The Tempest, Shakespeare's Globe, London

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

A couple of years ago, while writing a profile of this great actor-manager, I canvassed the opinion of a number of leading directors and performers.

A couple of years ago, while writing a profile of this great actor-manager, I canvassed the opinion of a number of leading directors and performers. They were unanimously of the view that only one man could have launched Shakespeare's Globe and made it such a thriving theatrical concern. That man is Mark Rylance, the theatre's first artistic director. At the end of this, his 10th year at the Globe, he will pass the baton on to a successor. There's a symbolic edge, then, to the fact that he inaugurates the 2005 season with a portrayal of Prospero, the magician and surrogate-director, who resigns by breaking his staff and renouncing his magic powers.

The twist is that Prospero is merely one of several roles that Rylance plays in Tim Carroll's magical and mischievous staging, which tells of shipwreck and vengeance turned to mercy using a speaking cast of just three actors. The production, presented on bare stage with a number of emblematically charged props, is eclectic. The manoeuvring and manipulative spirits of the island are three leather-jacketed biker girls who go in for a kind of sexy, elegant, bovver-ballet; the humans are in Elizabethan attire; and the choir in the gallery, who perform some ravishing songs, look as if they are taking part in some classical Grecian Eisteddfod.

Why perform such a populous play with just a trio of talking actors? Partly, it's for the pleasure of the sheer prestidigitation involved - as when the storm at sea and the wreck of the ship are communicated in a solo turn from Rylance, who ventriloquially delivers all the voices and moves pieces round the wobbly chess board that represents the buffeted vessel. Partly, too, in a play so full of magically induced sleep and so capable of being interpreted as a drama taking place inside the head of the central character, all the doublings, treblings and quadruplings of roles create dream-like connections. From the ceiling dangles a long rope with a loop at the end. By sticking his head through it and floating like a drowned man close to the stage, Rylance's troubled Prospero metamorphoses in a twinkling into his enemy, the usurper Alonso.

The charm of the occasion is hugely to the credit of the two other performers: Alex Hassell, whose roles include an affecting, handsome brute of a Caliban, and a Ferdinand whose chore of carting logs is not made any easier because it's the biker girls who impersonate the blocks of wood he has to carry; and Edward Hogg, a pale, tall creature with the amazing ability, at certain moments, to seem to be Ariel and Miranda simultaneously.

Rylance stills the house, as only he can, in the abjuring-of-magic speech, when he movingly lets go of the rope, which is throughout an image of both restraint and freedom. This fluid production is a joyous and bewitching start to his valedictory season.

In rep to 2 October (020-7401 9919)