Beer-Swilling Rylance Turns Evil Richard III Into Joker

'Richard III'
Mark Rylance in the title role of "Richard III" at Shakespeare's Globe in London. The play is directed by Tim Carroll. Photographer: Simon Annand/Shakespeare's Globe via Bloomberg

Actor Mark Rylance drags his bad leg across the stage, repeats the odd word or syllable, and does a celebratory hop-skip-and-jump when he hears merry news.

This isn’t Rylance as Johnny Rooster in the award-winning contemporary play “Jerusalem.” It’s Rylance as “Richard III” at Shakespeare’s Globe -- the crowning theatrical moment of the London 2012 Olympics cultural festival. Yet there are conspicuous parallels.

Rylance gave a milestone performance as the reckless trailer-dweller in the 2009 Jez Butterworth play, and between runs in London and New York, spent a long time in the part. So while you can take Rylance out of “Jerusalem,” it seems you can’t take “Jerusalem” out of Rylance just yet.

The magnetic actor is still a highlight of a production that touches people, literally. Rylance and the all-male cast make physical contact with the audience, roping them in and recreating the raucous atmosphere of theater in the Bard’s day.

When we first see the future King Richard III, he looks like a court jester in his yellow stockings. A waist-length cape half-covers the tiny crippled hand pinned to his chest.

As Rylance delivers the famous opening soliloquy, he does a jolly little skip, and hands a white rose to a spectator. When the audience laughs too hard, he motions at them to keep quiet. There is nothing solemn or menacing about him.

Yet Richard is viciously plotting his own coronation. He murders anyone with a claim to the throne, woos their wives and daughters, and snuffs out their descendants.

Strawberry Blond

True to theater in Shakespeare’s day, the women in the play are played by men. They wear elaborate lace collars, curly strawberry-blond wigs, and long velvet trains that glide across the stage.

The all-male cast does a good job of impersonating women, though to some contemporary eyes they might come across as drag queens. With her powder-white complexion and pursed pink lips, Queen Elizabeth (Samuel Barnett) vaguely resembles the young Boy George.

There are other gifted multitaskers, including Liam Brennan (as Clarence and the Lord Mayor), Paul Chahidi (as Hastings and Tyrrell), and Roger Lloyd Pack (as the Duke of Buckingham), who gets the audience chanting “God save Richard, England’s worthy king!”

Ultimately, though, it’s Rylance people pay to see, and he gives a lot back.

Comic Coronation

When he’s finally crowned king, he grandly shakes his ermine cape over the front row. As he tumbles over, his golden crown rolls into the hands of a spectator. And as he desperately clings to his kingdom, he grabs another spectator’s arm, virtually lifting him onto the stage.

While his performance could use a little gravitas, Rylance -- a Shakespearean actor who was the Globe’s artistic director from 1995 to 2005 -- connects with the contemporary public in a way few can. He will lure many a first-timer to the Globe, and to Shakespeare.

His “Richard III” comes as he struggles with recent family tragedy: the death of his stepdaughter. With time, no doubt, Rylance will come into his role as the crippled king.

Rating: ***.

“Richard III” runs through Oct. 13 at Shakespeare’s Globe, 21 New Globe Walk, Bankside, SE1 9DT. Information: or +44-20-7902-1400.

The production will transfer for the Apollo Theatre in the West End on Nov 6.

What the Stars Mean:
*****      Fantastic
****       Excellent
***        Very Good
**         Good
*          Poor
(No stars) Avoid

Muse highlights include Zinta Lundborg’s New York weekend and Lewis Lapham on history.

(Farah Nayeri writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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