent an actual, literal portrait (we’re forced to conclude not: Orsino’s portrait of Olivia in mourning was something that could not be) and to wonder what the frame is doing there. It is, of course, a descant on the extent to which all the characters in the play are acting on the basis of pictures of their own making, pictures of one another. It has its payoff in the closing scene, when the happy resolution of the plot is played out—literally—against a backdrop of the subplot: poor, straitjacketed Mr. Russell Beale, as Malvolio, sitting within the compass of the frame.
Twelfth Night and Uncle Vanya, through March 9 at BAM, 30 Lafayette Ave. (betw. Ashland Pl. & St. Felix St.), 718-636-4100; see www.bam.org for complete schedule and ticket info.