In his last stage role, Mark Rylance thrilled audiences as a bawdy bard for modern Britain. Now he's going back to an earlier Bard in a vibrant William Shakespeare double bill.
Rylance's star turn in "Jerusalem," Jez Butterworth's raucous lament for rural England, brought him best-actor trophies at London's Olivier and New York's Tony awards.
His latest London performances are hot tickets, and not just because Rylance is one of Britain's leading Shakespearean actors. It's a chance to see him in two wildly contrasting roles — the scheming usurper dispatching everyone who stands between him and the throne in "Richard III," and the aloof countess Olivia, blindsided by love, in the boisterous comedy "Twelfth Night."
Directed by Tim Carroll, the plays were staged this summer at Shakespeare's Globe, a replica of the open-air playhouse founded by the playwright and his acting troupe in 1599. They are "original practices" productions that try to remain faithful to 400-year-old staging techniques — an approach championed by Rylance when he was the Globe's artistic director between 1995 and 2005.
Now the plays have moved indoors, to a traditional West End theater, without compromising on the quest for Elizabethan authenticity.
The sets recreate a paneled, candlelit hall like those where Shakespeare's plays were performed during winter months. The doublets and dresses worn by the cast are made from hand-stitched linen, wool and silk, while the music is played live on lutes, tabors and other period instruments. And actresses are absent — all the roles are played by men, as in Shakespeare's time.
There's an argument against such productions — there aren't enough good classical roles for women at the best of times. But this double bill demonstrates that the slight alienation created by an all-male cast can enrich the theatergoing experience.
It takes a few minutes — but only a few — before the male actors disappear into the female characters, and before the 21st century theatergoer adjusts to some unaccustomed elements: the house lights remain partially up throughout the performance, and special effects are rudimentary.
The result is an open acknowledgment of the plays' artificiality that becomes exciting when combined with a clear and thoughtful delivery of Shakespeare's lines and energized by Rylance's powerhouse performances.
His Richard is more of a clown, more ingratiating and more uncertain than in many interpretations — a far cry from Kevin Spacey's menacing media manipulator in a recent Old Vic production. Wheedling and mugging, he invites the other characters, and the audience, to laugh at and underestimate him.
It's an approach that brings out the dark humor in a play not renowned for laughs, but Rylance keeps his comic flair — just — in check. There is a touch of ham here, but it is of a finely spiced, top-quality variety.
Rylance is supported and balanced by a cast that includes Roger Lloyd Pack as Richard's self-regarding ally Buckingham, Samuel Barnett as Richard's bereaved sister-in-law and James Garnon as his disgusted mother.
"Twelfth Night," a revival of an acclaimed 2002 Globe production, is an even bigger delight.
Rylance's Olivia, encased in a vast black gown, a snowy ruff beneath her white-painted face, is a comic masterpiece. Imperious and impetuous, she glides elegantly around the stage as if on casters before disintegrating like a broken wind-up toy in a display of comic precision balanced by emotional heart. Rylance's screech of "most wonderful!" when Olivia discovers that her beloved Cesario — in fact a woman in disguise — has a twin brother is a sublime moment.
There's plenty of heart throughout the production, notably from Johnny Flynn and Barnett as the shipwrecked and separated twins Viola and Sebastian.
And, in a play that combines romantic comedy with a celebration of the anarchic spirit of misrule, the bawdy comic parts shine. There is subtle and satisfying work from the quartet of Colin Hurley as drunken Sir Toby Belch, Lloyd Pack as foolish Sir Andrew Aguecheek, Paul Chahidi as quick-witted maidservant Maria and Peter Hamilton Dyer as witty fool Feste.
Rylance is not the only piece of star casting in this robust crowd-pleaser of a play. Actor-comedian Stephen Fry has his first stage role for more than 15 years as Olivia's steward Malvolio, whose pomposity sets him up for a fall. It's a tricky part, both villain and victim, and Fry carries it off with skill as part of an exceptional acting ensemble.
"Richard III" and "Twelfth Night" run in rep at London's Apollo Theatre until Feb. 10.
Jill Lawless can be reached at http://Twitter.com/JillLawless