That Time Mark Rylance Did Not Give My Favorite Performance in Richard III

I know, you guys. I. Know.

I am now entering a turning point in my young adult life. It is a harrowing one, for sure…but after leaving Richard III last night, I have to confront the harsh reality.

And that reality is that Mark Rylance is not the best part of this particular show.

Please allow me to backpedal while all of our jaws make their way back up from the floor…he really is a charismatic, “drop everything and go see him devour the stage” type of actor. And his performance as Richard is a "can’t miss” on par with every other performance he has done, including his other repertory role this season in Twelfth Night (the fact that I haven’t seen that across-the-board raves production makes me want to go on a baby-punching spree). Every limp, every speech hesitation, every feeling that pours out of his mouth during Richard’s laborious monologues and tense moments…they are all embalmed with life and personality to spare.

I partook in the on-stage seating (wahoo!) and I glanced out into the audience during one of his first act monologues. You can see and feel all three tiers of people leaning in towards the stage to watch and listen closer, so galvanized we all were when you have Rylance under the candlelight spotlight. It was a slight misfire for his Richard to come off more high-camp then any other iteration of the character I have been familiar with - I don’t think I will ever be sold on the idea of a comedic Richard III, you know, with it being a tragedy and stuff - but leave it to Rylance to convince me that the idea has some mileage out of it. Richard’s antics and strategizing can be filtered as “wacky" even though, in the context, they stem more from his character’s delusion and desperation.

Having said all of that, the heart of this production was Samuel Barnett. Donning the Queen Elizabeth drag, he goes toe-to-toe with Rylance and captures your focus with a perfectly subtle, nuanced take on the character. His vocal affectation doesn’t strain, nor does it slip into farce and let me tell you, he does that costuming justice. When he (she) is asking for the whereabouts of her children after they have been murdered, Barnett’s shrieking outbursts and flailing were the most affecting moment in the entire show. Following suit, the only moment to cause the audience to burst out into applause came after Elizabeth smooched Richard and exhaunted off the stage. That was the moment I realized I did not want Barnett to leave. Ever.

Thankfully, this isn’t a competition and the audience is the winner, no matter what show in repertory you see or whose performance you favor over the other (if at all). For Richard III, almost everything is on-point and obscures the fact that this show, in my honest opinion, is on the lower end of the Shakespeare pantheon. The production values feel stripped down and authentic, evoking 16th century entertainment while allowing this talented ensemble, Jenny Tiramani's stunning costumes and the KICK-ASS band to shine. And the on-stage seating is TO. DIE. FOR…as if watching this cast from mere feet away wasn’t enough, every time my eyes wandered to the sides, I saw first-hand how the cast was readying their costumes or props for the next transition. In terms of being immersed in a production, you can’t get any better then that.

I never thought the day would come where I would leave a production and the first thing out of my mouth is not about Mark Rylance. But that day has arrived…so I may have to take some time to get acclimated. Ironically, I saw the “weaker” and less-performed show of this Shakespeare Repertory combination (funny, because even this Richard III is a high mark of the fall) and I have a return trip to the Belasco theater to look forward to for Twelfth Night. Had Richard III been the only Rylance vehicle since his run in Jerusalem over two years ago, I still would be satisfied as this production more then stands its own.

Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

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