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Mark Rylance gives a sublime performance

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»How could anyone take seriously a production of Richard III in which his scheming henchman, the Duke of Buckingham, is played by Roger Lloyd Pack, better known as Trigger from Only Fools and Horses?

Or, for that matter, a Richard III - infamous crook-backed murderer of the little princes in the tower - who plays it for laughs?

It can’t possibly work. Except that a production led by Mark Rylance, late of Jerusalem and an extraordinary performance there as the eccentric Johnny Rooster, somehow manages to do just that. More, in fact.

Shakespeare’s Richard III is an actor, a man who plays the parts of simpleton, loyal friend and lover so convincingly that he can turn and crow to the audience in astonishment at his own success. From the first words of the opening scene he tells us he is determined to prove a villain. He has his brother killed, murders the princes and thinks nothing of asking their grieving mother, Queen Elizabeth, to fix up a marriage with her daughter and secure his throne.

Yet Rylance invites us in to all this black-hearted audacity with something of the same vague, artless charm he brought to Johnny Rooster. As Richard, he repeatedly addresses us and makes us complicit in his murderous plans, but with the lightest possible touch. And so we become a crowd of onlookers who willingly cheer along, whipped up by Buckingham to beg Richard to usurp his own nephews - for England’s sake, of course.

The humour distracts from, but does not mask, a terrifying, detached cruelty at Richard’s core. When he wins power, his descent towards bloody tyranny is chilling and complete.

After such a brilliant performance, it seems churlish to say that it would have been satisfying to see more of Richard’s viciousness at times. Or to wonder whether the casting of men in the female roles, authentic though it is, didn’t leave a little of the heart out of a bereft Queen Elizabeth.

Enough of that. Rylance’s Richard speaks every word as if he had just thought it. Quibbles be gone: this is a sublime performance with some great support - yes, even from Trigger - and it holds you all the way. *****

* Richard III is at the Shakespeare’s Globe, New Globe Walk, SE1. Call 020 7401 9919 or visit www.shakespearesglobe.com.

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