When it comes to Shakespeare, not all plays are created equal. That’s far from a surprise to anyone who pays attention; Hamlet certainly ranks far ahead of King John in the canon, and even Coriolanus and Timon of Athens get more attention than Pericles. A great deal of this situation in recent years, at least in the U.S., is attributable to the educational curriculum, which has a strong hand in creating the “greatest hits.” The hierarchy is also a product of performers’ aspirations, and I daresay that when asked what Shakespeare roles they’d like to play, actors respond more frequently with Lear and Rosalind than Henry VIII and the Countess of Roussillon.
The choices for the current Shakespeare plays in repertory on Broadway are among the more familiar titles, but they take on novelty for being all-male casts and indeed for being in rotating rep. Had it not been for the coincidence of a competing rep of Waiting For Godot and No Man’s Land in the same season, the Shakespeares would have been the only shows in rep on Broadway since the mid-90s. A key selling point in the Shakespeare rep is actor Mark Rylance, playing Olivia in Twelfth Night (or Twelfe Night as they’re spelling it in ads) and the title role in King Richard The Third. After his triumphs in Boeing Boeing, La Bête and Jerusalem, one suspects the audiences would flock to anything Rylance chose to perform, except perhaps those poems he reads as award acceptance speeches.
So while it’s hardly the discovery of a shocking secret, I was surprised today to discover that the Shakespeare rep doesn’t treat its productions as equals: in general there are six weekly performances of Twelfth Night and only two of Richard III. The producers (and perhaps Mr. Rylance) have decided that the market will bear plenty of comedy and not so much tragedy, with the added bonus that Stephen Fry appears only in the comedy, and for some of us, he’s a big draw too. They also may be saving a few dollars by making fewer set changeovers, since labor costs money.
I can’t say that I wouldn’t have lobbied for the same balance, if I’d had a say in the matter. I happen to have a great love for Twelfth Night, due to it having been the first play I worked on when I started at Hartford Stage in 1985. As for Richard III, even though I’ve seen terrific productions with Ian McKellen and Richard Thomas, among others, I always feel a bit lost in the constant realignment of loyalties throughout the play, and I rarely walk away having had an emotional experience, even as I might appreciate the talent on stage. Indeed, my college roommate, who has been my Shakespeare wingman for some three decades, was befuddled when I refused to see Richard III at BAM last year; I just didn’t feel like it and he wasn’t going to change my mind (he took his mother-in-law). By the way, I should note I have not yet seen the current Broadway shows.
Shakespeare scholars and Rylance buffs may be dismayed to learn of this programming imbalance. The former might not cotton to the elevation of a comedy over a history, but the latter may just be realizing that if they wish to be Rylance completists, they’d better hustle up on getting tickets, because the Richard III inventory is much scarcer than the seats for Twelfth Night. As for whether there’s a deeper meaning to favoring one play over the other beyond gauging the marketplace, I leave that for the academics to debate.
P.S. Waiting for Godot and No Man’s Land each play four shows a week. Make of that, you should pardon the expression, What You Will.