Arts: A Night to Remember ; Twelfth Night Has Returned to Middle Temple Hall 400 Years after Its First Performance. Paul Taylor Discusses `Authentic Shakespeare' with Mark Rylance, Its Astounding Olivia
Taylor, Paul, The Independent (London, England)
There has never been a Twelfth Night quite like this. Or, rather, there was once - precisely 400 years ago, in fact, to the very day: 2 February 1602. That was the moment when the Lord Chamberlain's Men, of which Shakespeare was a member, crossed the Thames from the original Globe Playhouse in Southwark to present this brilliant, timeless comedy to the law students at the Middle Temple, off Fleet Street. We know that for a fact because of a diary kept by one of the interns, John Manningham, and there's a plaque in the entrance hall of this Inn of Court that properly boasts of the coup.
Now, four centuries on, Mark Rylance's company at the reconstructed Globe are (for a very limited season) making the same journey over the river - with a historically authentic all-male cast - in a production by Tim Carroll staged in the exact long dining hall where Twelfth Night had its first recorded performance - very possibly its first night.
I responded swiftly to the invitation to attend the event, for a variety of reasons. For a start, Rylance is an actor you would cross continents rather than a mere river to see perform. You would do this if he were putting on a solo turn as a Japanese instruction manual for a video recorder, let alone negotiating a very tricky female role such as Olivia in Twelfth Night. Then again, this critic must confess to certain guilt feelings regarding Shakespeare's Globe, of which Rylance has, since 1997, been the inaugural director. Extreme distaste for heritage theatre and the dead hand of a purely scholarly treatment of Shakespeare's plays has done battle in me in recent years with more complicated feelings - first, that I was increasingly approaching the Globe with the expectant tread of someone fairly confident of a rewarding surprise; and second, that any continuing resistance I felt might have more to do with the way the theatre was misguidedly pitching itself to the public rather than with what it was staging.
The deal was this: that I would see a performance of the Middle Temple Twelfth Night - an initiative that may spearhead a nationwide move on the Globe's part to requisition Elizabethan buildings as performance spaces - and that I would subsequently meet up with Mark Rylance at his theatre to discuss the developing philosophy and future of the reconstructed Globe project. Our first near- accidental encounter came in the candle- lit dressing room that has been created for the actors at Middle Temple. Not a special privilege for me, but an experience open to anyone with a ticket. Gawping at actors as they caparison themselves and don make- up is not in itself a bona fide Elizabethan practice, and I have to say that, for me, this was the most awkward part of the event. Rylance, about to get clamped into the corset that strongly defines his hilariously reined- in, touching and geisha-like Olivia, padded over to have a word.
"Are you coming to see - to hear the show tonight?" he asked. That self- correction is significant. Shakespeare's original audience (in a way that is still vibrant in the word) would have said - as Theseus does, anticipating the mechanicals' interlude in A Midsummer Night's Dream - "I will hear that play." Rylance was in a white undershift and his face was already covered in white powder. He explained that when he played Cleopatra at the Globe, he allowed himself a touch of unhistorical mascara. "Now we are trying to do without that crutch," he declared. He then tried to fasten the cuffs of his undergarment with microscopic ties of string, like doll's- house vermicelli. "God, I'm not going to be able to do these up in front of you," he laughed.
The room around him, where the cast clambered into intricately researched costumes, which have each taken roughly 200 working hours to construct, was a fascinating melange of the historical and the incorrigibly contemporary. For example, amid the clutter on the mirror-surmounted tables, there were copies of the Penguin edition of Twelfth Night. …