Last month I went on a theater vacation in London, spent mainly at Shakespeare’s Globe.
I went because I had learned that Mark Rylance was performing in back-to-back performances of Twelfth Night and Richard III. This was very important to me because I will do anything in my power to see Mr. Rylance in a performance. My obsession began in 2003 when I had the serendipitous pleasure of stumbling upon Mr. Rylance performing Richard II at the Globe in my very first visit to London.
That year, 2003, I had wandered around town with absolutely no knowledge of where things were located, still jet lagged, when I found the Globe (which I had, actually, been on the lookout for). There was an afternoon performance and I arrived as the show was starting. I asked how much a ticket would be and was shocked to find out that the price was so low. I didn’t really pay attention to what was playing – I thought I was going in to see Richard III (“. . . a horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse . . . “) and had no clue that it would be a different Richard, Richard II.
As I walked into the theater, I was overwhelmed by the thrill of actually, finally, being inside THE Globe Theater. Shakespeare’s Globe! In London!! I was giddier than I had ever been in my life and the feelings that went through me as I looked around, standing with the “groundlings,” was indescribable. Of course, my knowledge of Shakespeare was still in the academic vein. In other words, I found him boring. I couldn’t understand what he was talking about, didn’t know anything about English history, didn’t understand his “English,” if that’s what it was. Nevertheless, I found myself inexplicably drawn to Shakespeare’s Globe and I was thrilled beyond belief to be standing in the theater.
Slowly, though, I was sucked into what was going on a few feet in front of me on stage. Although I didn’t quite follow who was who, I found what was going on to be exciting and emotional. Why were these people so upset? Why were those guys scheming against the King? Who were these people??
The language drew me in first. Seeing and hearing Shakespeare performed by actors who brought such vitality to the words was a new experience for me. I couldn’t take my eyes off the King. His mannerisms were perfect, his declarations regal, his humility palpable. Quickly, I understood what was going on. Through their dialogue, I understood why those guys were scheming. Through his soliloquies, I learned what was in the King’s heart. I got it. I got it all and I was caught.
Mr. Rylance, as the King, was the key to my enchantment. He brought clarity and “honesty” to the role, gaining our sympathy by tapping into our collective subconscious. His Richard II was human and vulnerable, yet majestic. Each word was spoken with the confidence that no other word could have fit more perfectly into the sentence. Every sentence was clear. Crystal clear. All around me were audience members riveted, as I was, to the story that was unfolding in front of our eyes. Good actors can get the audience eating out of the palm of his or her hand and Mr. Rylance had us all that afternoon. As we watched the King’s doom unfold before us, we felt the pity, the loss, the inevitability of the events. And Mr. Rylance made us laugh with Richard literally moments before he was murdered. Ah, it was not fair for any one person, a stranger, to have such control over our emotions!
Leaving the theater after the performance, I realized that I had never heard Shakespeare before (although I had seen other productions). Nothing in school was like what I had just seen. It wasn’t boring at all. It was the liveliest, most exciting, moving play I had ever seen. Every actor on the stage was top caliber. Each one had me just as engaged as I had been with the King. How could I have missed out on this for so long?
The Globe experience was a meeting of many elements:
- Great acting matched with great writing – Rylance, the actors of the Globe, and Shakespeare.
- A focused atmosphere of engagement – the physical shape of the Globe.
- A focused vision of what was important and what was not – lighting, no; costumes, definitely.
- An understanding of what entertains an audience – music carefully placed to woo the subconscious.
Mark Rylance is an extraordinarily talented actor and theater professional. You can read about his achievements in Wikipedia. I have since seen him in two other shows in New York (Boeing, Boeing; Jerusalem). and he proved that his skills are not only applicable to Shakespeare but are skills for all acting.
But I am most ashamed to say that I had underestimated the skill and talent of Shakespeare’s writing. He hadn’t written to bore future audiences. He wrote to entertain regular everyday people and did it with a vengeance. I thought of my counterparts of 400 years earlier and saw almost the same things they did – granted, I didn’t get all the humor, slang, and political connections. But it turns out that I didn’t need to know those things in order to appreciate and enjoy my Shakespeare experience just as they had.
Now I am hooked. I want more, more, more Shakespeare. I went back to see the same show several more times that week. That year, 2003, I went to other theaters in London and saw Henry V at The National, Ian McKellan in Dance of Death, other shows. But the Globe was the truest, most honest representation of entertainment in its highest and deepest form, for me.
That year, the Globe became the center of my theatrical universe.