Is this an actor I see before me? Shakespeare goes undercover

Nick Clark sees shoppers caught off guard by 'pop-up' performances

Those venturing to Covent Garden this week may be in for a theatrical surprise. Visitors shopping in the market or enjoying a coffee could receive their own "pop-up" performances of Shakespeare from actors hidden in the crowds.

Characters including Puck, Hamlet, Cleopatra and Juliet started accosting startled passers-by yesterday, reciting some of Shakespeare's best-loved lines. The event has been masterminded by award-winning actor Mark Rylance, and there is even a suggestion that he could make a cameo appearance himself during the week-long run.

The idea for Surprises: What You Will: Pop-Up Shakespeare was devised with the help of writer, director and actor Jonathan Moore to celebrate the Paralympic Games. It kicked off yesterday when a skinhead in a baseball cap silenced the hubbub as he yelled off a bar balcony to a friend down below asking about the football results.

What came next was rather unexpected. Far from being a hooligan, the counter tenor began to sing a passage from The Tempest, which was met by his friend's bass. This prompted 50 members of the crowd below to put on wigs and perform a medley of songs. "The opera singers drew the audience very nicely," Rylance said.

As the flashmob ended, they removed the wigs and vanished back into the crowd. The Shakespeare "spectacular" was just the start, as the actors dispersed to all corners of the square to perform for passers-by.

Rylance said he had hoped to "confound expectations. All of his plays are structured on the audience expecting one thing and getting another." The actor, who dazzled in Jerusalem, said he wanted to create "a random act of senseless beauty and an artistic ambush" with the performances.

Moore said that the taking of Shakespeare into the street was about the "democritisation" of the Bard's work. "It has become too much about white middle class Oxbridge types speaking in posh voices. That idea is quite a recent one. There were lots of different flavours and sounds and tones to the way Shakespeare was performed in the day."

The company is made up of professional and amateur actors, some of whom are deaf or disabled, between the ages of 17 and 70. Rylance and Moore both hailed one actor, Tommy, with down syndrome who is performing "To be, or not to be" from Hamlet.

Rylance said: "Because of his syndrome, it takes an enormous amount of concentration for him to speak the words. It appears that he's digging it from so deep to deliver it to you." The Independent was, to quote events director "Shakespeared" by Timothy Block, an actor who had appeared with Rylance in a production of Hamlet in 2000. He recited the passage "What a piece of work is a man" from the play before disappearing without a trace. One of the two women who also heard the performance said: "It was just fantastic, what a great idea."

Yesterday's event is part of the Mayor of London commissioned series of cultural "surprises". The performances are set to continue in five locations around London, which will be revealed on the website, until Sunday.

Rylance hopes those who are ambushed will get an "unusual experience that is memorable – [it will] sound like a real person is speaking with them."

Boris Johnson said it was a way to "break down" the self-imposed barriers of living in London. "As we go about our daily business, we are absorbed in where we need to be or too self-conscious to interact with people."

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