The Washington Post

Mark Rylance’s arresting performance in Broadway’s ‘Twelfth Night’

Malvolio’s famous words have never rung truer than at this moment in Broadway’s Belasco Theatre, where they are gleefully recalled in every priceless audience encounter with Mark Rylance’s neurotic, saucer-eyed Olivia, the crowning joy of the Globe Theatre’s glorious, all-male “Twelfth Night.”

“Some are born great, some achieve greatness…” begins the speech by Stephen Fry’s Malvolio, and he might as well stop there. For in Rylance’s comic genius we feel greatness achieved, in a most unlikely conjoining of actor and role, in a production that establishes what most versions of this bittersweet comedy only manage to hint at, that “Twelfth Night” is an almost perfect work of art.

This photo provided by Boneau/Bryan-Brown shows Joseph Timms, left, as Anne, and Mark Rylance, as King Richard III, in the Shakespeare’s Globe production of “Richard III,” directed by Tim Carroll, at the Belasco Theatre, in New York. (AP Photo/Boneau/Bryan-Brown, Copyright Joan Marcus)

Rylance expresses something arrestingly pure on a stage: what it is to be merely human – or perfectly human – a gift also in evidence in his portrayal of the title role of Shakespeare’s historical tragedy, “Richard III,” that is running in repertory with “Twelfth Night.” His face framed by a lacy ruff and short, prim wig into which is set a regal tiara, Rylance turns the grieving Olivia into a furtive, high-strung love slave to Samuel Barnett’s captivating Viola. It’s a performance that walks–in Rylance’s hilariously fleet-footed little steps–right up to the edge of crazy. Yet it also unravels more fully than on so many other occasions the mystery of Olivia, and her obstinate yearning for the uninterested Viola, who visits her disguised as the manservant Caesario, to plead Duke Orsino’s case.

Here is Rylance, in a scene from the production when it was at the Globe:

The two-play Shakespearean package, which had its official opening at the Belasco Sunday night and currently runs through Feb. 2, is the latest top-tier Rylance beachhead on Broadway, a campaign that has yielded him two Tony awards over the last five years for best actor in a play. The first of these was for his turn as a fool who stumbles into a sexual ménage in “Boeing, Boeing”; the second came for his bravura performance as Johnny “Rooster” Byron, the Rabelaisian misfit-hero of “Jerusalem.”

He scored yet another Broadway bullseye as Valere, the wholly objectionable Gallic no-talent at the center of David Hirson’s “La Bete.”

His Olivia, which he first performed at Shakespeare’s Globe in London a decade ago and is only now bringing here, may be the most satisfying of all of these complexly rendered comic performances. (The extraordinary ensemble also includes definitive turns by Paul Chahidi as Maria, Angus Wright as Andrew Aguecheek and Colin Hurly as Toby Belch.) Look into Rylance’s worried gazes. Hear his halting intonations, with the touch of hysteria in the voice. And of course pay heed to the impeccable timing, which gives lift even to heretofore throwaway lines like, “How now, Malvoli-ohhhh!”

The “Richard III” is a fine, streamlined version, and Rylance gives Richard an antic twist–on his “winter of discontent” speech, he enters, laughing. But it’s in this “Twelfth Night,” directed, as with the “Richard III,” by Tim Carroll, that audiences will find an astonishingly complete account of a great work’s cross-currents, an expert merger of its merry and malicious strands. Rylance’s Olivia is right at home in this world, a woman obsessed–ironically here–with appearances, who learns it’s not always best to trust one’s own hungry eyes.

Twelfth Night and Richard III. At Belasco Theatre, 111 W. 44th St., New York. Call 212-239-6200 or visit

Peter Marks joined the Washington Post as its chief theater critic in 2002. Prior to that he worked for nine years at the New York Times, on the culture, metropolitan and national desks, and spent about four years as its off-Broadway drama critic.



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