Director who gave Shakespeare back to masses quits Globe

He has made it one of the most popular theatres in London and triggered the biggest rediscovery of Shakespeare in a decade.

But Mark Rylance announced yesterday that he will step down as artistic director of the Globe at the end of next year, surprising his fans and raising a major question-mark over the theatre's future.

When the Globe opened officially in 1997, some theatre-lovers were suspicious of the reproduction Elizabethan theatre which was the brainchild of the American director Sam Wanamaker - father of Zoë - who battled for 30 years to get it built. Many feared it would be a "museum theatre," a heritage destination guaranteed only to appeal to the tourists.

But Mark Rylance's fans are adamant he has proved them wrong. With innovative staging, he challenged ideas of how Shakespeare could be presented. He made the comedies seem genuinely funny and, even more amazing, made the budgets balance. And he appeared to love it.

"Never has an actor had such an opportunity as you entrusted to me when I was asked to help bring your dream of a working Globe Theatre through its birth into its childhood," Rylance said in a personal letter announcing his decision to colleagues and friends.

But so completely has the actor dominated the venue that yesterday few could think of anyone likely to replace him when he stands down after 10 years.

Andrew Gurr, a Shakespeare scholar and emeritus professor of Reading University, said: "The Globe has been a much more substantial achievement than we ever thought it was going to be. The sense of the performance space as somewhere that people actively participate - particularly the groundlings [who stand in front of the stage] - was something none of us anticipated. It's probably the biggest discovery in Shakespeare in the last 10 years - a real revelation," Professor Gurr said.

"It has been tremendously enlivening, particularly for the young. In a curious way, it's put me off the rest of theatre. I no longer enjoy the Royal Shakespeare Company. I started walking out of productions because they were so much deader than the Shakespeare at the Globe."

Others queried the constant experimentation with all-male casts, as in Shakespeare's time, or "authentic" productions, where all the costumes, even down to underwear, were hand-sown as in the 16th century. "What has that spirit of experimentation really uncovered?" asked one.

Jasper Britton, who appeared in several productions, including as Macbeth, said Rylance had been "pretty much the best artistic director I've every worked for, in terms of the man in the building who you deal with on a daily basis. He was very approachable, hands-on, thinking deeply about things all the time. I always had the sense that he took the responsibility very seriously and was very thoughtful about how people were feeling.

"It's one of the best attended theatres in London - most performances I played were pretty full, regardless of the play and what the critics made of it."

There have been triumphs. Rylance's all-male production of Twelfth Night in 2002 saw him lauded for his portrayal of Olivia. It won him the London Critics' Circle Theatre Award for best Shakespearean performance and an Olivier Award nomination. His programming, too, won praise. He won the London Evening Standard Theatre Special Award for the 2002 Globe season, entitled Cupid and Psyche.

But the difficulties of performing in such an exposed space have deterred many actors. Julian Glover, Vanessa Redgrave and Janet McTeer have all appeared, but many other theatre stalwarts seem to have avoided the challenge.

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