LONDON — All good things come to an end: In October, Mark Rylance, 45, steps down after a decade running Shakespeare’s Globe, where he will be replaced by Dominic Dromgoole.
In his last season as artistic director, Rylance is playing Prospero in a radical version of “The Tempest” — an appropriate finale, since the play is often seen as the Bard’s farewell to the stage.
This season’s repertoire, which also includes “The Winter’s Tale” and “Pericles, Prince of Tyre,” is yet another reminder that the venue has as much, if not more, elasticity as any London playhouse.
When Rylance launched the bankside venue, he and the theater were met with skepticism. The 1,441-capacity venue re-creates Shakespeare’s circular Globe on its original site, complete with thrust stage and “groundlings” (600 patrons who, for less than $10, stand at the foot of the stage to watch the performance, as some did in Elizabethan times).
Pundits predicted it would be a tourist attraction, with no hope of serious theater.
Rylance confounded the critics with a mix of “original practice” productions (all roles played by men, in Elizabethan costumes), an eccentric star turn (Vanessa Redgrave as Prospero in an earlier “Tempest”) and eclectic seasons. Most startling of all, Rylance created a venue that is a popular and financial success.
And he’s been able, in tours throughout the U.S., to spread the gospel of finding the beauty of Shakespeare by going back to the basics. The Globe also features extensive outreach programs and educational endeavors.
What’s been revealing over Rylance’s tenure is just how much diversity the Globe can take. Critics haven’t always been enthused, and many notable directors and performers have turned down jobs, unsure about the exigencies of working within touching distance of the groundlings on a stage bereft of the usual visual aids of sets and lighting.
“It’s incredibly difficult for directors at the Globe,” Rylance tells Variety, in between rehearsals for his final show, “The Storm,” a new play by Peter Oswald, inspired by Plautus, which opens Aug. 12.
“They’re frightened to lose their tools of sets and lights. Directors are as vain as actors,” says Rylance, “myself included. We get attached to our familiar tricks — our familiar ways of engaging.”
Auds, however, have responded to the lack of “tricks.” The 2004 season played to more than 90% capacity, and it didn’t hurt that such perennially popular titles as “Romeo and Juliet” were among the lineup.
This season, attendance is down somewhat, as might be expected in jittery times for London — not to mention the lesser-known status of “Winter’s Tale” and “Pericles.” (The latter has been playing to 50%, well below the Globe breakeven of 85%.)
“The Tempest” has averaged 95% capacity to date: cheering news for a stirring production that speaks up to an audience that eight or nine years ago were often derided as boisterous louts.
“I’ve been in many performances at the Globe where the attention has been acute,” says Globe exec director Peter Kyle. “I haven’t found our audiences to be in any sense trite.”
Starting in October, the Globe will once again fold an American public into the mix, as it has done on and off since a staging of “Two Gentlemen of Verona” briefly visited Manhattan’s New Victory Theater early in 1997; Rylance played Proteus.
The show this time is “Measure for Measure,” in an all-male production directed by John Dove and starring Rylance as the Duke and, as Isabella, Edward Hogg — the same lithe performer who alternates astonishingly between Ariel and Miranda, among other roles, in the current “Tempest.”
The tour starts at the Guthrie in Minneapolis (Oct. 27-Nov. 6) and continues to Los Angeles (the Freud Playhouse, Nov. 9-26), Philadelphia (Annenberg Center, Nov. 30-Dec. 4), Pittsburgh (O’Reilly Theater, Dec. 6-18) and, still to be confirmed, 20 perfs over the holidays at New York’s St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn.
Producer of the $1.2 million tour (cost doesn’t include the New York leg) is John Luckacovic cq, who two years ago toured Tim Carroll’s ecstatically received all-male “Twelfth Night,” featuring Rylance’s feathery Olivia.
“That was a huge success,” the impresario says from his home 20 miles south of Albany, N.Y., “which is why we’re building on that.”
“What we’ve been able to do is brand the Globe in the U.S., so that we were already planning to bring the Globe back even when we weren’t sure with which production.” (An all-male “Richard II” was vetoed as too costly.)
“The Tempest” may well embark on a similar tour in 2007, its New York prospects bolstered by a rave this summer from Ben Brantley in the New York Times.
This season’s offerings include a faintly stolid but clearly told, beautifully costumed “The Winter’s Tale,” performed as an original practice production, this time including women, aiming to expose the roots of early English theater.
For knockabout fun, there’s another late Shakespeare play, “Pericles,” that has been directed by thesp Kathryn Hunter as if she were channeling Cirque du Soleil.
Under Tim Carroll’s staging, “The Tempest” has a cast of three — Rylance among them — playing all the roles.
As to whether that show really does signal Rylance’s Globe farewell … not so fast.
“I just adore acting on this stage and don’t really want to act Shakespeare anywhere else in this country,” says the thesp.
With luck, not least the audience’s, he’ll be back.