SWEET OLIVIA

August 16, 2016: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler

New York Times theatre critic Ben Brantley goes to England every August and attends whatever theatre strikes his fancy. Considering that he is paid for this and stays in high quality hotels and all the theatre is free, it makes me damn jealous whenever I read his reporting each summer. More so, when he writes about theatre and performances I may never get a chance to see.

But yesterday, he did something a little different. The Times printed an interview in which Brantley took advantage of his close proximity to London and sought out Mark Rylance — who isn’t even appearing in anything at the moment — just to sit and talk about one of the actor’s more recent triumphs. Not the Academy Award he received in March of this year for his performance in Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies. No, the purpose of this interview was for Brantley “to discuss the birth and evolution of his Olivia in Twelfth Night.”

Mark Rylance as Olivia in Twelfth Night

I saw this all-male production in late 2013 at the Belasco in New York, where it played in rep with Richard III, in which Rylance played the title role. I thought his Richard was wildly original, but his Olivia in Twelfth Night was something else altogether. Other actors in the production played women (all of them brilliantly), but I am in complete agreement with Brantley when he writes: “She is, hands down, my favorite of all the Shakespeare performances I’ve had the chance to review.”

Like Brantley, I’m not sure I will ever see a performance quite like Rylance’s as Olivia. Not only was it a triumph technically (voice, body, movement), but he wore the heart of her character on his sleeve. He could convey the depths of despair one moment, only to scale the heights of hilarity within the blink of an eye. And when, as Olivia, defending the honor of her beloved by rushing off stage, then reentering with a spear too unwieldy to handle, Rylance’s gesture of love was equal in measure both beautiful and ridiculous.

I was taken not only with Rylance, but everyone in this Twelfth Night so entirely, that I bought tickets to see it again the day it was announced the production was extending its engagement an additional four weeks. This would guarantee I would see it again, but also ensure an increased sense of occasion as I chose to attend the final performance. As Rylance had been playing the role off and on for nearly a dozen years, since he premiered it in London in 2002, this was conceivably his final performance as Olivia. It was something I couldn’t pass up and didn’t want to miss. And I guess I should mention I was flying 3,000 miles for the privilege of being there as well.

Rylance did not disappoint, nor did any one of the talented actors in the company. Though I had seen it three months prior, this felt fresh and alive in ways I didn’t think possible. So imagine my surprise upon reading the following in the Brantley interview yesterday:

“In 2012, Mr. Rylance’s stepdaughter Nataasha, a filmmaker, unexpectedly died of a brain hemorrhage at 28, on a flight from New York to London … On the very last performance at the Belasco — perhaps on the very last occasion that Mr. Rylance would be Olivia — something extraordinary happened. Much of Nataasha’s family sat in the second row at that performance … He surprised himself by the lightness that infused his performance that night. ‘I found that I was doing things that were very jolly and light, and I had a strange feeling of ‘What’s going on?’ Suddenly, I’d be looking at the other actors and going, ‘Isn’t that funny?’ And I realized after a little while that it was Tash,’ he said, referring to his stepdaughter. It was the experience of her voice inside me … there was this deeper voice going: ‘Whoopee! This is fun. I see why you like this.’ And for the last night of Twelfth Night, I had the most wonderful night of all.’”

So there was indeed something going on at this final performance that confirmed what I was seeing was not in my imagination. Incredible.

Both Richard III and Twelfth Night were sell outs on Broadway. Not bad, especially when you consider that one play was first produced in 1593, and the other in 1602. Fortunately, for those who missed it, there is a live performance DVD available of this Twelfth Night, shot in 2012 in London at the Globe Theatre, which I highly recommend. I also highly recommend reading Ben Brantley’s article in its entirety:

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/15/theater/how-mark-rylance-became-olivia-onstage.html?hpw&rref=theater&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&module=well-region&region=bottom-well&WT.nav=bottom-well&_r=0

And as Mark Rylance’s star (post-Academy Award) continues to rise in film, do not allow for it to substitute seeing him on stage. That is, if you are lucky to get the chance. For if you never have seen him live, it’s a treat beyond words to describe. After all, he has been to New York in four Broadway shows … and has won Tony Awards for three of them.

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