Shakespeare Innovator Rylance on Farewell Tour Mark Rylance will soon wrap up his 10-year tenure as artistic director of the Globe Theatre Company. He is currently on tour with the company, starring as Vincentio in Measure for Measure.
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Shakespeare Innovator Rylance on Farewell Tour

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Shakespeare Innovator Rylance on Farewell Tour

Shakespeare Innovator Rylance on Farewell Tour

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

When the rebuilt Globe Theatre opened in London 10 seasons ago, a lot of Shakespeare lovers were skeptical. Many predicted its historically accurate open-thatched roof, circular stage, period music and men playing women's roles would turn it into a kind of heritage museum for the bard, and when the daring and innovate Mark Rylance was named artistic director, one wag compared it to putting John Lennon in charge of Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum. Well, it turned out to be a winning combination. The Globe was an instant hit with both the crowds and the critics. Its hard wooden seats and standing space for audience members known as groundlings have been filled nearly every show. The Globe Theatre Company is now on tour in the US, performing Shakespeare's "Measure for Measure." It stars Mark Rylance as the Duke of Vienna, who disguises himself as a monk, partly to hear what his subjects really think.

(Soundbite of "Measure for Measure")

Unidentified Man #1: I have delivered to Lord Angelo my absolute power and place here in Vienna, and he supposedly traveled to Poland, or so I've strewn it in the common ear, and so it is received. Now, fair, sir, you will demand of me why I do this.

Unidentified Man #2: Gladly, my lord.

Unidentified Man #1: Aha.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: This tour is Mark Rylance's final turn as both star and artistic director of the Globe. When the company stopped at UCLA, I sat down with him on stage at the Freud theater, where under a canopy of candelabras, he looked back at what plays were like in Shakespeare's day.

Mr. MARK RYLANCE (Globe Theatre): It's a time when news was passed through the ear. There weren't newspapers. There wasn't television. It was a much less visual society. So the space, the Globe, it's a space of hearing stories.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. RYLANCE: A theater in London without a roof, a theater in London where the plays lasted sometimes three hours without any chairs for 700 people. No one thought that that would work. Most of the directors in England have just laughed at me and did not want to come near that stuff. Because you're taking away a lot of the modern director's toys. You're taking away their tools. Most of them become successful directors because of their ability to make a world in a black box, by making a set and lighting and stuff like this.

MONTAGNE: Well, we're sitting here on the stage. I'm looking up at candles.

Mr. RYLANCE: That's right. We don't tell the story or change the mood with lights, because they didn't. They would have played by candlelight.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: As a performer, Mark Rylance has played Hamlet and Prospero, but also Cleopatra and the lovely young Olivia in "Twelfth Night." It's what the Globe has dubbed original practices, and the key to a 40-year-old man pulling off the role of a woman?

Mr. RYLANCE: Not doing too much is good. Not doing too little is good. It's doing enough. Much more wild than a man playing a woman was a common man pretending to be a king. I mean, he could be slain on the spot in the street, even with wearing the color purple. There were such things as sumptuary laws, where the society was hierarchically defined by the colors that you were allowed to wear. And so this was very radical to have these common people playing kings and queens, much more radical than the gender swapping.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: Do you talk to the audience?

Mr. RYLANCE: I talk with them. It's a...

MONTAGNE: How--what's the difference?

Mr. RYLANCE: Well, you turn out and say `To be or not to be, that is the question.' There's an inherent question in it. Do you disagree with me? I'll say a bit more. `Whether it is nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune or to take arms against the sea of troubles.' You say something to me if you disagree. I'm just trying to work a situation out here, so that the audience is not just observing it intellectually, but they're there with you going through it.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. RYLANCE: There are four levels to the audience in the building. The thing that's been taken out of most theater is this wonderful physical level where you came down to the yard, and you're standing for a few hours.

MONTAGNE: When you're in the yard, your sort of--your chin might rest right on the stage.

Mr. RYLANCE: Groundling is what Hamlet calls them. A groundling is actually the name of a little fish that goes along the bottom of rivers but has a big mouth that's always open. So--and you--they do actually often look like that. They're also kind of smelly, the fish, and apparently it was quite a smelly crowd.

MONTAGNE: Shakespeare would, in a sense, insult the groundling.

Mr. RYLANCE: I think Hamlet said something like they're incapable of anything but dumb shows and noise.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. RYLANCE: What's been very nice for me in these first 10 years, of course, is that we, as actors, have been learning, but also the audience have been learning, and whereas in initial years, they would throw vegetables and they'd come pretending to be what they imagined those audiences were.

MONTAGNE: Did they? Oh, actually, I had heard this.

Mr. RYLANCE: The audience did come initially and throw vegetables at the French in "Henry V" so the director, Richard Olivier, said, `Well, look, I'll cope with it. I'll go out,' and he saw this purple sprouting being hurled at the French, and he made his way through to the yard, and he found this woman with her legs spread wide apart, like a javelin thrower, a brown bag of vegetables she'd got at Borough Market, hurling these things with such passion at the French, that Richard thought, `Well, I can't interfere. This is something she's--it's not a pretend thing this woman's doing. She's wholeheartedly getting something off her chest, and we need to take it.'

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. RYLANCE: A big thing I've learned at the Globe is not to be frightened of the comedy that he puts into tragedy and the tragedy he puts into comedy. There was a moment when Cleopatra was pulling Antony up to his death and we're all yanking this rope, and she says something about him being a bit overweight, a bit fat. It was funny. Here's the poor girl, she's saying she wish he hadn't had so much pie, and then within 20 lines, he's dead, and the theater's silent. I think of it like a good boxer. If you just keep them in a tragic mode, their chests are closed and they're all ready for it coming, but you put in a little joke like that, everyone relaxes, and their chests open and their hearts open, and then you hit them with something very tragic, and the contrast is what makes it so powerful in the plays.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: Mark Rylance is lead actor and departing artistic director at Shakespeare's Globe Theatre in London. Tomorrow night, the Globe Company opens "Measure for Measure" at the Annenberg Center in Philadelphia, before moving on to Pittsburgh. And you can see a video clip of Mark Rylance as the duke in "Measure for Measure" at npr.org.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP (Host): And I'm Steve Inskeep.

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