PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Richard III and Twelfth Night — Belly Up to the Bard, Boys

By Harry Haun
11 Nov 2013

Samuel Barnett
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

So what does it get you if you're the most sensitive of The History Boys and can do an uncannily accurate impersonation of Celia Johnson in Brief Encounter? It got Samuel Barnett a Drama Desk Award — and, now, it earned him the distinction of being the only one of the 19-member cast to do double drag duty in the Shakespeare offerings.

"It's funny," he said after a moment of reflection, "in the West End at The Globe, I was Sebastian in Twelfth Night when we were in the U.K. so I was a man and a woman [Queen Elizabeth in Richard III], and, now, I've become two women here. The guy who was doing Viola couldn't do the Broadway transfer because he was doing something else, so I said I'd love to play Viola if they'd have me, and they said yes. I love doing it. There's so much scope. Viola has a lot of heartbreak and longing and lust and comedy — she runs the whole gamut of relations. I love all the scenes. There's something in each scene that I look forward to, which is a real pleasure.

"It is very interesting when you're playing women. I try not to pretend to be a woman. I just try to play what I think the character is feeling and thinking and doing if the stakes are the same. I think it would be a mistake for me to kinda be a woman. You know, an audience isn't stupid. They know we're men in women's clothing. I think they'll go with you as long as you're being true to what's actually in the text."

The congested couplings that happen to Viola are a month in the country, compared to what he had to reach for to do Queen Elizabeth in Richard III, he revealed. "It's the most amazing part. I was very daunted by it. Obviously, I don't have children, and I've never had my children taken from me. It's just one of those things where you say, 'How am I supposed to act that?' But the text helps you, working with Mark helps you, working with Tim Carroll helps you, and now I feel like I've grown into the part — plus, it's lovely to revisit it after having not done it for a few months."

Juggling two women's roles here kept him out of participating in the telecast of the 50th anniversary of the National Theatre in London recently. The French-class scene from The History Boys was excerpted, with author Alan Bennett replacing the late Richard Griffiths. "I was supposed to be in it. I'm seeing it tomorrow at a screening."

According to my eyes and ears, there are two completely successful performances of women in this double-bill — Joseph Timms as Queen Anne, the forced bride of Richard III, and Paul Chahidi as Olivia's lady-in-waiting, Maria, in Twelfth Night. Like Bertie Carvel in Matilda The Musical, their femininity is unforced and natural.

"I think it's something to do with our cadences and not trying to lift the voice higher,' Timms suggested. "They have a lot more variety in their voice range."

For Twelfth Night, he slips into manly manic, as Sebastian, the brother that his twin sister Viola is pretending to be. The abounding confusion gets dizzily intense, thanks (he believed) to the ensemble playing. "It's such a positive company and so engaging," Timms remarked. "Every night it's playing, and you're there, and it's alive. It's not dead on the page. I think David Mamet said, 'The best time you'll ever hear a play is when you read it for the first time.' With this approach which is the way our director Tim Carroll works, I think it's the most successful production I've been in about keeping it spontaneous for the audience every night so they see and hear it."