There has never been a Twelfth Night quite like this. Or, rather, there was once – precisely 400 years ago, in fact, to the very day: 2 February 1602. That was the moment when the Lord Chamberlain's Men, of which Shakespeare was a member, crossed the Thames from the original Globe Playhouse in Southwark to present this brilliant, timeless comedy to the law students at the Middle Temple, off Fleet Street. We know that for a fact because of a diary kept by one of the interns, John Manningham, and there's a plaque in the entrance hall of this Inn of Court that properly boasts of the coup.
Now, four centuries on, Mark Rylance's company at the reconstructed Globe are (for a very limited season) making the same journey over the river – with a historically authentic all-male cast – in a production by Tim Carroll staged in the exact long dining hall where Twelfth Night had its first recorded performance – very possibly its first night.
I responded swiftly to the invitation to attend the event, for a variety of reasons. For a start, Rylance is an actor you would cross continents rather than a mere river to see perform. You would do this if he were putting on a solo turn as a Japanese instruction manual for a video recorder, let alone negotiating a very tricky female role such as Olivia in Twelfth Night. Then again, this critic must confess to certain guilt feelings regarding Shakespeare's Globe, of which Rylance has, since 1997, been the inaugural director. Extreme distaste for heritage theatre and the dead hand of a purely scholarly treatment of Shakespeare's plays has done battle in me in recent years with more complicated feelings – first, that I was increasingly approaching the Globe with the expectant tread of someone fairly confident of a rewarding surprise; and second, that any continuing resistance I felt might have more to do with the way the theatre was misguidedly pitching itself to the public rather than with what it was staging.
The deal was this: that I would see a performance of the Middle Temple Twelfth Night – an initiative that may spearhead a nationwide move on the Globe's part to requisition Elizabethan buildings as performance spaces – and that I would subsequently meet up with Mark Rylance at his theatre to discuss the developing philosophy and future of the reconstructed Globe project. Our first near-accidental encounter came in the candle-lit dressing room that has been created for the actors at Middle Temple. Not a special privilege for me, but an experience open to anyone with a ticket. Gawping at actors as they caparison themselves and don make-up is not in itself a bona fide Elizabethan practice, and I have to say that, for me, this was the most awkward part of the event. Rylance, about to get clamped into the corset that strongly defines his hilariously reined-in, touching and geisha-like Olivia, padded over to have a word.
"Are you coming to see – to hear the show tonight?" he asked. That self-correction is significant. Shakespeare's original audience (in a way that is still vibrant in the word) would have said – as Theseus does, anticipating the mechanicals' interlude in A Midsummer Night's Dream – "I will hear that play." Rylance was in a white undershift and his face was already covered in white powder. He explained that when he played Cleopatra at the Globe, he allowed himself a touch of unhistorical mascara. "Now we are trying to do without that crutch," he declared. He then tried to fasten the cuffs of his undergarment with microscopic ties of string, like doll's-house vermicelli. "God, I'm not going to be able to do these up in front of you," he laughed.
The room around him, where the cast clambered into intricately researched costumes, which have each taken roughly 200 working hours to construct, was a fascinating melange of the historical and the incorrigibly contemporary. For example, amid the clutter on the mirror-surmounted tables, there were copies of the Penguin edition of Twelfth Night. The original actors would not have had access to the complete play, still less an introductory essay and notes. They were assigned merely their own parts, plus cues – which must have made the early performances quite an adventure. At this specially "recreated" Twelfth Night, you get to drink mulled wine and tuck into an Elizabethan goodie-box, and while I can't claim I fastidiously refused this option, I have to say it seemed an unnecessary frill. Other features – such as the beautiful length-wise space, the greenery-fringed doors and the general atmosphere of an intensely classy Christmas party – one would not have missed for the world.
Above all, there is Rylance's performance as Olivia. This character, immured in her mourning weeds, is usually one of the bigger bores in the Shakespeare canon. "Oh come on, girl, get a grip on yourself and just deal with it," is my usual reaction to her self-detainment in the cordon sanitaire of grieving. Rylance, startlingly, turns her into a revelation. As no one has ever done before, he brings out the unexpected comedy of Olivia's barricaded predicament. It's a strategy that succeeds – by one of those paradoxes that Shakespeare uniquely allows – in intensifying the pathos of this stranded gentlewoman's position. Clenched into his corset, Rylance sweeps round the stage with the kinetic constipation (at once terribly funny and touching) of a Japanese actor in kabuki. What's so delightful is that you feel that this Olivia is psychologically leaning on her lingerie. Loosen those stays and there'd be a volcanic splatter-fest of desire dripping down the walls of the household of which she's the nervous chatelaine.
Cut to two days later when I meet Rylance in his proper domain, the Globe theatre. It's of no hindrance to his talent, I now appreciate more than ever, that he is heart-stoppingly beautiful, but in a very approachable way. I tell him that I think that Eddie Redmayne (the undergraduate from Trinity College, Cambridge who is scandalously persuasive as Viola) would bring out the bisexual in any man. I'm on the point of daring to say "and so would you" when I realise that actually Rylance takes you through sex to some spiritual area beyond – which you could not have reached except by passing through that dangerous genital-zone in the first place. Technically, he can riff on the iambic pentameter of Jacobean verse like a great jazz musician descanting on the melodic line of a Gershwin standard. Fundamentally, he's that very rare bird – someone who can use his uncloyingly sweet, innocent demeanour and phenomenal talent for varying the speed and timbre of verse as the stalking horse from behind which all manner of seditious things may dart at his will. What you never get from him, even in the least propitious circumstances, is cynicism in any of its disguises.
Cynicism is, supposedly of course, the stock-in-trade of my job as critic. And initially I don't feel I'm going to fall down on this duty when I walk with Rylance round the subterranean exhibition area of the Globe. Taking me into the costume bit, he discourses on the rather hair-raising reasons for our knowledge of this sartorial sphere. "Jenny [Tiramani, the Globe's master of costume] wants to open [the actor] Burbage's grave in Spitalfields," says Rylance equably, before revealing that grave-desecration is one of the main research tools in the world of costume.
It became very much less ruin-bibberish over lunch. "I get so affected by the parts I happen to be playing," explained Rylance, apologising for the little spurts of anger that inflect his conversation. I say that he must have been pretty difficult to live with – he's married to the Globe's master of music, Claire van Kampen – last season when he played Cloten, the homicidal imbecile in Cymbeline. "No, I was much worse when I played Hamlet," recalls the greatest Hamlet of his generation. "When you play Hamlet, you keep waiting for people to do things for you." His anger now is prompted by what he sees as the critical misconceptions about the Globe and its mission. Over some surprisingly good food in the theatre's restaurant, we run through a few of these.
I suggest that a lot of people feel that the implied ideal at the Globe is time-travel back to 1600 for a definitive production overseen by the Bard himself. Disengaging himself from this view is very important to Rylance. The "original practices" ethic at the Globe – which governs only some of its productions – is not, he maintains, a fustian exercise in archaeology but a radically alternative way of engaging with the present. He launches into an impassioned argument against contemporary "director's theatre" – the concept-in-a-black-box approach that, he says, "wraps Shakespeare in the duvet of an idea".
Warming to his theme, he stands up at the table and declares: "Shakespeare's poetry does not come from the head, it comes from the hips." He then gives the kind of breathtaking mini-demonstration that must be both the inspiration and the despair of lesser talents. The Globe is about freedom – freeing Shakespeare by liberating the actor (he demonstrates the various unbunging voices you can deploy) and empowering the audience. "At what other theatre is it so easy to leave if you're not having a good time?" he challenges (it is, indeed, elementary to sneak out through the groundlings' open-air courtyard).
Rylance makes all other acting look like "acting". He rides the audience with consummate equestrian skill ("It's like being a jockey – but of course a horse race is essentially about the horse") and he syncopates the iambic pentameter with the fertile variety with which Picasso poured forth different paintings of the same subject. Earlier on, he'd taken me into one of the public booths in the Globe where you can listen to recordings of the way various great actors have interpreted famous Bardic speeches. "Listen to the way he swings," cried Rylance like a soul in bliss, as Peter O'Toole's "To be or not to be..." rendition issued from the machine.
He is also deadly serious about the Globe and its philosophy. Long before the tabloids lavished recognition on him for his naked sex bouts in the film Intimacy, Rylance was lodged in the minds of theatre-goers for such landmark roles as his seriously mad, pyjama-clad Hamlet and his Hare Krishna Macbeth. So when I first heard that he was to head the Globe, it felt a bit like discovering that John Lennon, say, had spent his weekends with the Sealed Knot Society, refighting the Battle of Marston Moor. But listening to the tape of our conversation, it strikes me how the word he uses most frequently is "now". The various crafts that the Globe has revived – the exquisite costume-making, the live music, and so on – are utterly contemporary ways of resisting the laziness of modern, technology-reliant theatre practice.
He takes it in good part when I tease him that along with the Elizabethan goodie-box at Twelfth Night, they should have brainwashing sessions that leave the audience with a 1602 mindset. That is not what he means by "authenticity". I struggle to find an equivalent from outside the theatre that will crystallise for me what he and the Globe do actually believe. Eventually one comes to me: "So it's really a bit like alternative medicine or herbalism – an ancient practice that has not necessarily been superseded by the march of science?" Rylance's eyes widen and after a thoughtful pause, he says: "Yes – or acupuncture."
Back in 1994 I wrote in this newspaper that "if you want to talk about ascending scales, I'll say this: there's great acting; there's very great acting; and then there's what Mark Rylance does on top of that. And the damnable thing is that it seems to come to him – and come from him – as easily as breathing". Since then, that has become even truer. Thinking about his theatre, one realises that only in a totalitarian state would lively discussion about the meaning and purpose of authenticity be – chillingly – stilled. But on this point, the Globe can rest assured; it has at its helm a genuine visionary and an authentic acting genius.
'Twelfth Night' is at Middle Temple Hall, Middle Temple Lane, London EC4, to 10 February (020-7401 9919)Reuse content