Shaking a spear for the Bard

by Nobuko Tanaka

Mark Rylance, the 41-year-old artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London, has been in Tokyo with his company’s triumphant production of “King Lear,” which closes today at the Tokyo Globe.

Rylance found time in his busy schedule to talk about the Globes, “Shake-Speare,” his love of kabuki . . . and love hotels.

What is your impression of the Globe Theater in Tokyo?

The atmosphere here is slightly different from the London Globe, which is open-air and is built in original materials. However, the Tokyo Globe led the way. It was the first one built, before ours, following on the research of Osaka professor, Fujita.

How are Globe audiences special?

At the Globe, the play is in the middle and often what’s happening in the audience is as important as what’s on stage. Actors can convince the audience they are really being the character in the play, not just acting a role.

Why are you attracted to Shakespeare? How do you want to present Shakespeare to modern people?

For me, perhaps the most important thing is that when I was in school, I was lucky, I met Shakespeare when my parents took me to see Shakespeare. I acted in Shakespeare. For me, it was a wild place, it wasn’t a controlled place, it was a place out in the forest, where wild things happened, uncontrolled things — not something in a classroom. It appealed to my sense of fantasy. As a young boy, I used to like to play fantasy games — war games etc. — things that would be dangerous if they were real. In a play, the audience should be able to experience wild things that would really hurt them or destroy them, if they were real.

In sumo, they clap to chase away devils and/or call the gods, and to come back to life again. In the same way, at the end of a play we clap. There’s something wild or magical about theater, and it’s very important to have that sense, that unpredictability.

A dream place?

A place of dreams. However, I think Shakespeare has become a little too intellectual in the last 50 years, though it was important we gained a better intellectual understanding. But now it needs to drop down into the body to encounter deeper, darker emotions in the safety of this circle of the theater, and to find ways to help people encounter that. Theater gives you a safe place to live your emotions, and that helps you to move things here (tapping his head).

Shakespeare shakes you. The spear of his imagination shakes you, and the story shakes you.

I say in the program that the first time his name was published for his first poem, “Venus and Adonis,” he wrote his name as Shake-Speare — Will I am Shake-Speare. It’s very strange; as if he wanted us to think of that.

Like a trick.

Yes. Well he knew from Classical thought that the Greek goddess of wisdom, Athena, is called the “Spear Shaker” — she has a spear that she shakes at ignorance. She has a mirror that reflects the world — like a play reflects the world. She has a helmet that makes her invisible — like an actor is invisible. And from behind this mirror she shakes this spear at ignorance.

Interesting!

It’s amazing to come to Japan and fly 10 hours over Siberia and find the Japanese have built a Shakespeare theater like this. He would be amazed, wouldn’t he?

Have you ever experienced the same feeling in other countries?

Oh yes, but not to quite the same degree. We always have a week when we ask different cultures to play Shakespeare. This summer, Mansai Nomura came and did kyogen, a version of “A Comedy of Errors.” And Ganjiro-san, president of our Japanese Globe Center, came and played “Madam Wisteria (Fujimusume)” on the Globe stage with his two sons. Very good and very beautiful.

Next week I am going to visit an island near Kyoto, where there is a very old kabuki theater. The first kabuki theater was a circle of bamboo balconies, with people sitting on mats in the yard, and a stage with the same gable with two pillars.

Really? It’s so similar to the Globe.

Yes. Built in the same decade. At the end of the 1500s, around 1600, at the same time as the Globe was built. And also we know it was at first all women, then all male actors. So the connection between kabuki and Shakespeare is very very interesting. Kabuki has survived as a playing tradition. Me, as a modern English actor, I haven’t got the same link as Ganjiro has. So I learn more about kabuki every time I come, particularly about a man playing a woman, which is something we are trying to learn about and revive. Because I played Cleopatra, you know.

When you present Shakespeare in Japan, do you do anything special for Japanese audiences?

We use simultaneous translation here, and actually one of the actors is learning to say a few words in Japanese. But when he tried it today at rehearsal, no one noticed (laughs). He’s playing the bastard son, and because he talks directly to the audience a lot, he’s trying to learn to say, “Why bastard?”

I think the best way to present the play is to play very truly from the heart, and to be as real and natural as possible. I think the cultures both share a sense of honor and quite a wild emotional center, but because we are on islands and there isn’t a lot of room, so it is contained and held in small places. But it makes it very powerful when it breaks out. It’s like dynamite.

I think the sense of honor, or giri, in British and Japanese cultures is very deep. So, these stories, which depend on these things, when I saw that in kabuki I thought it was something the English would really understand.

With Shakespeare, and maybe with kabuki, too, because there are people who love it so intensely and who form a little club around it, people think, “I would never understand that,” or “I am not worthy to come here.”

I’m sure this is the last thing Shakespeare would have wanted. I’m sure he wanted people to be able to understand and feel and speak about their lives more richly, joyfully and deeply.

He made such an effort to make his learning fun and enjoyable and to put it in a theater like this that was cheap and very sensual — surrounded by prostitute houses and animal baiting. It was next to the love palaces, don’t you have these things in Tokyo, these “love hotels?” That’s where Shakespeare would have put his Globe — right next to the love hotels.