Globe Theatre: Global concerns

At the end of a decade in charge of the Globe Theatre, Mark Rylance reflects on the currents of history that nourish new writing for the Shakespearean stage
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The Independent Culture

You wouldn't guess that Plautus, who died around 184BC, is the originator of practically all the forms of modern comedy in prose. Indeed a number of his own plays were lost until 1429, which gives someone like me hope that 400 years after Shakespeare's death is still too early to discount the possibility of lost plays being discovered. Love's Labours Won, for one.

In 1598, Francis Meres, to whom we owe the reference to the lost play Love's Labours Won, wrote: "As Epius Stolo said, that the Muses would speak with Plautus's tongue, if they would speak Latin: so I say that the Muses would speak with Shakespeare's fine filled phrase, if they would speak English."

Shakespeare turned to Plautus for his plots and has Polonius name him as a mark of the acting ability of the players visiting Elsinore to cheer up Hamlet. In fact, Shakespeare was happy to look much further back in European theatre culture than most of my profession, and those who comment on my profession nowadays, would dare, so reluctant seem some people of being connected to a "heritage theatre".

I have fought for 10 years to remove that label from the Globe. Playing our modern adaptation of Plautus's comedy, The Storm, creates more laughter during its two hours' traffic than I have witnessed playing in the Globe or any other theatre. So what's so frightening about our theatrical heritage? Might it not be just the right soil in which to grow new writing and new architecture for our theatre audiences?

Within the third Globe we have produced three new plays since 1999, and it delights me that my successor as artistic director, Dominic Dromgoole, intends to create more. It is a wonderful building for new writing, obviously, as it is built for the sound of words rather than the picture of scenery. It is the space which inspired Shakespeare.

I have been rather obvious in my encouragement of new writing at the Globe, taking what we know and imagine of Shakespeare's original practices as a writer for my guide. Shakespeare was followed by Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher, primarily Fletcher, as the original Globe's in-house writer. I have chosen to stay with one writer, Peter Oswald.

I have noted Shakespeare's use of old stories to address present and pressing problems. In the case of Julius Caesar, he was addressing the unmentionable succession question as Elizabeth I approached her death. I have never imagined any of our play-making, old or new, to be some kind of heritage bubble work. To address a number of present realities such as Britain's multi-faith society or issues of substance abuse, sexuality, and social responsibility, I or Peter have chosen to look to historical chronicles, such as the Venerable Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People for Augustine's Oak in 1999; to popular classical mythology such as Lucius Apuleius' The Golden Ass for the play of the same title in 2002; and now this year to an old comedy of Plautus' for our source material. The Golden Ass and Plautus are both sources for Shakespeare.

In the second century AD, Hermogenes described the idea of the perfect orator and there is a good argument that Sir Philip Sidney and others were aware of his ideas in England in the 1500s. He described seven ideas of style: clarity, grandeur, beauty, speed, ethos, verity, decorum - each style helping to arouse something in the audience. Reading Hermogenes, you realise how visually orientated our culture has become. I have admired and promoted Peter for his willingness to explore more modes of speech than naturalistic, so-called "street language"; for his brave conviction that playwriting should try to mirror more than just our waking and shopping selves; for his dedication to verse and song as well as prose; and for his dedication to writing for the ear and senses rather than just the eye and the mind.

One of the advantages I would claim for those of us who are sceptical of the singular authorship theory of Shakespeare's work is a wider enquiry into the collaborative methods of writing that pervaded popular entertainment then. As GE Bentley pointed out in The Professions of Dramatist and Player in Shakespeare's Time: "as many as half of the plays by professional dramatists in the period incorporated the writing at some date of more than one man. In the case of the 282 plays mentioned in [Philip] Henslowe's diary, nearly two-thirds are the work of more than one man."

During the recent Shakespearean Authorship Trust Conference held at the Globe, I heard the strong argument against a group theory of authorship in the recognition that Shakespeare's plays, apart from the apocrypha and known collaborations, have a definite and recognisable voice. But Leonardo Da Vinci's use of an apprentice to paint a background image or a master to advise on a classical reference did not diminish his imagination in one of his paintings. Anyone who believes the actor Shakspar from Stratford was able to write the plays and poems attributed to him purely on the grammar school education he may have received up to the age of 14, without assistance from a coadjutor or tutor, probably believes that global warming is something we do on Bankside to stop the thatch frosting up and snapping off in winter.

Peter's plays have a definite voice, but to create them for the Globe we have developed a close working relationship between the director Tim Carroll, the composer Claire van Kampen and myself as an actor. Tim and Peter have an incredible collaborative relationship, but Peter writes every word and if he hasn't invested his heart I can hear it in the language. That's my role, making sure the words sound like they come from a real need to speak.

Claire's musical theatrical knowledge is constantly challenging and I know Peter receives an input from his wife, the poet Alice Oswald. So there you have a model of collaboration.

For the creation of our version of The Golden Ass we started by reading the book together. We read chapter by chapter and simply remarked on what we enjoyed and what had resonance for us. Peter then went away and wrote a draft, and over many months and more than 20 drafts we gradually sifted and arranged the events of the story into a dramatic form that would hold an audience in the Globe. I noted some of the lessons we had learnt when we were done.

It was good to have a clarity about which characters you should get involved with as an audience and which are just passing. One central character worked very well. In 1999, with Augustine's Oak, we had introduced too many new characters. We took responsibility to resolve the story of any characters who were created for the audience's deeper involvement.

We appreciated Shakespeare's use of surprise; what and when he hides and reveals in his story and characters. We loved the film City of Gods for this and marvelled at the brilliant editing which removed the audience from a plot line at the moment a strong presumption was formed about the direction of that plot line, only to return later and reveal a completely different direction. We searched for these beats in the story and discovered a lot of rhythm and humour and suspense by juxtaposing scenes on these corners of supposition. We employed asides and direct address to bind the audience quickly to a situation or flip them out of an emotion, or just to relax them with a laugh.

Time and again we sought to intrigue our audience by "jumping in as late as possible" to a scene and letting the clarity unfold from within the situation.

We always sought antithesis and a marriage of opposite sensations through flashbacks, multi-layered realities, stories within stories. If possible, humour and tragedy in one moment; philosophy and profanity in one joke. It seems too obvious to be true but a standing audience moves more quickly than a seated one. We had to be quick to keep ahead of our groundlings' wit and appetite for something new, something different.

"Ices," calls the Goddess Isis, entering the stage on her ice cream-selling bicycle as she appears to the despairing donkey-man praying for deliverance by the seaside in The Golden Ass. We realised there were no rewards for attempting a consistency of tone. As Tim pointed out to me, this lack of consistency in Shakespeare, in terms of the mixture of high and low, sacred and profane, disgusted Voltaire. He found it especially unforgivable because it was so brilliantly and consciously achieved.

We never paused to set up a scene physically. Scenes had to flow if not leap and fall into each other. Misdirection could always be employed to focus an audience away from necessary stagecraft.

Musical themes were essential, working subconsciously on the audience to remind them quickly of a character or situation. This is something Tim and Claire have employed again with great skill in The Storm.

We paid careful attention to the imaginative energy of a Globe audience. They are in a very different place in the first 10 minutes of a play than two hours later. We found that prose was very good for comedy, for cooling down the temperature of the drama, for potent recollection or story. Verse was very good for present happenings.

Having said so much against sight, we had to admit that the audience delighted in spectacle, and cherished tap dancing, magic acts, puppets and such.

Many people ask me: "What next?" The image I have is of the Globe holding me and my collaborating friends and artists like a great bear holds its young. The nourishment we've received from the fantastic audience support in this 1,500 capacity, unsubsidised, un-Arts Council-led urban amphitheatre is only just entering our bloodstream.

Once I have had a little hibernation I want to come out roaring, up and down the front line against the corporate takeover bid to sell our souls to the health and safety boys of the pharmaceutical arms trade maniacs. In the mean time, you can hear me ranting in The Storm by Peter Oswald at Shakespeare's Globe until the end of September. Be there or be square.