LONDON — English men have always loved to put on dresses. But when the British-born, American-raised, London-based actor Mark Rylance dons the Elizabethan black and white-lace frock of Olivia for the Shakespeare's Globe Theatre production of "Twelfth Night," the actor glides across the stage in a hoop-skirt-assisted moon walk, takes shallow little breaths, then falls in love across the gender divide and back again. It's a performance that's altogether more transgender than transvestite.
"I don't need to take the knife to myself," Rylance says of his nonsurgical expeditions to the feminine side. "I dress up now and then to tap into it, to experience it. I guess I feel if a play is done generously, the audience gets a similar experience."
Since he assumed his post as artistic director of Shakespeare's Globe in 1996, Rylance has worked hard to turn the reconstructed 1599 open-air playhouse -- where Shakespeare wrote many of his greatest plays -- into what he refers to as "an experimental urban amphitheater" where "modern Elizabethans" perform Shakespeare for today's audiences.
From the beginning, the crowd-pleasing space has drawn audiences, but Rylance has had a harder time winning over the London theater establishment, which was quick to dismiss the venture as the Shakespeare stop on the Euro Theme Park tour -- a tourist attraction, not a real theater.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday October 23, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 86 words Type of Material: Correction
Performance times -- The schedule for UCLA Live's International Theatre Festival presentation of the Shakespeare Globe Theatre in "Twelfth Night (or What You Will)," which is running through Nov. 2 at UCLA's Freud Playhouse, is Tuesday-Friday at 8 p.m.; Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m.; this Sunday at 1 and 8 p.m., and Nov. 2 at 1 and 7 p.m. The Sunday curtain times were listed incorrectly in Sunday's Calendar and in an information box that accompanied a story about the Shakespeare company in Tuesday's Calendar.
Frequently crowned "one of the most talented actors of his generation," the 43-year-old Rylance often stars in Globe productions (he retains 10 weeks off a year to do his own acting projects, which have included Patrice Chereau's controversial film "Intimacy" in 2001 and a television docudrama about Leonardo Da Vinci last year). His reputation as an actor has helped him slowly to build credibility for the theater, which has finally begun to receive favorable press from London critics. Last year, the all-male "Twelfth Night" won an Evening Standard Special Award for achievement, an Olivier for costume design and several other awards. During a recent 10-day revival of the show before the troupe's first U.S. tour, Time Out described it as "a triumph."
The company has traveled twice to New York -- in 1997 and last year, with modern-dress productions of "Two Gentlemen of Verona" and "Cymbeline." But Rylance says this American tour, which kicks off in Los Angeles at UCLA's Freud Playhouse on Wednesday, then goes on to Ann Arbor, Mich.; Pittsburgh; Minneapolis and Chicago, is a kind of thank you to the late American actor Sam Wanamaker, whom Rylance calls "perhaps the most devoted friend Shakespeare ever had." It was Wanamaker's idea to re-create the Globe on the banks of the Thames, some 200 yards from its original location, in what was until recently warehouses and bomb damage. It now is a newly bustling area that includes the Tate Modern next door.
"I'd wanted to just let Americans know that their fellow Americans were the first to kind of come to Sam's call when he imagined this theater," Rylance says, "long before any English people could conceive of it at all. Americans gave hundreds and thousands of dollars in their wish to be a friend of Shakespeare and to honor and explore the kind of working conditions that create the place." Although the British government eventually contributed about $6.6 million of national lottery money, the Globe does not receive government funding and is profitable.
A night at the Globe is a lively and uplifting experience that can border on the thrilling for a theatergoer. Sitting on wooden benches or joining one of the 600 who stand in the yard in front of the stage, a mixed-age crowd sips soup from paper cups bought in the cafe, drinks from bottles of beer, wraps up in shawls and blankets. You get the feeling -- with the house lights on and actors who can look you in the eye from the stage -- that you are a participant. A stray laugh from the audience sometimes works as a cue, helping the actors set the pace and tell the story to the audience, instead of standing on a distant stage and reciting. What the actors have learned to ignore is the occasional mood-breaking plane flying overhead.
"It's difficult for us playing anywhere other than the Globe," Rylance says on a Saturday morning in the office overlooking the Thames and St. Paul's Cathedral that he shares with his wife, Claire van Kampen, the Globe's music director. But Rylance points out that when playing in halls was the norm, Shakespeare knew how to take the show on the road.