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The knives came out for Rylance

THE MOMENT WHEN: Mark Rylance did Macbeth (up like a kipper) and the future of the Globe looked shakier than ever. By Paul Taylor
"This must be the worst Macbeth since Peter O'Toole's," snapped the Daily Telegraph, while the Times critic made a pledge to eat the First Folio in its entirety if the next decade were to produce a more ill-conceived version of this tragedy. Mark Rylance's Greenwich Macbeth leapt to instant notoriety on account of shifting the action from feudal Scotland to the world of contemporary cult religion.

I, too, voiced doubts about the wisdom of this new context. But as I continue to reflect on the production, I realise that my quarrel with it was not that it went too far, but that it didn't go far enough. Because of the way it helped clarify my thoughts on the whole vexed issue of updating classic drama, I look back on this piece as a defining moment of my theatre- going year.

"Accessibility" is frequently cited as a justification for relocating plays in the here and now. Fine, provided no one loses sight of the fact that, trapped in our parochial present, we need works of art to remind us how differently life has been, and can be, organised. It's possible, of course, for a director to build an international reputation on a persistent inability to imagine anything other than his own society. Take Peter Sellars's Gulf War version of Aeschylus's The Persians, where Saddam Hussein surfaced as the mixed-up, misunderstood James Dean-figure in a typical, Oedipally dysfunctional American family; or his Venice Beach Merchant of Venice which, with its attempted parallel between the racial prejudice in the play and the LA riots, pulled off the distinctive feat of clouding your thinking on both topics.

Ideally, the converse of this should be the case, the new context and the original play training a sharp, surprising light on each other. Rylance's Macbeth was a patently sincere attempt to find, in a close-knit Krishna- like sect, a parallel contemporary setting in which there's a strict hierarchy and where people, believing in weird prophecies and crazy divinations, act swiftly and violently to accomplish them. What was disappointing was the practical application. Too many opportunities were missed for radicalising our view of Macbeth and questioning what we take for granted in it.

An example of this would be the treatment of the hero's victim, the supposedly saintly King Duncan. If Rylance had shown this figure presiding over a brainwashed, claustrophobic sect, then it would have exposed how, in Shakespeare's tragedy, the mystique of the monarchy allows Duncan to enjoy a reputation for meekness while also exercising power that depends on violence and warfare. It would also have enabled Rylance to present the effect of Macbeth's actions as perversely beneficial, the murderous change of guru and the new paranoiac tyranny waking up and politicising a hitherto credulous and submissive community. But the Duncan here was just a sweetish vague personality who, on arriving as a houseguest, presented Lady Macbeth with the thoughtful gift of a bunch of bananas.

It's true that the image of Hecate as a drag lollipop lady and of Jane Horrocks's Lady Macbeth wetting herself in the sleepwalking scene are memories that I will carry with me, somewhat less than gratefully, to the grave. But whereas the production prompted some commentators to write pre-emptive obituaries of Rylance's artistic directorship of the rebuilt Globe Theatre - "If [he] offers work like this, we can look forward to a fiasco of monumental proportions" - it made me anticipate more excitedly a project for which beforehand I could muster little enthusiasm. Full of vision and audacity, if a trifle lacking in sustained thought, his Macbeth suggests that the last thing Rylance's Globe will be is a Shakespeare museum.

n Tomorrow: Chris Peachment on the moment when British film was given its head