You wait ages for the Number 1 bus to come along, and then two arrive at once. The day after Nicholas Hytner led his regime change at the National with Henry V, just down the river at Shakespeare’s Globe a season that goes under the title ‘Regime Change’ has opened with another of Shakespeare’s plays about kings and kingship, Richard II.
Both productions seek to underline the contemporary resonance of their stories, but while Hytner’s is explicitly modern in its propulsion of the storytelling into the media age, at the Globe it is more implicit in the season it is a part of.
As the Globe’s artistic director Mark Rylance puts it, “400 years after the transition from Tudor to Stuart rule, and faced with a modern world which increasingly turns to violence in order to effect security or regime change, I offer you a season at the Globe which explores power and change….”
In this “original practices” production that seeks to recreate the staging conditions of a production in the Globe exactly 400 years ago, it vividly rewinds the clock to show how the past always resonates on the future. The dilemmas being faced by the subjects of a vain, indulgent king in challenging his absolute power are precisely the kind that those living under dictatorships still face today.
Shakespeare’s play, tracing the downfall of a king and his replacement by the cousin he exiled, has been beautifully brought to life in an Elizabethan-dress, all-male production by Master of Play Tim Carroll that highlights the politics as well as the pageantry of the action.
The Globe’s ongoing dialogue between its plays, style of performance and the audience continues to grow and grow. My original fears that this would be a ‘heritage theatre’ – a tourist attraction to put beside the Tower of London – were unfounded, and even in a production that looks back so authentically as this one seeks to, the plays are resonating with a power, sweep and intimacy that they don’t often get in other theatre settings.
An integral part of the journey of this theatre is that undertaken by the audience itself, who are forced to engage against the competing distractions of weather good (the sun gets in your eyes on matinees) or bad (raindrops keep falling on your head). But amidst intrusions as ancient as the weather or modern as an odd passing helicopter, there are few theatres where you are more directly engaged as opposed to mere passive observers.
There are also, above all, exemplary standards of performance, led from the front by the artistic director Rylance himself, who takes the title role here of a man with a fragile hold on his authority. But there can be no doubt of Mr Rylance’s own authority as an actor who builds a totally committed company around him. Unlike the character he is playing, they won’t be deposing him anytime soon.