Bad Boys of the Bard
A basso profondo voice is an arresting force in a performer. The moment you hear it, your spine tingles with anticipation of profound elemental energies poised for sensational emergence, maybe even collision. We all have our touchstones—James Earl Jones, Barry White, Leonard Cohen, Boris Christoff—and so did past ages. Interestingly enough, this dramatic effect can work even with musical instruments. (The famous opening of Wagner’s Das Rheingold is four minutes of sustained E-flats played on double-basses—a surging, rumbling, fathoms-deep current that evokes both the timeless flow of a river and the majesty of the 15 hours of epic clashes about to occur between the Ring Cycle’s titanic forces of absolute good and evil.)
The actor Patrick Page is blessed with this sort of dungeon-plumbing voice and is also, it seems, fascinated by the dramatic operation of absolute good and evil. His resonant low voice has served him wonderfully in stage roles from Hades in Hadestown, to Henry VIII in A Man for All Seasons, to the Green Goblin in Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark, and King Lear. Now he has brought an 80-minute solo show to the DR2 Theatre off Broadway built around speeches from Shakespeare’s various villains.
The character portraits in All the Devils Are Here: How Shakespeare Invented the Villain are gripping and memorable precisely because of Page’s remarkable vocal instrument and intense stage presence. I left this swift and delectable show eager to see him perform every one of the roles in its entirety. Less convincing, alas, is the argument used as the piece’s structural frame, consisting of Page’s commentary on the nature of villains and their development over Shakespeare’s career.
All the Devils Are Here began during Covid lockdown as an online production for the Shakespeare Theatre Company of Washington, where Simon Godwin is artistic director. Page did some deep-dive reading into villainy and sociopathy and worked with Godwin to shape a sort of “Bard’s Best Bad Boys” showcase. The live show has a slightly different lineup of characters from the internet version but its basic plan is the same.
Page enters on a cozily appointed set designed by Arnulfo Maldonado—warm rug, heavy curtains, a facsimile of the First Folio on an altar-like plinth—bangs three times on the floor with his Prospero-like staff, and then delivers Lady Macbeth’s famous gender-defying self-exhortation to murder: “Come, you spirits/ That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,/ And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full/ Of direst cruelty!” “Do those words frighten you?” Page perkily asks us afterward. If the answer is yes, it’s surely in part because the speech has just been spoken in such unusually deep, masculine tones that the cruel work of “unsexing” seems to take place magically before our very eyes.
There’s comparable intensity in all his portrayals. His representation of Shylock, for instance—in the scene where the merchant Antonio asks to borrow 3,000 ducats—evokes a ruminative feline toying with prey. Page plays both Antonio and Shylock, and in less than five minutes he rises to malignant dignity, contrasting the former’s blunt and open contempt with the latter’s unfailingly polite rage. Similarly, his Angelo (in the “Who will believe thee, Isabel?” speech from Measure for Measure) and Iago (the scene where he plants doubt in Othello’s mind—“Did Michael Cassio, when you woo'd my lady, Know of your love?”) are riveting both because of his vocal majesty and because of the wide range of motivational colors he brings out in sinister moments too often described in black and white terms.
The thread binding all the vignettes is Page’s thesis: that Shakespeare is the inventor of the rounded villain, meaning all those characters, now ubiquitous, who are unquestionably horrible people but nevertheless multidimensional, like Logan Roy, Tony Soprano, Walter White, and Scar. Unlike all pre-Shakespearean characters, we’re told, these figures have “complex psychologies, believable backstories, and meaningful motivations.” The only typical forebears Page mentions are Marlowe’s snarling caricature Barabas from The Jew of Malta and a laughably iniquitous scold named Covetousness from an Elizabethan morality play. Over his 21-year playwriting career, Shakespeare is described as bursting the shackles of such stereotypes, developing villains of steadily increasing complexity, from Richard III and Aaron to Shylock, Claudius, Angelo, Iago, Macbeth, and Edmund. In the end, says Page, “he investigated evil more deeply and more personally than virtually anyone before or since.”
One can easily see one source of this bold and shaky claim. The show’s subtitle, How Shakespeare Invented the Villain, plainly echoes Harold Bloom’s bestselling book Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, which famously argued that Shakespeare was the first to invest dramatic characters with true “human inwardness.” Bloom insisted that the Bard’s characters were influential even beyond literature and theater, effectively establishing a standard of full individuality now accepted worldwide as a yardstick of human wholeness. This has proven a very popular idea. For anyone who reads deeply in drama, however, it’s a bit leaky. As Page must know himself, it’s rather stacking the deck to cite only Marlowe and a stodgy religious play as dramatic antecedents. There are innumerable villain-like characters in plays dating back to antiquity possessed of vastly more psychological depth and meaningful motivation than Barabas and Covetousness. Medea, for one, or Creon, Thystes, Nero, Loki, and many, many others.
“Villain” is a usefully sensational packaging word, but as Page essentially demonstrates himself, it’s a crude and simplistic concept that, under examination, reveals the limitations of considering good and evil in absolute terms. In fact, Page’s own emphasis on complexity leads him to include in his show several characters like Malvolio and Prospero who may be unattractive in certain ways but who actually make no sense whatsoever in a grouping of villains. (Falstaff too was there in the internet version.) It occurred to me near the end that, as the villain concept had clearly become an albatross for Page, he might have been wise to reject it explicitly, with a flourish, as part of his play’s conclusion.
In any case, what lingers most from All the Devils Are Here are his richly layered, dynamic portrayals, which bring all of the chosen, amazing, complex Shakespearean creations to vivid theatrical life.
Photos: Julieta Cervantes
All the Devils Are Here: How Shakespeare Invented the Villain Created and performed by Patrick Page Directed by Simon Godwin