A gentle man and player

profile; Mark Rylance
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The Independent Online
SHAKESPEARE'S Globe chocolate is on sale in the gift shop at the reconstructed Globe Theatre on Bankside in London; choose a small expensive bar and the woman behind the counter says "you're welcome" with a soft Midwestern smile. Downstairs at the entrance, a couple are buying tickets to explore the prettily thatched replica; "Two American senior citizens - three pounds," booms the husband. A street away at the Globe's headquarters, administrator Marina Blodget pauses, lowers her transatlantic vowels, and talks about "the Disneyesque shadow that hangs over us".

If the Globe is to escape that shadow - and its first Shakespeare play opens in less than a year - then, in the words of Genista McIntosh, executive director of the rival National Theatre, "the work has to be serious". Last Tuesday the 45 theatrical grandees of the Globe's directorate chose the 35-year-old actor Mark Rylance as creative director. Part of his job will be to stage 180 performances a year from May to September, in authentic Elizabethan conditions - little scenery and no lighting for the actors, no seat backs or heating for the audience. More importantly, he will have to persuade the critics and public that the Globe is more than a theatrical museum or a place to buy the Bard's candy.

In the theatre world, initial reactions to Rylance's appointment have been favourable. "An inspired choice," says RSC director Terry Hands; "Actors will be very keen to play at the Globe," says Sir Peter Hall; "Mark is undeniably serious," says McIntosh. All agree that the heritage- heavy Globe needs an actor to energise it and that Rylance, cited frequently in the past decade as the best actor of his generation, will do so as he selects, directs and acts in the theatre's productions for its first three years. Rylance in turn has given confident interviews, posing Peter Pan-like in a cheeky hat and promising in his giddy child's voice that the Globe will be "marvellously like a bear-baiting pit ... the audience and actors will share our space and we will bait our inner bears ... I can think of nothing more delightful than the audience heckling or throwing things."

Yet Rylance is not some hearty Shakespeare revivalist. The day he was appointed he also referred to "whoever wrote the plays" as concealing "his or her" identity. This heresy may have been relatively mild - the Yale Research Institute recently announced its disbelief in the traditional picture of the Stratford author - but it pointed back to 15 years of Rylance unorthodoxy. The saviour of the Globe has also been known, in his time, as "the David Icke of drama".

While Rylance's fans describe his Globe appointment as "visionary" and "an opportunity", he explains - at length - that he was drawn to the theatre by the ley line that passes through its site via St Paul's on the opposite bank of the Thames. Four years ago, he was excited enough by this discovery to put on The Tempest at the theatre while it was still a bare cement hole. Then he grew a beard and took his company, Phoebus Cart, on an outdoor tour of intersecting ley lines in defiance of the wettest summer for decades. He declared the tour "the acupuncture needle for Britain" to restore broken lines of energy and warned that cast and audience "could be drowned". At the Rollright Stones in Oxfordshire the latter had to watch the stage storm from beneath plastic sheets; "I think the rain made it a more profound production," says Rylance.

SLIGHT and fine-boned, Rylance is an unusual actor, more the wiry urchin than the conventional leading man - even when he's playing the leading man. Similarly, his characters' minds are small and confused rather than grandly agonising. Like the kicked-about tramp he played in BBC2's The Grass Arena in 1993, their otherworldliness thinly covers their vulnerability.

This vulnerability is easy to trace in his own life. Born in Kent in 1960, he moved with his English-teacher parents to the alien expanse of Wisconsin at the age of two. No one except his brother could understand his speech until he was seven. Every summer his family came back to England; they went to see Shakespeare at Stratford. By his early teens Rylance had plucked up the courage to act in high school plays. At 16 he played Hamlet: "I just found it expressed things I couldn't express ... It was a terrific release of pent-up energy."

When Rylance arrived at Rada in 1980 Shakespeare was already an obsession. "I have more respect for Shakespeare than for any human I have heard of in history," he says. "He makes my heart burn when I think of him." He was at the RSC as soon as he finished his training, playing Peter Pan within a year. In 1986 Alan Bennett came upon Rylance as Kafka in Kafka's Dick and found him "marvellous" but "totally self-absorbed, to the point of eccentricity".

Then came an aberration: Rylance was tempted into a noisy flop of a film called Hearts Of Stone, where his elfin intensity was quite lost - perhaps just as well - between co-stars Rupert Everett and Bob Dylan as two battling, embarrassing rock stars. He has shown little interest in cinema since, save for the safely highbrow Prospero's Books and an upcoming adaptation of AS Byatt's Angels and Insects. "With anything that isn't a profound piece he gets bored," says Matthew Warchus, who has often directed him.

At the RSC Rylance found plenty of depth - Romeo, Iago, Prospero, Hamlet again - and plenty of attention. "He's got a shocking capacity to make his acting imperceptible," says Warchus. "There are times when he's rehearsing when it's hard to tell when he's acting and when he's stopped acting." Rylance could burrow deep into a character, then play the audience like a music hall entertainer. And he could thrill critics with more modern roles, too, giving a Mississippi drawl to one of Gogol's Gamblers and a scary loopiness to the good and bad brothers (alternate nights) in Sam Shepard's True West.

But Shakespeare revealed, and reveals, what Hands calls Rylance's "dark- side-of-the-moon quality". During Much Ado About Nothing last year he pinned a "cabbalistic Tree of Life" to his dressing-room wall, placing characters' names alongside representations of the planets and tracing their relationships by examining their orbits. Journalists peeped and giggled, but Rylance, arguing that the theatre is "magical" and that Shakespeare's works were the product of a pre-rationalist world-view, absorbed Celtic myth, Rosicrucianism and Elizabethan paganism, gave his character Benedick an Ulster accent copied off a friend, and won the best actor title at the Olivier Awards. "He has a metaphysical talent for putting Elizabethan concerns into the modern world," says Hall.

At the same time, Rylance has no patience with purely antiquarian Shakespeare. "A lot of people who say they respect Hamlet just want someone to wear black and sit on a throne with a medal on his chest," he says. "That's a Victorian, Puritan view ... encasing Shakespeare in concrete. I see myself as a jackhammer, breaking it up." When Rylance played Hamlet at the RSC in 1989 he wore pyjamas, slumped around messy-haired like Johnny Rotten, and infuriated as much as he impressed. "He treats Shakespeare with enormous respect and no reverence whatsoever," says producer Thelma Holt.

LIVING with his wife in a flat over a Brixton betting shop, Rylance has pursued his own idea of a theatrical career. London critics complained that after each hit at the RSC, he would disappear to "the provinces" with Phoebus Cart. Hands calls him "the alternative Ken Branagh". Rylance is the same age as Branagh, but that's about it for similarities: last year their versions of Much Ado About Nothing sought inspiration from Belfast and Tuscany respectively.

Rylance's guile could be more suited to the Globe than Branagh's bombast. The small shallow stage leaves no room for monolithic sets or battles or characters disappearing into artificial mist; Rylance's emphasis on the spoken word - contrary to the recent film-driven trend for dazzling production - could fit and dominate the theatre.

The Globe directors are finding their choice spikily confident about his creative duties. "He's come to many meetings after doing lots of homework, and said, 'This is wrong, that's wrong'," says one. But the administration and inertia that comes with running a theatre rather than a company, as Rylance has done previously, could be trickier: "Running a building is always a nightmare for anyone," says Declan Donellan, who has stuck with running a company. "Carts can be put before horses once it becomes an institution." Rylance has said he doesn't admire directors who simply want to fill seats. "He will not compromise himself," says Holt.

In the meantime the Globe waits, scaffolding still up, while Rylance plays Macbeth at Greenwich Theatre until taking up his post in January. Outside, a faux-Victorian sign tells the people with camcorders: "Bankside enjoyed the reputation as London's entertainment district for several hundred years." The Tate-to-be looms next door; Rylance could soon be helping to run London's putative "new Left Bank". And even the much-maligned tourist audience could be receptive: "Most of the tourists who come are culturally hungry and educated," says Hands, "and not hidebound by English traditions - they don't come to the theatre for the feelgood factor." And if they do? "They'll get their heads blown off."