Mark Rylance in Richard III
(© Simon Annand)
Mark Rylance in Richard III
(© Simon Annand)
Mark Rylance spent ten years as artistic director of Shakespeare's Globe so there can be few performers who understand the space and its potential quite as well as he does. For this reason, his return to the venue for the final two shows of its 2012 season -- including as the title character in Richard III -- is one of the most exciting theatre events of the summer.

Rylance makes a captivating if idiosyncratic Richard III in Tim Carroll's all-male production. His is a performance perfectly tailored to the space -- it's hard to imagine it working quite so well in the West End, where it's set to transfer later in the year -- but the production as a whole never quite matches up to Rylance's engaging and unnerving interpretation.

His Richard is hesitant and soft of voice; sentences taper off and he projects a general air of bumbling uncertainty. But beneath this mild veneer is a brutal, ground-shaking temper. When displeased, he roars with rage. He's at his best when these two sides of his persona are juxtaposed: a dangerous, volatile individual whose mood can switch in an instant. Sporting a prosthetic withered hand and a lopsided gait, he's a surprisingly comic figure at times: sharing knowing nods with the audience, and flinging the hem of his ermine cloak in their faces.

Carroll mines the text for its comic potential. There's a lot of interaction with the groundlings, who are urged to vocally show their support for the man who would be king. The production's most potent scenes are its least showy: there's something genuinely chilling about the way Rylance's Richard tells his courtiers, in his familiar faltering manner, to spread the news his queen is dying while at the same time almost tenderly clutching the hand of the clearly terrified Lady Anne (Johnny Flynn) as she sits silent and static at his side.

The supporting cast bring differing levels of energy to their roles. Samuel Barnett seems to grow into his role as the steely Queen Elizabeth as the play progresses, finally wrong-footing Richard with a passionate kiss, but Flynn's Lady Anne never quite penetrates his mask of white powder.

Aside from the elaborate period costumes, the staging has a minimalist quality -- as minimal as anything can be at the Globe -- with Rylance's Richard pushed very much to the fore. There's an agreeably downbeat feel to the show's final scenes with Richard striking a vulnerable figure, groping towards the audience with his good hand as the ghosts of those he's wronged rise up once more.

But with occasional lulls in the pacing and a tonal flatness in some of its scenes, this is an intriguing rather than outstanding production, even if Rylance himself is never less than captivating.