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Dude Looks Like a Lady: Samuel Barnett on Donning Drag in Twelfth Night and Richard III

The Tony-nominated History Boy returns to the Broadway stage as Viola and Queen Elizabeth.

In 2006, Samuel Barnett took Broadway by storm amid a group of British roustabouts in Alan Bennett's The History Boys. His work as the sensitive student Posner, which he had originated at London's National Theatre and later repeated on film and across the world, netted him a Drama Desk Award and Tony nomination, not to mention a dedicated fan base.

Seven years later, Barnett is back on Broadway, playing opposite Mark Rylance in the Shakespeare's Globe repertory revivals of Twelfth Night and Richard III. But there's a chance you won't recognize him. In Richard III, he dons eggshell-white kabuki makeup and a sumptuous black dress to play Queen Elizabeth, while appearing with long curly hair and stockings to play Viola (and her male alter-ego Cesario) in Twelfth Night.

TheaterMania chatted with Barnett about his experiences working on these unique productions and how playing a woman is easy — well, less difficult — when you're reciting the words of William Shakespeare.

Samuel Barnett as Viola in Twelfth Night (left) and Queen Elizabeth in Richard III (right).
(© Joan Marcus)

When Twelfth Night was in London, you played Sebastian [now played by Joseph Timms]. Here, you're playing Viola. How did that switch come about?
Originally, I auditioned at the Globe for Lady Anne in Richard III and Viola in Twelfth Night, but because they wanted me for Queen Elizabeth [in Richard]. The [Twelfth Night] double that went with that at the time was Sebastian. I was fine with that. I had never done Shakespeare before and was quite daunted at the prospect of doing it. I thought "A man in one play, a woman in another…Sebastian will ease me into the whole thing." We did it at the Globe and on the West End, and we had heard about Broadway. I knew that Johnny Flynn [who was playing the role] might not be able to go, so I put it in Tim Carroll's mind that I'd like to be considered for Viola. I was listening to Johnny do it and thought, "What an amazing role." Eventually, they said yes.

Has playing female characters allowed you to explore different emotions than what you experience as a man?
I love that question. It's not something I've thought of. Are men and women different creatures? Do we feel things differently? Being a man, I can't know what a woman feels. I take my emotional cues from the text, bearing in mind that the text is written by a man, Shakespeare, who is an absolute genius. [But] Viola goes through what any teenager in love would go through, what anyone who's experienced unrequited love would go through, male or female.

Do you have a different approach to Queen Elizabeth than you do to Viola?
I try not to play "women." An audience knows we are men playing women. I can't re-create a woman's voice. I can have a go at re-creating women's movement. It's almost easier with Elizabeth. She's a queen. She has a hugely high status. The costume [does] a lot of the work for me, but what I do in terms of the character is that I play a very high-status monarch.

With Viola, it's a different mindset. I have to constantly remember that when Viola dresses up as Cesario, I'm in a boy's costume but I am supposed to be a girl. I still work on trying to raise the pitch of my voice a bit and soften my body language. The audience will leave it to their imagination and cast me in their mind as a woman. All I can do is play the emotional reality of the scene.

What struck me about Twelfth Night was how different director Tim Carroll's interpretation was. Yet everything in his staging has basis in the text.
What I love about what Tim Carroll has done is that he's found stuff that isn't written down, but it's absolutely there if you search for it, especially with a lot of the jokes. When Sir Toby looks like he's having a heart attack, but he really has just got wind, [it's on the line] "a plague o' these pickle herring!" It's such a throwaway line that gets missed most of the time.

Prior to the start of the each performance, the company gets into costume on stage in front of the audience. Is that intimidating?
I don't do it, actually. In Twelfth Night, I have to get changed before the house even opens. In Richard III, my costume takes forty minutes.

In that case, do you feel like you're missing out?
Yeah, a little bit, because…you get to see the audience coming in, they get to see you, there's an understanding of, "We're all in this together." [In the productions] the house lights stay up to an extent and [the actors] get to see the whites of one another's eyes.

How is this Broadway experience different from doing The History Boys?
I'm thankful to say there are a lot of similarities, because it's been so well received. I knew the productions would go down fairly well here, but I didn't know they'd be this well received. I'm having an amazing time. On a personal level…the last time I was here, I was young and green and wide-eyed and overexcited all the time. Now I feel a lot more sort of grounded. I'm really able to enjoy and take in the experience.