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Michael Coveney: Rylance rules the Rooster

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Mark Rylance returned to the Globe last night as a conquering hero, trailing clouds of glory as Johnny "Rooster" Byron on both sides of the Atlantic, but with a big surprise up his puffy Elizabethan sleeve: he didn't hurtle into Richard III, but took him on sideways, subtly cloaking his villainy in affability and childishness, like a spoilt brat who aims to please but can only misbehave.

The sun shone and only a few clouds that loured upon our house skittered across the azure sky of high summer. The Globe's yard was packed -- only one or two fainting fits, I noticed -- the house filled to the wooden rafters, the sausages spitting at their stalls. I took the precaution of wearing shorts and baseball cap and was accused by my guest, Tom Siracusa of the Chocolate Factory, of looking as though I'd just arrived from summer camp. "Hello mudda, hello fadda; here I am in, Camp Granada..."

As usual these days, everyone was so much better dressed on the stage than in the auditorium. Jenny Tiramani's Elizabethan costumes are spectacular: tall hats and white ruffs all round, perfectly cut jerkins and billowing hose, two little princes in startling pink satin, and Rylance himself, attired in stripes like a jovial bumblebee, is a satirical version, methinks, of the Nicholas Hilliard miniature masterpiece, Young Man Among Roses.

His arm and shoulder disability is cloaked in a cape, his right leg gently turned out at right angles to his torso: no callipers or sticks for this Crookback, no satanic black leather or clunking contraptions, no sinister glove or even make-up.

This is the childish, buffoonish side of Rylance we saw in both his RSC Hamlet and his West End (and Broadway) La Bete, quick in thought and motion, quietly dominating, with a slow fuse burning and a rib of steel to spare.

It's odd how the worst of modern killers seems so innocent and baby-faced on the surface. The mask of villainy is always just that, as in the "Joker" who massacred the cinema audience in Colorado the other day at the premiere of the new Batman movie.

At least Richard actually knows that he's killing children in the Tower: there was the most tremendous shiver through the audience last night when Samuel Barnett's ferocious Queen Elizabeth, outraged that Richard should now be wooing her daughter through her, reminds him that he killed her children: "But in thy daughter's womb I'll bury them."

Richard III famously presages the triumphant reign of Elizabeth I, and there's a look of the Virgin Queen about Barnett's barnet, a frizzled ginger wig clamped down with a skullcap, a white face and very still shoulders.

But it's Rylance as Richard we'll be turning over in our minds for the rest of the year. He takes the production, with Twelfth Night, into the West End after the Globe run, and it will be interesting to see how it fares there without the give and take of the active Globe groundlings. (Michael Billington loves this Richard III, but dislikes the general and unabated tendency of Globe actors "to go down on the audience.")

Rylance woos a girl in the pit with a white rose he's been fondling in the opening speech. He builds the backchat into his performance in a way no other actor can. For instance, on the eve of battle, he makes the great nightmare speech sound as though he's just made it up as a muttered conversation with the crowd.

"What do I fear? Myself? There's none else by; Richard loves Richard; that is, I am I. Is there a murderer here? No. Yes, I am..."

He gets the most wonderful laugh on that last line, as if the horrors he's committed are outside of himself and his own real person, as I'm sure the modern mass murderers in Scandinavia and North America see themselves as separate from their crimes.

Taking you by surprise is one of the things that theatre does best, and the surprise element in Rylance's wonderful performance was nearly matched the previous evening when the sound of Shaw filled the Lyttelton in the hugely enjoyable revival of The Doctor's Dilemma: a satire that hasn't dated, and a love story between an artist and his defiant muse. And such beautiful writing.

But at the end, you left the National Theatre and had an even bigger shock: the whole forecourt was ablaze with a fire garden - as I now know it's called -- to mark the opening of the Olympics. It's absolutely stunning, but if I see it again it won't have the same shock of the new as we experienced on Tuesday night.

I hear whispers that Danny Boyle's opening ceremony on Friday night will be a stunner, too. Mark Rylance, alas, won't be there to help out with the Shakespeare section, but it seems probable that Kenneth Branagh will be, although Simon Russell Beale isn't onstage as Timon of Athens that night...

Meanwhile, the Olympics are under way and our red buttons are tuned for all variety of delights. I hope, like me, you didn't miss the opening match in the women's football tournament in Cardiff yesterday afternoon.

I was telling Matt Wolf of the International Herald Tribune about it as we travelled home from the Globe on the Northern Line (all working well, so far) together: "Oh really," he sarcastically exclaimed, "how thrilling. I can hardly contain my excitement. Can I get a train at midnight straight down there to see some more of it?"


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