Posted: Sun., Aug. 24, 2003, 6:00am PT

Global Warming in London

Bard’s ‘new’ outdoor home wins over skeptics

By MATT WOLF

Not too long ago, the very mention of Shakespeare’s Globe prompted polite snickers in London legit circles, if not outright sneering. Wasn’t the Bankside reconstruction, situated across the Thames within view of St. Paul’s Cathedral and some 200 yards from the site Shakespeare and co. once played, an invitation to tourist kitsch and theme park theater?

The resounding answer: not when it’s in the hands of a smart and determined artistic director, who also happens to be a top-rank actor. Since being appointed the playhouse’s first a.d. in January 1996, Mark Rylance has quietly defied skeptics and done the apparently impossible. As a recent matinee of Rylance in “Richard II” made clear, the theater plays not just to inquisitive (and, in gift shop terms, acquisitive) Americans but to local pensioners, students, skinheads and the inevitable pigeon.

And whereas standards once prompted cause for alarm, leading to demands for greater interpretive heft and better actors, Tim Carroll’s staging of “Richard” offered an amazingly open-hearted and alive reading of a play that too often can come across as rhetorical indulgence.

At the curtain call jig, some 1,300 people looked ready to cheer the performers until dawn, while the cast, headed by Rylance, joined spectators in an ecstatic release. (Among the “groundlings” visible standing through the performance: Tony winner Stephen Dillane, late of “The Real Thing” and, more recently, Leonard Woolf to Nicole Kidman’s Virginia in “The Hours,” his hair grown long and shaggy and covered by a straw hat.)

This summer’s celebrations haven’t been confined to sundrenched performances of “Richard II.” After some faltering attendance when the season began in May (cool weather and the Iraq War were the unsurprising culprits), four of the five shows in the 2003 rep — this theater’s most ambitious yet — are playing to 80% or 90% capacity or better, with fifth and final entry “Taming of the Shrew” and its all-female cast selling out in previews. (Production, starring Janet McTeer as Petruchio, opened Aug. 21.)

Even the poorly received “Dido, Queen of Carthage,” the first of this season’s two Marlowe stagings, has reached 55% attendance — well below breakeven but proof nonetheless that, as Rylance puts it, “we seem to have built some confidence with the audience. They’ll come and take risks with us, even when a production like ‘Dido’ is very roundly panned and words like ‘ghastly’ are used.”

In fact, the “Dido” I saw in mid-July, almost a month after opening, was far from a fiasco, even if some of director Carroll’s modernist touches — didn’t jungle gym sets go out with the original Broadway production of “Merrily We Roll Along”? — seemed a bit de trop. (At the same time, it’s quite nice having Mercury, the “god of communication,” on hand to urge us to turn off our cell phones.)

In the title role, Rakie Ayola charted an altogether riveting descent into a desperation you will already know if you have encountered the same tale relayed in different ways by Virgil, Purcell and Berlioz, among others.

Claire Van Kampen’s original score paid due homage to Purcell while creating its own glistening soundscape that, as is the case more often than not at the Globe these days, held a once-boisterous audience rapt.

Whereas the opening Globe season of “Henry V” in 1997 saw the occasional spectator hurling vegetables at the actors — in mock-imitation, presumably, of Elizabethan riotousness — such feigned anarchy has, thank heavens, faded. In the intervening years, says Rylance, “(Globe audiences) have been refining and demanding that we refine our playing; in a sense, they’ve led us and been very patient with us.”

It helps, too, that Rylance has built an ad hoc repertory troupe of players who are familiar with the demands of a singular space. “Now, we’ve got quite an ensemble,” says the a.d., who is 43. ” ‘Richard II’ has over 10 players who have played with us before.”

The result is to make house favorites out of, say, Will Keen, a veteran of the 2000 season (he was Ferdinand in “The Tempest” in which Vanessa Redgrave played Prospero) who brought a tremulous fervor to his Aeneas in “Dido, Queen of Carthage.” More recently, Scottish thesp Liam Brennan added to his ramrod-straight Bolingbroke in “Richard II” a commendably unfussy account of the title role in Marlowe’s “Edward II” — the play that ends famously with the poker.

The only real problem with the latter evening: the self-evident falloff between Shakespeare and his chum Marlowe. The Bard, one assumes, would have done considerably better than the following from Edward upon hearing of his beloved Gaveston’s death: “O, shall I speak, or shall I sigh and die.”

Still, not everyone can be Shakespeare, and Rylance is keen to push the Globe output where appropriate, programming contemporary verse drama as he has done in the past (cf. Peter Oswald’s “Augustine’s Oak” in 1999). In stylistic terms, productions will continue to range from those like “Richard II” that explore original practices — “It’s right to consider a piece of art,” says Rylance, “within the context of the time it was made” — to modern-dress, contempo stagings like “Dido” or a 2001 “Macbeth” (also helmed by Tim Carroll) that got some nasty reviews but played to packed houses.

The recipient of flat-out raves, director Carroll’s 2002 original practices staging of “Twelfth Night,” starring Rylance as a shimmeringly beautiful Olivia, is poised to take the Globe on its first American tour. Producer John Luckacovic has planned a five-city, eight-week circuit of the production starting Oct. 20 at the Freud Playhouse in L.A. After that are Minneapolis (the week of Nov. 3), Pittsburgh (Nov. 10), Ann Arbor (Nov. 17), and final stop, Chicago, for a three-week stand from Nov. 24.

New York isn’t on the menu — Rylance wasn’t keen to take “Twelfth Night” to the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where he has been before — but Luckacovic will be inviting New York producers and press to check out the production in LA; in time, Gotham could well figure in some way. (The New York Times’ Ben Brantley raved about the play, and Rylance’s perf, during its Globe tenure.)

Preliminary discussions have been held about similar American travels in fall 2004 for “Richard II.” Says Luckacovic, speaking from his home in New Baltimore, N.Y., 2½ hours up the Hudson River from Manhattan: “I would love to make (a Globe tour) an annual event.” The tour is costing “well over $1 million,” adds its producer, none of it provided by the originating theater. “The Globe said they wouldn’t risk one penny,” he says.

Nor should they, in a British funding climate that finds the Globe still after eight seasons receiving no public subsidy at all. It’s in triumphing over those odds, among others, that Rylance deserves the cumulative kudos: “A genuine visionary and an authentic acting genius,” wrote the Independent’s Paul Taylor of the star.

Sam Wanamaker, the Globe’s late, great begetter, would be proud.