Boys Will Be Girls — The Waxing, Wigs, Couture and Corsets of Shakespeare's Leading Ladies

By Melissa Rose Bernardo
07 Dec 2013

Samuel Barnett as Viola
Samuel Barnett as Viola
Joan Marcus

Mark Rylance, Samuel Barnett and Paul Chahidi share some of the secrets behind their performances in Twelfth Night and Richard III on Broadway.

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You may know Shakespeare. You attend Shakespeare in the Park every summer. You may even have a Shakespeare app on your phone (guilty!). But you haven't really seen Shakespeare until you've seen the double bill — Twelfth Night and Richard III — running in rep at the Belasco Theatre. The critical smash hits — imported from Shakespeare's Globe in London — rely on Elizabethan-era conventions: Candlelight; bare scenery; live music on such instruments as the hurdy gurdy; and actors — including two-time Tony winner Mark Rylance (Jerusalem, Boeing-Boeing), Samuel Barnett (The History Boys) and Paul Chahidi — in the female roles... just as it would have been in the Bard's day.

Rylance stars as the mutilated Richard III, then as the lovestruck Olivia in Twelfth Night; Barnett plays hard-hearted Queen Elizabeth in Richard III, and Viola, who disguises herself as Cesario in Twelfth Night; Chahidi doubles as the eventually-beheaded Hastings and the sleazy Tyrrell in Richard III, then plays saucy servant Maria in Twelfth Night. These leading men — er, women — gave us the dish on their roles ("There's a lot of my mother in Olivia," said Rylance), and we discovered the following surprising facts about these women and the men who play them.

Shakespeare can be intimidating for actors too.
Before joining this production at the Globe in 2012 — where he played Viola's twin brother, Sebastian — Barnett had no real experience with the Bard. "I'd done a bit at drama school, but that was years ago. I felt like I didn't know what I was doing with it, and therefore I didn't enjoy it," he confessed. "And I'd auditioned at the RSC [Royal Shakespeare Company] when I'd gotten out of drama school about five times, never gotten anywhere... So there was a huge part of me going, 'Just don't, you won't get the roles because you're no good at Shakespeare.'"

Shakespeare can also be painful. Very painful.
"In our first production, where Eddie Redmayne was Viola," recalled Chahidi of a 2002 Twelfth Night with Rylance, "I went to the waxing parlor with Eddie. We were sent to some backstreet waxing parlor — I don't think they'd ever had men there. We went in thinking, 'How bad could this be?' We went into adjacent rooms — the walls were paper-thin — and all you could hear were our screams."

They're not playing women, per se.
"With Queen Elizabeth, she's royalty. So I will play the status, rather than being a woman," explained Barnett. "I try to play the emotional reality and I've sort of let the costumes, the wigs and the audience's imagination take care of the rest."

Chahidi remembered first tackling Maria a decade ago: "We did research, how women of that period might move. We experimented with our voices. It got quite scientific! We went through all these contortions, we had all these worries, and I came back to square one and realized: All I needed to do was play the character truthfully. And it just so happened to be a woman."

Mark Rylance as Olivia
Photo by Joan Marcus

Not everything you see is original practice.
"The dressing on stage was not something the Elizabethans did," admitted Rylance of the pre­show routine where the actors transform themselves in view of the audience. "But at the Globe we said, 'We're spending all this money and all this detail on these clothes...' We found that it confirmed the atmosphere that we want — everyone being in the same room." In Twelfth Night, the auditorium, Rylance explained, becomes "part of Illyria."

It's not costumes; it's couture.
Said Rylance of designer Jenny Tiramani: "She'll show the actors what the options are, so you work together — like if you were a really wealthy person, if you were having a fashion designer making you dresses. And the corsets and the detail and the jewelry — the exquisite nature of the clothing, for me, has a resonance of the exquisite nature of the language."

Those dresses are built for class, not for comfort.
"The corset restricts your breathing. The farthingale — the hoop bit that goes underneath the skirt — restricts how far you can step out," explained Barnett of his regal Queen Elizabeth regalia. "In fact, as Elizabeth I wear two corsets! I am pinned into everything I wear. Sometimes I am cut out of my costume."

Paul Chahidi's awe-inspiring cleavage is the envy of his male costars.
"Women point... and ask, 'How do you do it?' Anyone in a corset this tight will have magnificent cleavage!" said Chahidi, emphasizing that it is "all natural!" ("Lest anyone think I'm doing something that the Elizabethans didn't do," he added.) "I probably shouldn't tell you this, but there is a tension and rivalry between me and Mark. He is maybe a little self-conscious about the size of his cleavage."

Rylance conceded that Chahidi's décolletage is "rather spectacular," likening it to "a deep river valley." But, he reminded us, the role of Olivia demands a conservative, non–cleavage-baring black gown: "I'm much more discreet and in mourning. My dress comes right up to my neck. Otherwise I would win hands down."

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Mark Rylance and Samuel Barnett in Richard III
Photo by Joan Marcus