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May 17, 2005

Shakespeare performed as a miracle: Mark Rylance in The Tempest at The Globe

Posted by David Wootton

William Shakespeare's The Tempest
directed by Tim Carroll
Shakespeare's Globe, London
in repertory 6th May - 2nd October 2005

The Miracle of San Gennaro
Naples Cathedral
26th September 2004 - and every September

David Wootton - Anniversary Professor of History, University of York - finds that watching the Globe's production of The Tempest has the feeling of witnessing a miracle. The experience, finds Prof. Wootton, has more in common with attending Naples Cathedral's Miracle of San Gennaro than with seeing many other plays on the London stage.

Last week I saw Mark Rylance in The Tempest at the Globe. It was an extraordinary, astonishing, amazing experience. Fortunately, I'm already booked to see it again soon. Perhaps by the time I've seen it twice I'll know what I think of it; at the moment what I do know is that it is great theatre.

Rylance has been Aristic Director at the Globe since it opened and this is his farewell season. I've seen him as Olivia in Twelfth Night where he was the star of a wonderful production, and as the Duke in Measure for Measure, a production played to the limit as a comedy. I think he's the greatest Shakespeare actor I've ever seen on stage – and by this I mean that he's much better than Olivier.

Olivier was a vain actor, always upstaging those around him and always inviting you to admire the technical brilliance of his performance. You knew every gesture had been planned long in advance. He played Shakespeare as if he was trying to enact the essence of a character and spoke the verse as if every line was precious. Rylands is the opposite. He acts in order to create opportunities for those around him. He improvises – the night I saw The Tempest he incorporated a passing helicopter into one of his speeches. He throws whole speeches away in order to win the maximum impact for a single line. And his characters never have a stable essence – they are always in a condition of slippage. In his Olivia you were never allowed to forget you were watching a male actor playing a woman, and this shaped the woman that the actor played, a woman struggling with herself and withholding her femininity from the world. Playing the Duke, Rylance won laughs by letting us see that he was a gay actor playing a straight man. I'm told that when Rylance played David Kelly for the television play [reviewed for the Social Affairs Unit by Prof. Anthony Glees] he disappeared into his character, as film and television actors must do. But on the stage when Rylance performs you are always aware that this is an enactment, and an enactment in which several conflicting types of self have come into an unstable accommodation, and in which part of what you are seeing is not a character written by an author, but a person released from within the actor's own inner life.

Knowing this I suppose I should have been prepared for what was about to happen, but Alison had bought the tickets, so I hadn't even read the briefest description of the production. Having a drink beforehand we found ourselves sharing a table with a cultivated American couple who were seeing six plays and hearing six concerts in a two week visit to London – a feast before returning to a South Carolina famine. They had just seen the Deborah Warner production of Julius Caesar [reviewed for the Social Affairs Unit by Kenneth Minogue and by Richard D. North], and expressed the hope that this production at least would not be in modern dress. Of course not, I told them. But then the first characters on the stage turned out to be three young women in biker jackets – and as it happened they were silent partners in the performance almost throughout, moving in and out amongst, dancing with, carrying and manipulating the actors, who (of course) were in Elizabethan dress.

Theatre critics are conventionally omniscient. So this is the moment for a disgraceful admission: The Tempest is not a play I know. In this age of postcolonial Shakespeare it is one of the most written about of Shakespeare plays, and I've read a good deal about it. Listening to it, I recognized whole speeches and dozens of lines. But I've never seen it and I've never read it.

Most of the audience, I think, knew the play inside out. Alison, who probably last read it thirty years ago, has the perfect memory for it that she has for every Shakespeare play and could probably do a decent memorial reconstruction if she was the only surviving human trying to explain English literature to some visiting Vogons. But I don't know the play at all, and this was a serious problem because three actors were playing all the parts. One moment Miranda was Miranda, another moment Ariel. One moment the actor playing Caliban was a monster, the next he was a handsome gentleman. One moment Rylance was Prospero, the next he was Prospero's enemy. If you knew the play well this was obviously no problem at all. The chap sitting next to me had taken the precaution of bringing a script with him, and he was frantically turning the pages as he sought to identify the characters as they briefly inhabited the bodies of the actors. Much of the time I was simply lost.

We were in the Globe, which is a pseudo-Elizabethan stage. We had the good luck to be seated, but the seats were horribly uncomfortable. In the audience there were late arrivals, early departures, and (amongst the groundlings) people nipping out for a warming drink on a surprisingly cold night – there was no interval. At one point there seemed to be three different helicopters overhead, plus a couple of pigeons within arm's length. Over the top of the thatched roof I could see a modern office block. As the light faded the top of the Tate Modern tower began to glow a strange purple. You see, some of the time I wasn't even paying attention. I was wondering, instead, what the young man with the dyed Mohican hair style made of the play, or whether my American acquaintances were finding this as difficult to take as they had found Deborah Warner's Julius Caesar.

And some of the time I was simply enthralled. The only prop on the stage was a dangling rope that disappeared into a ceiling perhaps forty feet up. Now I'm easy to thrill. When the three young women - the silent partners in the performance - turned somersaults on a bare stage they mesmerized me as if they were trapeze artists performing on a high wire. At one moment the young women removed the faces from a frieze (I know this sounds strange, but bear with me) and turned them into masks. Almost identically dressed, physically very alike, wearing identical masks, they danced as three completely distinct characters. It was magic.

And that's the point I'm trying to get to. The play is about the power of words, about illusions, about the difficulty in telling the dream from the real. And that's exactly what we got. Over and over again I found myself thinking "This is magic" because I knew that something astonishing was happening in front of my eyes. One could say that Rylance has simply taken the play as an excuse to present a bravura version of his own preferred style of acting: instead of performing unstable, internally conflicted, characters who seem constantly about to slide out of character he gets to perform a whole series of characters and constantly slides into and out of each character. All of the characters become parts of the self, and the whole play becomes a performance within the dramatist's psyche. If you left Olivier's Othello thinking you had met Othello, I left the Globe with no sense of having met Prospero; but it did occur to me that I had met Shakespeare.

And this finally gives me a standard against which to measure some of the other plays I've recently seen, and which I haven't know whether to like or dislike. David Mamet's A Life in the Theatre is a play about two second rate actors, one growing old, the other making his way, performing insignificant plays to invisible audiences. I am sure being in the theatre can be as futile and tedious a way of earning a living as any other, but I'm not sure if I want to go to the theatre to be told this. And there was something profoundly perverse about seeing two fine and deservedly famous actors playing (quite brilliantly) at being second rate and emotionally shallow. This play about wasting one's time - although superbly crafted and perfectly performed - was a waste of time.

Festen tried to be serious and deep, where A Life in the Theatre tried (all too successfully) to be trivial and shallow. It is a play about a father who sexually abuses his children; one of them has committed suicide, while the other stands up to him at last and destroys his power. Can you write a play about child abuse which has a happy ending? Perhaps, but it would need to be better than this. There's more nastiness in five minutes of the average Pinter play than there was in the whole of this play, and consequently, of course, a great deal more pessimism. Pinter doesn't need to mention fellatio and anal sex to let you know that terrible things have been going on; this play talked about terrible things, but I never felt they were quite awful enough. The next day I found I had forgotten what I had seen. Call this repressed memory if you like – perhaps I was so traumatised by the play I just couldn't bear to remember it. But I prefer to think that actually the play was worthy but insignificant. Pinter, I find, stays with me, and I have trouble getting him out of my mind.

There was a sort of magic in the Mamet – the magic of a script and of performances that made possible extraordinarily subtle characterizations. There was drama in Festen, and even some suspense. But at the end of The Tempest whatever it is that has been holding the rope which dangles over the stage - the rope people climb, and hang from, and swing from as the play progresses - is released. From some hidden place the rope uncoils, sliding down through space onto the stage, where it begins to pile up in loops and tangles. On and on it goes. How long can this rope be? you wonder. It is as if the fates have cut the thread of a life; the rope turns into life itself, and as its end thuds onto the stage, into the death that comes with every life. At the Globe the audience cheered and cheered. Then Rylance stepped briefly out of character (though the phrase is hardly appropriate for this production) and announced that according to custom, the cast would dance. Going down the stairs afterwards, in a crowd of young people, I have never heard so many voices loud and shrill with pure excitement. They had been so caught up in the magic that they could not yet find their way back to ordinary speech.

Winsom Pinnock's One Under was a much more moving experience than either the Mamet or the Eldridge. It is a play about loss (the loss of a job, of a son, of a lover, of a life – all the various losses of all the characters are linked in one way or another to the death of a young man who throws himself under an underground train) set in a multiracial England that seemed perfectly true to life. The acting was so good, so perfectly in character, that it never occurred to me that the cast were wearing costumes – you felt these were the clothes they lived in. Indeed I had an eerie experience in the little Tricycle theatre, where you feel you can reach out and touch the stage – I wanted to walk onto the stage and sit down and join in the conversation. I wanted to be a character in this play. I suppose this tells you that I identified rather strongly not with any of the individual characters, but with the theme and atmosphere of the play. It really is something quite special. And yet in the end it seemed hopelessly artificial, for all that over and over again it came over as perfectly true to real life - a long series of fragmentary scenes stitched together to pile one loss on another - one could feel the playwright forcing her material into shape, and creating a structure that in the end felt arbitrary and forced.

You might think that nothing could be more arbitrary and forced than what Rylance has done to The Tempest. You might think that a play so stripped of realism hardly amounts to a drama at all. And yet Rylance works with his text (his productions always involve the most extraordinarily provocative and thoughtful readings of the text, so that you might almost say that they imply a reading aloud, or an inward listening) to produce something that feels like a miracle. I say this with confidence because I recently had the opportunity to witness a miracle. Every year, usually though not always at the designated time, the blood of San Gennaro liquefies in Naples Cathedral. This year I went to be present at the miracle. I went not in a spirit of scepticism, though I do believe some form of deception or self-deception must be involved, nor in a spirit of faith – though as I came out of the Church (I had a plane to catch) someone came up to me and asked if the miracle had happened yet, and I said unhesitatingly "Si". I went, I suppose, to share in a ritual, to be part of a performance. And a fine performance it was – where the clergy, the civic dignitaries, the vast congregation all played their parts with gusto. I was astonished that when the miracle happened there was applause – as there was at Diana's funeral, and as there was in St. Peter's Square when the death of Pope John Paul II was announced. Surely this applause is new? (It is a question also asked by Andrew O'Hagan in a recent essay in the London Review of Books). Which was the first year in which the congregation applauded the miracle of San Gennaro?

The applause was, I think, the congregation's way of acknowledging the performance of which they themselves were part, and in the process of linking themselves to all the other performances that have happened year after year, century after century; the whole point of this miracle is that it is something which can be expected, awaited, announced, and in this process of repetition something odd happens to time. As we entered the cathedral there was a sign telling us to pray for San Gennaro who was even now being martyred. Past and present were fused into one. Time was standing still. Something similar was happening at the Globe where of course the whole point is to bring Shakespeare's stage back to life, to fuse together biker jackets and mobile phones (the audience had actually turned their phones off – last time I was there Juliet's dying speech was interrupted by an insistent ringing – but turned them on to photograph the dancing at the end, when the flash photography was like sheet lightening) with plackets, ruffs, and swords. If the miracle of San Gennaro is that San Gennaro is still freshly bleeding, then here was another miracle, the miracle of Shakespeare still writing, of a four hundred year old play in its first run. Magic!

The plays discussed in this review - other than the Globe's production of The Tempest - are:

David Mamet's A Life in the Theatre
Apollo Theare, London
16th March 2005 (now closed)

David Eldridge's Festen
Lyric Theatre, London
23rd February 2005 (now closed)

Winsome Pinnock's One Under
Tricycle Theatre, London
16th February 2005 (now closed)

David Wootton is Anniversary Professor of History, University of York.

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I said I would revisit the Globe production of The Tempest, and I saw it again on June 16th. Last time I saw it a couple of days before the performance that was seen by the critics; what I saw this time was profoundly different from the play I saw on 11th May. Then there was something solemn and careful about the performers and the performance. The young women in biker jackets, for example, never smiled. I felt there was greatness in the production, but wasn't quite sure where it lay.

It should be said that on that occasion I was in the first balcony, and this time I was amongst the groundlings. It is astonishing what a difference this makes in the Globe. On this occasion I arrived fifteen minutes late. About half an hour into the performance a party of some fifty schoolchildren traipsed in with their teachers. After forty-five minutes there was still (as at all Globe productions) a small trickle of people leaving, having discovered they have no appetite for standing and watching Shakespeare. So I happen to know (because I looked at my watch) that we were fully forty-five minutes into the performance before, all of a sudden, the magic began. From that moment on the whole thing was so wonderful that it was positively distracting.

I found myself wondering if this was the best Shakespeare performance I had ever seen. (No, that was the RSC's Pericles at the Round House on one of its final nights – according to the critics the first nights were leaden, but the last nights were simply and completely out of this world.) If I could live moments of my life over again, which, apart from these, would they be? Why can't one make time stand still? I was reminded of Tony Blair saying (when the Good Friday agreement was signed) that he felt the hand of history on his shoulder. Mark Rylance, Edward Hogg, Alex Hassell had the hand of history on their shoulders on 16th June. I was there, I could see it.

The production is much more fit for groundlings than it was a month ago – coarser, raunchier, sexier, more graphic. The audience this time was much less knowledgeable, but full of teenagers who thrilled to every moment of sex and romance. At one point Trinkulo (Edward Hogg) emerges from a physical encounter with Caliban and stands on the stage picking pubic hairs out of his teeth. And the actors work the audience far more, touching them, kissing them, talking to them. At one point Edward Hogg, this time playing Miranda, asks Ferdinand "Do you love me?" Only he addresses the groundlings. Back came the reply, from a female voice, clear as a bell, and entirely serious, "Yes". It was typical of the mood of the night that Alex Hassell refused to come in on queue, leaving Hogg standing there exposed until he finally corpsed.

One thing that was clear is that the actors now love performing the play. The three silent dancers and the three endlessly vocal actors kept breaking into infectious grins, such fun were they having. A month ago they thought they could make this strange production work and they were determined to give it their best shot. Now they know they can enthral their audiences and capture their imaginations. They may be working, but goodness they're having fun.

If you can go to see it, then make sure you do. It's worth any journey. And buy the programme. It contains remarkable illustrations from Michael Maier's alchemical work Atlanta Fugiens of 1617, illustrations that (along with Noel Cobb's Prospero's Island) have inspired this production. Having bought the programme on this second visit I now know Tim Carroll directs – but the idea of the play being performed by three actors was (as I assumed) Mark Rylance's. I'm prepared to forgive Rylance his toying with the idea that Shakespeare was anyone but Shakespeare, and his infatuation with Jung. Truth is I'm prepared to forgive him almost anything, even leaving the Globe. If this isn't the best Shakespeare production I have ever seen, for Pericles at the Roundhouse was and always will be that, it was the finest bravura performance of ensemble acting I have ever watched. If there are tickets still available, one of them has my name on it…

David Wootton

Posted by: David Wootton at June 20, 2005 05:33 PM

I enjoyed reading this hugely. just one thing- I was slightly confused about Rylance's Duke being described as a 'gay actor playing a straight man'. As David Wootton is clearly in the business of disseminating information to the public I should like to put you straight ( forgive the pun) on that one. Although Rylance may look beautiful and ethereal he is in fact entirely heterosexual and has been very happily married for the best part of 20 years. Don't know where you got your info but it is definitely totally wrong.

Posted by: Claire at April 27, 2008 06:33 PM
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