As the citerns, sackbuts, violas and perhaps the odd lasciviously pleasing lute struck up, one could feel, even several seats away, an overwhelming desire to up and off on the part of certain distinguished members of the Shakespeare Club. Mark Rylance (Richard) then mugging to the audience (to the audience’s delight) made matters worse still, and your reporter feared that the interval would see departures in high dudgeon. I suspect a combination of the high price of the ticket and the unexpected, largely positive, reactions of other club members returned them to their seats.
This is a Globe production. The set (which is the same as that for Twelfth Night, running concurrently) was uncomplicated, thoroughly woody, and featured audience seats on both sides of the stage, lending a hint of the Globe’s groundlingness. The costumes were Elizabethan. The sackbuts were positioned along the crenelated top of the set.
The evening was, for most of us, a pleasure. Rylance is an astonishing presence. As a member remarked afterwards, he can get away with anything. He owns the stage somehow, without owning it as Rylance. His Richard III was entirely the character. Other than Hamlet, I believe it is the longest role in Shakespeare.
I had read a few pages of Tony Tanner’s Prologue to the play in the morning, in which he points out Richard’s own reference to the figure of The Vice, from the Morality plays, one of whose “satanic privileges was to inveigle the audience into laughing at evil”. I think what Tanner means to say is laughing with evil. We laugh against our better judgement. And Richard is witty, enjoys mischief for its own sake. The dramatic irony that the play is full of, is turned on Richard himself, as he finds all those “cares” he pretends not to want, rendering him hopelessly out of his depth. Rylance's mischief maker becomes pathetic. We laugh less and less as the play goes on.
In the end, the terror that Richard has unleashed in what seems almost an arbitrary fashion becomes clear. The clown – Rylance’s bowler hat acknowledges the debt – has lost his audience: us.
Is this pop Shakespeare? I don’t think so; I think this is theatrical Shakespeare. Rylance plays high and mighty with the iambic pentameters, but his performance is not look-at-me, it is look-at-Richard, and for me, at any rate, it worked. This is the anti-Anthony Sher. It is the genius of Shakespeare that allows of both interpretations.