Among the various criticisms made of Shakespeare’s Globe over the four seasons that the rebuilt playhouse has been attracting summertime hordes, one lament has more or less stuck: the theater’s inability to attract name performers to a venue seemingly bigger than any individual who might appear there. (Vanessa Redgrave’s presence this summer as Prospero was very much the starry exception, not the rule.) Still, as the Royal Shakespeare Co. learned ages ago, if you’re not going to entice the heavy hitters, why not do the next best thing and create them? With that in mind, one will remember the Globe’s Y2K repertoire as the season that cemented artistic director Mark Rylance’s very real stature even as it heralded the thirtysomething Jasper Britton as a star.
Son of Tony Britton, the long-established English thesp, Britton fils is hardly unknown. Last season, he was a more-than-reliable participant in Trevor Nunn’s inaugural National Theater ensemble, playing (among other roles) Shakespeare’s sore-ridden Thersites and, later, a duck-hungry cat — the latter as part of the menagerie in the Olivier Award-winning musical, “Honk!” And in the Globe’s season-opening “Tempest,” Britton cut the best Caliban I have yet seen — a mud-caked, half-naked creature as prone to poetry as he was to a guttural growl.
Virtually all the Globe company — Redgrave excepted (her next venture, the Trevor Nunn-National Theater “The Cherry Orchard,” opens in three weeks) — have been cast across two productions, so it’s with great warmth that one welcomes Britton back in “The Two Noble Kinsmen,” along with Tim Carroll’s entire production. The likable curiosity that is the Shakespeare-John Fletcher text is not easily separated from Britton and Co.’s playing of it. “My argument is love,” soliloquizes Britton’s imprisoned Palamon, nephew to Theban king Creon and friend-turned-rival to his newly banished cousin, Arcite (Will Keen). And with Britton in the driver’s seat (as he speaks it, a potentially banal utterance like “oh, good morrow” sounds inimitably droll), the play brooks little debate: love’s ardor — and its attendant risks — have rarely been so enchanting.
Those perils, as it happens, are sizable, including a joust to the death, not to mention an admirer in demented pursuit — Kate Fleetwood’s vibrantly acted Jailer’s Daughter, a sort of hyper-bawdy Ophelia — who responds (typical Shakespeare flourish, this) to the subterfuge of disguise. And yet, one is always aware of an unabashed romanticism underscoring even the doomiest moments in a rewrite of Chaucer’s “The Knight’s Tale” that a rain-soaked evening — of which this London summer has had no shortage — can’t keep from seeming choice.
“The Two Noble Kinsmen” and “The Tempest” featured the Globe’s so-called “red” troupe, with “Hamlet” and Richard Brome’s entirely unknown 1638 play “The Antipodes” comprising the “white” thespian team. The latter two texts are aptly antithetical up to a point, “Hamlet’s” carnage existing in distinct contrast to the first flat-out comedy — albeit from the Caroline era, here lucidly cut by about one-third — that a.d. Rylance has programmed.
Both works, too, offer up plays-within-plays — in the case of “The Antipodes” in a sequence allowing for the sunniest passage of Gerald Freedman’s very sweet, very broad production. (Freedman, the original Off Broadway stager of “Hair,” is the first American to direct at the Globe.) The difference between them comes with one play (“The Antipodes”) steeped in the theater’s power to heal, while the potency of “Hamlet” has always rested in its title character’s very particular occupancy of hell. “The Antipodes” shows the sustenance to be had from a “world turned upside down”; in “Hamlet,” that way madness lies.
Rylance made numerous celebrated appearances as the great Dane on both sides of the Atlantic between 1988 and 1992 and here returns to it, shedding the pajamas that once caused a stir in favor of period garb and, at one point, a soiled nightshirt in keeping with Hamlet’s shattered psyche. Speaking as someone who missed him in the role the last time around, I can report Rylance honoring Hamlet’s grief like the unusually sentient actor that he is while managing to be unusually, gravely funny in the role.
That last point owes a lot to Rylance’s command of a space that no one patrols, as it were, like he does. Commenting on what is “brief, as woman’s love,” the actor lances a telling glance at a female “groundling” (those who have paid $7 to stand in the pit throughout the perf), while a remark to Claudius (Tim Woodward) about “eat(ing) the ear” finds Rylance doing — no, devouring — just that. Lest this seem so much japery (his “good night mother” to Joanna McCallum’s stately, beehive-coiffed Gertrude bears the whiff of Norman Bates), his ability to still a sometimes restless crowd sets him apart. (Oddly, Rylance is far more distractingly showy in a small role, looking vaguely rabbinical, in “The Antipodes.”)
If Giles Block’s “Hamlet” production were its leading man’s match, the Globe might at last find a play capable of silencing another of this theater’s oft-cited vexations — that subtlety isn’t its strong point, an assertion “The Antipodes” would seem to bear out. Instead, the star works himself into an alternately playful and disturbing lather, his voice softening on what Hamlet tells Guildenstern is “the breathing time of day,” as if to suggest an arrival at some kind of unexplained peace. The perf is full of comparable flashes of insight, surrounded by stolidity (and, in Mark Lockyer’s Laertes, an egregious case of classical overkill). Rylance’s is a Hamlet in tremulous, unfettered empathy with the part; the rest, I’m afraid, is silence.