In a year stuffed with Shakespeare, few things have been as hotly anticipated as Mark Rylance’s return to the Globe for the final two shows of its 2012 season. On the evidence of last night’s performance, few will be disappointed: Rylance’s Richard III is captivating as the capering, crippled king, even if it is an interpretation of the role that, ultimately, falls just short of greatness.
The Globe is ‘site specific’ theatre in a way that is unique; part drama, part historical spectacle, viewed with a detached knowingness as modern as the helicopters above it that regularly overshadow the on-stage action. The best productions embrace this challenge and play with it: and here Rylance and director Tim Carroll excel, creating a show that feels utterly suited to its staging, even if it’s hard to imagine it flourishing elsewhere.
Rylance’s Richard is sly and softly spoken, his words left often trailing, the culmination of his plans greeted with an innocent ‘who me?’ expression, a wink to the audience who are in on the joke. This is a music hall Richard, expertly playing the crowds, the clown whose bumbling exterior hides razor sharp timing; a vaudeville villain who could have stepped off an end-of-the-pier stage in a Northern seaside town. This comedic angle is reinforced by the costumes which, though lavish, to modern eyes are foppish and silly: even the ghosts at the end, tied up in what looked like bedsheets, drew laughter. In another space, this approach might flounder, but here it works perfectly: here you can exhort the groundlings, panto-style, to cheer for thewould-be king, and even, when things turn darker, try to pull them onstage to help in your battle.
But it’s a performance that comes at a price: Rylance lacks the malevolent drive and energy that make the character of Richard so compelling, and his flashes of fury never properly convince. He is only truly horrifying when his amiability and evil are shown side by side; the scene where he calmly tells his courtiers to spread the news his queen is dying – all the while gently patting the hand of a terrified Anne, pinned and frozen beside him – is truly chilling.
Rylance is surrounded by a strong all-male cast: Roger Lloyd Pack and Paul Chahidi are suitably oily as proud Buckingham and Hastings, too blinded by their own self-importance to realise the danger in Richard’s schemes, and the trio of women are all effective: James Garnon a bitter, disappointed mother; Samuel Barnett’s Elizabeth nicely capturing the slide from haughtiness to horror as her world disintegrates, and though I felt Johnny Flynn’s Lady Anne struggled a little in the always-difficult wooing scene, she becomes more sympathetic as her predicament takes its toll.
One woman, of course, is missing from that list – and in excising the deposed Queen Margaret, the play loses much of its power. Richard III isn’t just an evil schemer; he is, to an extent, Nemesis, meting out justice to those whose route to power was no less bloody than his own: he is the physical manifestation of the wrongness of civil war, the culmination of a generation’s crimes made flesh. His machinations rid the stage of tainted players so the Tudors can take their places unsullied. Without Margaret it’s all too easy to see this simply as the story of an ambitious, ruthless man who paid the price for overreaching. This adds to the sense of the production as a black-hearted – albeit often very funny – farce, which for all its many merits stops just short of truly memorable.