The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 14.2046 Wednesday, 22 October 2003
Date: Tuesday, 21 Oct 2003 21:08:59 -0400
Subject: Mark Rylance is touring the U.S. with an all-male "Twelfth
Relax, folks, it's just Shakespeare
* Globe director Mark Rylance is touring the U.S. with an all-male
"Twelfth Night" aiming for an easy charm.
By Kristin Hohenadel , Special to The Times
LONDON -- English men have always loved to put on dresses. But when the
British-born, American-raised, London-based actor Mark Rylance dons the
Elizabethan black and white-lace frock of Olivia for the Shakespeare's
Globe Theatre production of "Twelfth Night," the actor glides across the
stage in a hoop-skirt-assisted moon walk, takes shallow little breaths,
then falls in love across the gender divide and back again. It's a
performance that's altogether more transgender than transvestite. "I
don't need to take the knife to myself," Rylance says of his nonsurgical
expeditions to the feminine side. "I dress up now and then to tap into
it, to experience it. I guess I feel if a play is done generously, the
audience gets a similar experience."
Since he assumed his post as artistic director of Shakespeare's Globe in
1996, Rylance has worked hard to turn the reconstructed 1599 open-air
playhouse -- where Shakespeare wrote many of his greatest plays -- into
what he refers to as "an experimental urban amphitheater" where "modern
Elizabethans" perform Shakespeare for today's audiences.
From the beginning, the crowd-pleasing space has drawn audiences, but
Rylance has had a harder time winning over the London theater
establishment, which was quick to dismiss the venture as the Shakespeare
stop on the Euro Theme Park tour -- a tourist attraction, not a real
Frequently crowned "one of the most talented actors of his generation,"
the 43-year-old Rylance often stars in Globe productions (he retains 10
weeks off a year to do his own acting projects, which have included
Patrice Chereau's controversial film "Intimacy" in 2001 and a television
docudrama about Leonardo Da Vinci last year). His reputation as an actor
has helped him slowly to build credibility for the theater, which has
finally begun to receive favorable press from London critics. Last year,
the all-male "Twelfth Night" won an Evening Standard Special Award for
achievement, an Olivier for costume design and several other awards.
During a recent 10-day revival of the show before the troupe's first
U.S. tour, Time Out described it as "a triumph."
The company has traveled twice to New York -- in 1997 and last year,
with modern-dress productions of "Two Gentlemen of Verona" and
"Cymbeline." But Rylance says this American tour, which kicks off in Los
Angeles at UCLA's Freud Playhouse on Wednesday, then goes on to Ann
Arbor, Mich.; Pittsburgh; Minneapolis and Chicago, is a kind of thank
you to the late American actor Sam Wanamaker, whom Rylance calls
"perhaps the most devoted friend Shakespeare ever had." It was
Wanamaker's idea to re-create the Globe on the banks of the Thames, some
200 yards from its original location, in what was until recently
warehouses and bomb damage. It now is a newly bustling area that
includes the Tate Modern next door.
"I'd wanted to just let Americans know that their fellow Americans were
the first to kind of come to Sam's call when he imagined this theater,"
Rylance says, "long before any English people could conceive of it at
all. Americans gave hundreds and thousands of dollars in their wish to
be a friend of Shakespeare and to honor and explore the kind of working
conditions that create the place."
Although the British government eventually contributed about $6.6
million of national lottery money, the Globe does not receive government
funding and is profitable.
A night at the Globe is a lively and uplifting experience that can
border on the thrilling for a theatergoer. Sitting on wooden benches or
joining one of the 600 who stand in the yard in front of the stage, a
mixed-age crowd sips soup from paper cups bought in the cafe, drinks
from bottles of beer, wraps up in shawls and blankets. You get the
feeling -- with the house lights on and actors who can look you in the
eye from the stage -- that you are a participant. A stray laugh from the
audience sometimes works as a cue, helping the actors set the pace and
tell the story to the audience, instead of standing on a distant stage
and reciting. What the actors have learned to ignore is the occasional
mood-breaking plane flying overhead.
"It's difficult for us playing anywhere other than the Globe," Rylance
says on a Saturday morning in the office overlooking the Thames and St.
Paul's Cathedral that he shares with his wife, Claire van Kampen, the
Globe's music director. But Rylance points out that when playing in
halls was the norm, Shakespeare knew how to take the show on the road.
The Globe took "Twelfth Night" across town to the Middle Temple Hall for
the 400th anniversary of the first recorded performance of the play, in
February 2002. For the American tour, they sought halls large enough to
allow them to set up in a similar way. In Los Angeles, the audience will
file into the Freud past an open dressing area where they will be able
to watch Olivia's corset being tightened, among other things. They then
will be seated, horseshoe-style, around a reconfigured stage that
features a specially built period-style "hall screen."
It will be a different space, but Rylance says the company will rely on
the same devices that hold the attention of the 600-strong standing
crowd at its London theater.
"It depends on us telling the story well," Rylance says, "knowing when
we're going around a corner or through some woods in the story, and we
need to slow down because the people following may get lost. But when we
come to a clear place, where they can see ahead, we need to really speed
up, or they'll get bored and start to look around and feel their legs.
You can know that in some moments of the play everyone is so very much
on the edge of their seats to hear what someone is going to say that you
can say it very quietly."
The company works in a collaborative manner, appointing various members
to be in charge of different areas. Charles Block is the "master of
word." Globe actors work the text and mine it for its rhythms and wit,
using their bodies as much as their voices, making sure to deliver the
lines instead of merely reciting them, as many a smitten Shakespearean
is wont to do.
"It's really tricky," Rylance says, adding that he and Block aim for
natural speech. "Iambic pentameter doesn't have to be unnatural to be
beautiful. It has a wide range of modes of expression, which includes
very mundane, rather secular conversational things -- 'Who's there?' You
don't need to say, 'Whooose they-ah?'
"What we argue is that most rhetorical devices can be found in nature,"
he continues. "They can be found on the street. There's a very general
habit in Shakespeare productions -- they're spoken more slowly, almost
as if they are TEACH-ing the aud-i-ence, rather than being inside each
play. And that also throws the voices up into the head, rather than into
the more luxurious areas I might use if I wanted to get something from
you," he says, lowering his tenor into his chest, "or if you told me my
wife had died," he says, dropping it lower and clutching his guts.
"Impactful voices. I don't care at all if you understand what I'm saying
when you tell me that someone has died, I'm just making a sound of
The demands of working in a challenging space with difficult acoustics
and no production tricks is very demanding for the actors, Rylance
says. "Normally, actors are no more a part of the piece than the
furniture on the set," he says. "We're filmed and then the storytelling
is done by editors and other people. Even the rhythm of our performance
is changed. So actors have forgotten how to give and take focus."
It's the same in the theater, he says, where lights, music and other
production values often tell the story more than the actors. "I found
certainly in the '80s and '90s, a lot of rehearsals were spent talking
about ideas for the text and not practicing the skills. It's like
spending the whole day on Saturday talking about how to win the [soccer]
match, rather than passing, shooting."
If on stage Rylance has near perfect pitch, in person he is possessed of
an odd, fabricated, transatlantic lilt. Rylance moved with his English
parents to Milwaukee as a boy and grew up in the U.S. until he graduated
from high school, when he returned to England to study drama and changed
his accent to avoid what he calls the "racism" of the English toward
Americans. He now refers to himself as "an Englishman," though he says
he felt like an American when he first landed here, with his Yank sense
of humor and positive attitude.
He sounds like an Englishman to an American and like an Irishman to the
English, which for him seems to be proof that he has mastered the
actor's trick of never being pinned down. Likewise, Rylance underlines
his assertion that Shakespeare is a world poet, not a symbol of English
"I'd hate it if we came into a community and somehow undermined that
community's response to Shakespeare by us being English," he says,
adding that he encourages "world ownership of the poet -- to try and
encourage every individual member of the audience to have their own
friendship with him. Like Elvis. When you sit there on your own and
listen to an Elvis song, he's singing to you. It should be like that
with Shakespeare as well."
Which means, Rylance says, that audiences should feel at ease with
Shakespeare, able to bring their emotions into the theater. "I think
that in America, they may not be so used to laughing," he says.
"They may be a little nervous, or feel it's irreverent perhaps to laugh,
or take it easy with Shakespeare. Not to worry about it. And enjoyment
is perhaps more useful than understanding."
Rylance believes that Shakespeare should be balanced somewhere between
the mind and the heart.
"I think that the intellectual love of it has grown so incredibly in the
last century, the academic work on Shakespeare, the use of Shakespeare
in the classroom," he says, "that we've a little bit forgotten and
negated and not been respectful of the intense care that he took to put
his philosophical observations in a very palatable and enjoyable form --
inside a story, and with a lot of wit -- a lot more wit than the
Victorians in this country were able to stomach, and are still suffering
from it." Shakespeare, he insists, is food for all the senses.
"It's not just meant for your mind but for your imagination. And it's
definitely meant to be a place where you learn things that are not being
taught in schools at all about emotions, about the consequences of
faithfulness or faithlessness, about ethical questions, but learnt in a
very experiential, heartfelt way. I think the mindful approach can leave
a lot of people feeling stupid. Or, 'Oh, I've gotta say something smart
in the interval, because my friend invited me and he's a Shakespeare
expert.' But actually it's only important to compare the play to your
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