“To see him act,” Samuel Taylor Coleridge once remarked of the loose cannon Edmund Kean (1787–1833), “is like reading Shakespeare by flashes of lightning.” This wasn’t the accolade people are still mistaking it for, but what of that? You had to be there. “Mark Rylance speaks Shakespeare as if it were written for him the night before,” Al Pacino has said, no less provocatively. And in this case, there’s plenty of material we can judge for ourselves. Exhibit A: Measure for Measure, filmed live in the open air at Shakespeare’s Globe by the Thames in London in 2004.

Revered by many insiders as the supreme Shakespearean actor of the past quarter century, Rylance steps out this time as Duke Vincentio of Vienna, who like the better-known Duke Prospero of Milan, in The Tempest, has long neglected his office in favor of solitary study. To set his disorderly city to rights, Vincentio installs the strait-laced Angelo as his deputy and goes dark. In Vincentio’s supposed absence, Angelo launches a blitzkrieg against sexual irregularity. The young gentleman Claudio, father of his fiancée’s unborn baby, is expecting his child, is seized and condemned to sudden death. But then Claudio’s sister Isabella swoops in, a novice from her nunnery, pleading for his life. It’s here that the play’s real entanglements begin, with many characters’ lives and honor at stake and Vincentio in the shadows, pulling what strings he can.

Is Measure for Measure a de facto Biblical parable, as many scholars have suggested? Is Vincentio an avatar of divine providence, throwing the souls of common mortals into the crucible to test them? Delivered in an old-fashioned, hymnic mode, Vincentio’s singsong monologue “He who the sword of heaven will bear” supports such a reading. But tracing the arc of Vincentio’s role from end to end, we find him forever caught off guard, tripping over his own feet. The way Rylance speaks his lines—stammering, baffled, reconsidering, starting over—it’s not even as if Shakespeare had written them for him the night before. It’s as if Rylance had never read them, let alone learned, rehearsed, or uttered them before. He operates at the erratic speed of thought, now spinning his wheels, now surging ahead, supremely indifferent to the steady pulse of the verse, which to earlier generations was the be-all and end-all. Yet he’s word-perfect. Follow along with the script if you don’t believe it, and you’ll see.

The production, by John Dove, is “Elizabethan” to a fare-thee-well, boasting museum-quality period costumes as well as stiff yet exuberant dances to music in impeccably antique style. Although the show later toured America in an all-male “original practices” reboot, the original London cast is mixed. Sophie Thompson’s unassuming yet valiant plain-Jane Isabella emerges from her martyr’s ordeal like the virtuous woman of Proverbs, “whose price is above rubies.” Isabella’s brother Claudio smolders in the tall, dark person of Alex Hassell, lately the magnetic dark angel or demon whose eyes burn holes in the screen in Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth.

Measure for Measure is available to stream on the Broadway HD Web site

Matthew Gurewitsch writes about opera and classical music for AIR MAIL. He lives in Hawaii