On 44th St. in Manhattan, between Sixth and seventh avenue, lies the Belasco Theatre, currently putting on two rather recognizable plays: Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Or What You Will and The Tragedie of King Richard the Third.
At the Belasco, the plays are performed on a rotating schedule in a true, un-modernized Shakespearean fashion–complete with a simple, almost bare set, men playing men and men playing women. This production of the plays has attracted enormous attention, possibly from the traditional staging or the talented cast (Stephen Fry, celebrated British actor, in Twelfth Night and Mark Rylance, Tony award-winner and former art director of London’s Globe Theatre, in both productions, to name two), and I learned very quickly after I began my search for tickets that the attention was not restricted to the press.
Initially, my father and I had planned to see Twelfth Night–one of Shakespeare’s better-known comedies with one of Britain’s better-known actors. This, unfortunately, did not work out as planned. The production was completely sold out (save a few single seats, but it seemed ridiculous to sit on opposite ends of the theatre) for the week.
Settling (though I later learned it was not “settling” at all–just opting for one great dramatic experience over another) for Richard III, I rode to 44th Street expecting to see a good show, but nothing especially out of the ordinary. I was, of course, wrong. The line from the Belasco stretched down 44th and curved around the corner onto sixth avenue–a line so long I could hardly believe every person could safely fit into the theatre. Over the years since my father has lived in New York, we’ve had the chance to attend a variety of plays–from Tennessee Williams to Noel Coward–but none of them had any line that compared to Richard III’s.
The show was sold out. As every person slowly piled into the Belasco to watch the actors prepare onstage in the Shakespearean ritual, I began to wonder how it was possible for a lesser-known play written in the 16th century to sell out in 2013. While some may recall the line “A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!” Richard III is not as popular as many of Shakespeare’s other tragedies. How, then, could Richard III sell out today? Why do any of Shakespeare’s plays continue to sell out today?
First, the very reason behind the continuing production of his plays must be considered. At the same time as Twelfth Night and Richard III at the Belasco, Macbeth is running at Lincoln Theatre. Three Shakespeare plays being performed at one time on Broadway. Why are they still being performed at all?
From a literary standpoint, Shakespeare’s plays portray always-relevant universal themes that appeal to most people regardless of age or time period. Therefore, people are still reading and experiencing Shakespeare every day–at school, home or the theatre. The plays can enthrall anyone with jovial comedy or devastating tragedy.
From a theatre standpoint, Shakespeare included very little by means of stage directions. This gives directors immense power and freedom with every production. With Shakespeare, it’s possible to see the same text performed in dozens of different ways. Shakespeare allows directors to produce traditionally–like the current production of Richard III or Twelfth Night–or take modern liberties–like the current Macbeth–reviving the old text with (somewhat tiresome) audio/visual effects, a minimalist black set and fantastic costumes. Directors are able to create immensely different experiences with the same play.
The density of the writing offers challenges for the actors in the plays as well. Macbeth’s “tomorrow” speech is an incredible feat of beauty and poetry that can astound a reader and offers an actor a great challenge in portraying every subtlety behind each carefully chosen syllable. Put simply, Shakespeare is a compelling, talent-evoking challenge for everyone on stage.
When a production of Shakespeare is done well, as with Richard III and Twelfth Night, every actor, every director, every producer, every costume designer–everyone backstage has contributed something great to experience of the play because Shakespeare allows them to do so. Men are dressed and acting as women and doing so believably. Richard III is limping around the stage in armor saying, “A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!” and his astonishment is communicated to every person in the theatre. Shakespeare, because of the timeless themes and immense creative effort put into the production, is an always-engaging experience that still sells out. The audience can expect a version of Macbeth different from the one they saw six years ago. They can expect a production of Richard III to be unlike plays they have otherwise seen.
If done well, Shakespeare can and will always sell out because everyone knows his name but may not know exactly what they’ll experience inside the theatre–and how that will compare to other Shakespearean experiences. Generally exciting and gripping stories performed dozens of different ways with great actors who can communicate Shakespeare’s somewhat foreign, older English so fluidly there’s never a break in understanding. The question should be, what’s not to like?