Skip to main content

Magic power of the circle

Richard Woolfenden studies Romeo and Juliet at the reconstructed Globe Theatre and, below, Heather Neill meets its director.

Mark Rylance has something of the pixie about him. The newly-appointed artistic director of Shakespeare's Globe is small and fine-boned, quick and articulate. His conversation is full of references to the occult and to myth, to Leonardo, mysticism and the seventeenth century alchemist John Dee.

His current production of Macbeth at the Greenwich Theatre transposes the plot to a modern Hare Krishna-style cult (much to the disgust of the critics). One of his guiding texts is Ted Hughes' Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being, which relates the playwright's work to Celtic and other myths.

But Rylance is also a practical man of the theatre. Of his purpose at the Globe - already criticised by some as likely to be a mere museum of production style - he says: "What we do musn't undermine the basic function of the plays - the interaction between the audience and actors. If we are puritan about recovering original methods to the point of putting off our audience, that will defeat our purpose." Each season there is likely to be one show "including rigorous experiment", and daylight or plain white light will be the only illumination. But women will take female roles and there will be costume.

The very shape and dimensions of the Globe (reconstructed as far as possible to mimic the original, which was yards away in Southwark) are significant for Rylance. "Aligned to the north east, like Stonehenge, it has a similar diameter - 100 feet". The square of the stage within the circle expresses the relationship between the physical and the spiritual. "It is an enigmatic, intuitive playground." He is hoping for a carnival atmosphere, that people will feel they are going to the equivalent of a concert hall or sports arena.

He does not want the Globe to be associated with "doing good" to its audience or to become "the policeman of how Shakespeare should be done. This side of the river, the Liberty of the Clink, was the sensual, even bestial part of London. The plays needed to embrace Caliban and Stephano and Trinculo as well as the heroes."

It is no accident that his example comes from The Tempest; he has acted Prospero and regards the play as an index, a way in, to the rest of Shakespeare.

The son of two English teachers who spent their working life in the United States, he has a strong academic interest in Shakespeare and his times. Not a committed "Stratfordian" - he is likely to say "whoever he or she was" - he nevertheless enjoys the very name. The playwright was, he says "shaking a spear of illumination at a shadowy area."

Writing at the dawn of the scientific age, when the old religions were repressed, Shakespeare still has resonances for us, believes Rylance, when organised religion has collapsed and the efficacy of psychotherapy is called in question.

Rylance is not particularly delighted that Shakespeare is on exam syllabuses. but he does recognise the opportunity this provides for turning duty into fun, something Globe Education is already well-known for. But to introduce notions of success and failure into a response to Shakespeare, "that", he says, "is disrespectful" to the texts.

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you