Richard III

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© Simon Annand
Johnny Flynn (Lady Anne), Mark Rylance (Richard III)

Former Globe boss Mark Rylance has seen his stock rise dramatically in the six years since he abruptly stepped down; it would be an understatement to say his return to its boards this summer is a big deal. And Britain's greatest stage actor does not disappoint as he takes on Shakespeare's murderous monarch Richard, in his first role since 'Jerusalem'.

Rylance's Richard is, as most actors' Richards are, physically disabled, walking with a limp, with one (prosthetic) arm shrivelled and useless in a sling. But do his disabilities end with the body? It is strongly suggested they do not.

Instead of the usual Machiavellian fiend, Rylance gives Richard a near-childish demeanour, staring wide-eyed at the audience as he haltingly, almost sweetly divulges his nefarious schemes to us. Every time one of his lackeys reports that yet another rival to the throne has been dispatched, his face lights up with a delight you might almost call innocent. And there is no guile in his eyes as he earnestly promises his brother Clarence that he will see him freed from imprisonment, just a heartbeat or two before he orders his murder.

Maybe this is all a facade: on the rare occasions Richard doesn't get his way, his temper boils over terrifyingly. He screeches like an animal when his henchman Buckingham (a steely Roger Lloyd Pack) has cold feet over murdering his late brother Edward IV's two young sons; and he comes close to decapitating the princes' mother, Samuel Barnett's Elizabeth, when she refuses him the hand of her daughter. And yet his petulance adds to the subtle impression that there must be something missing, mentally, for a grown man to act so.

Whatever that is – I wonder if some form of autism is being suggested – this Richard is a dazzlingly complicated, troublingly likeable creature. Even to the very end of his bloody campaign, Rylance makes it uncomfortably hard to dismiss this strange man-child as the monster Shakespeare undoubtedly painted him as.

Lest we get ahead of ourselves, Tim Carroll's all-male production isn't in the same league as 'Jerusalem', or even as well rounded as the Globe's current 'Henry V' or 'Taming of the Shrew'.

There are times when the boisterous good humour takes too much edge off Shakespeare's dark history play. And while the cross-dressing Johnny Flynn and Samuel Barnett individually offer powerfully poised turns as Lady Anne and Queen Elizabeth, their performances look and feel confusingly similar. I'm not sure much was gained from excluding women from the cast (though James Garnon's bug-eyed Duchess of York is excellent).

But we're here to see one man and he is as brilliant as you'd hope. Certainly this is at the very least a reminder – were one needed – that there is infinitely more to Mark Rylance than 'Rooster' Byron.

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