Mark Rylance: ‘Theatre allows you to share something really vulnerable’
Mark Rylance is one of Theatreland’s few bankable stars: a theatre actor who is capable of selling tickets on the strength of his name alone on both sides of the Atlantic. In New York, he is a three-time Tony award winner for his appearances on Broadway in the last seven years. In the West End, he first brought Shakespeare to Shaftesbury Avenue when he starred in a production of Much Ado About Nothing, directed by a young Matthew Warchus, for which he won his first Olivier award for best actor at the Queen’s in 1994. This was after nearly a decade with the Royal Shakespeare Company, where his roles had included Hamlet (whom he’d already played, aged 16, and would play again when he was 40).
He would go on, of course, to become the inaugural artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe when its founder Sam Wanamaker’s vision for it was finally realised on the South Bank. He ran it for 10 groundbreaking years from 1995 to 2005, turning it from the heritage attraction that people expected into a serious theatrical destination in its own right. In 2013, he returned to the Globe to star in a revival of Twelfth Night in which he had played Olivia, and would take that in double bill with a new production of Richard III, in which he played the title role, to both the West End and Broadway.
“Shakespeare was the main thing I did in my life from the age of 16 when I first played Hamlet at school,” Rylance tells me when we meet at the West End’s Duke of York’s Theatre prior to a recent matinee. “I then did summer stock the next summer, and then went to RADA and joined the RSC and ran my own company and then worked at the Globe. That was about 30 years of my life. In around 2006, I thought I only wanted to do Shakespeare every five or six years now – and the Globe is the only place I now want to do it – and do other things instead. I’d been the front man of plays, like a maitre d’ or a waiter or the owner, and I wanted to get back into the kitchen. I wanted to get back to the kind of work done by Simon McBurney and Robert Lepage, the greatest people in that area of making new things.”
One of the new things that followed was arguably the greatest landmark play of the first decade of this century: Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem, which premiered at London’s Royal Court in 2009 and then transferred to the West End and Broadway. He gave what many, myself included, consider to be one of the greatest stage acting performances of the modern age.
Another is Claire van Kampen’s debut play Farinelli and the King, which began at the new Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at the Globe in March and has transferred to the Duke of York’s, where it opened officially last week (see review, p18). The play, which could be renamed The Madness of King Philippe V, chronicles the true story of the 18th-century Spanish monarch who suffered from serious depression and insomnia, which was relieved by the singing of the famous castrato Farinelli. The play also features counter-tenor Iestyn Davies, who voices Farinelli’s singing while Sam Crane plays him. “We saw him at Glyndebourne,” remarks Rylance, “and we had to pay £200 a ticket to see him. Here you’re getting to hear him sing eight or nine Handel arias without having to go through the rest of it for £50. It’s a good deal.”
That’s the closest I’ve ever heard Rylance coming to making a pitch for a show he’s connected with, but then the show is very personal to him and not just because his wife and frequent theatrical collaborator Van Kampen wrote it. They’ve been together for 27 years and married for 25 of them. It’s her debut play, but she has been director of music at the Globe – first under Rylance himself, then under his successor Dominic Dromgoole – for the last 20 years. Did she write it with him in mind?
“No, she wrote it with her own life in mind. She had an aunt who was a manic depressive and lived in the house with her family after Claire’s father died when she was at a young age. So Claire had an early experience with the kind of issues that the king of Spain deals with.”
Rylance admits that he relates to it personally: “I have great mood swings, maybe because of playing lots of different characters as I do. I’m like a gymnast whose muscles get too stretched. I’ve got better at it, but I have a lot of emotional energy. I’m afraid to say that some of the part is a bit familiar – though not all of it, I’m not as mad as him.”
Rylance certainly has a reputation for eccentricity, particularly at awards ceremonies where his acceptance speeches have become legendary for the performances he chooses to give of poems instead of speeches. But it isn’t an affectation; he’s also genuinely kind, considerate and thoughtful, weighing up each question and answering very truthfully.
That’s also, of course, his hallmark as an actor: accessing and exposing the emotional truth of a character. “In my experience, in rehearsal rooms and looking at plays, this is the point of the mask of theatre, as Joan Littlewood once said. It enables you to share something really vulnerable. If you’re not using the mask of pretending to be someone else to share something vulnerable, what’s the point of the mask? This is where we can look at things that might really overwhelm us in life.”
Life, he acknowledges, can itself be overwhelming. “I’m addicted to theatre,” he confesses. “I haven’t been acting in July and August, and I was wired and feeling anxious by the end of August. It’s amazing how much the sense of telling a story with a beginning, middle and end helps me to relax. I find that the mass of stories that one is subjected to living one’s life is otherwise overwhelming.”
Unlike his recent forays in film and television, the joy of the theatre is that the story can be told and completed in one night. “In film acting, you don’t get the same buzz. Daniel Day-Lewis is very clever. Steven Spielberg, who I’ve just worked with [on a new film, Bridge of Spies, co-starring with Tom Hanks], told me a lot about his technique when they did Lincoln together. He creates an immersive theatrical event for himself. He arrived on the first day as Mr Lincoln and spoke with his dialect throughout. They had to address him as ‘Mr Lincoln’. Steven told me that after they had done his last shot, he went to Dan’s caravan and there was Dan with his English accent again. Steven said he burst into tears, because he realised he was never going to get to meet his great friend Lincoln again in person.”
But in film, he goes on, “the actor is not the storyteller; you just need to be as real and there as the chairs, and they’ll edit it. I’m going to be doing a lot of fronting for the Spielberg film soon – hours and hours of selling it, and I can talk about the process of enjoying playing it, but I’ve not even seen it yet. And when I do see it, it is no more mine than [it is] the camera operators or the grips.” In the theatre, by contrast, it is up to the actor to claim ownership: “And when you get to a position like mine, your voice is heard and you have the experience, too.”
Experience counts for a lot. Since the early noughties, Rylance has been closely associated with a theatre company called Outside Edge, of which he is now patron, which works with people affected by drug and alcohol addictions.
Rylance was working on a new play called The Golden Ass by Peter Oswald that premiered at the Globe in 2002 when he first encountered their work. “I was playing a character called Lucius, who goes to the homeland of his mother and is seduced into taking a drug that will turn him into an owl, so he can have owl sex all night long. But he is turned into a donkey instead, and suffers a year of deprivations that people suffer under the darker side of Venus – the appetites, the lusts, the desires, the addictions. I went to Hammersmith to a community centre one night to see a show and there were 150 of us sat in this hall in an elliptical eye shape, and a play happened in the middle of it that was about a father going to a squat to try to find his daughter who is an addict. It lasted maybe 30 minutes, and all the actors were substance abusers who had got over it. It was raw and very well acted, and it was one of the most powerful and helpful theatrical experiences of my life. I returned to my own life with a new courage to encounter the truth and be conscious.”
Rylance and Phil Fox, the company’s late founder (who died in 2014), became friends, and Rylance brought the company into the Globe to conduct workshops for the whole staff.
“Like all addicts I know, he had terrible low self-esteem, and he was very touched and excited by my enthusiasm for what he did. He asked me to mentor him as a fellow artist, and we’d meet regularly and talk about his work and our lives. I remember once going to see a thing he did one morning on the Fulham Road in the basement of a rehab day centre. It was 9am, and there were six kids who’d just come in the night before, trying to get off crack. Three actors were doing this piece about a girl going home after rehab, and the triggers they were trying to avoid at home.
“I was in Jerusalem at the time and being feted for it, and yet Phil couldn’t get any funding from the arts council for what they were doing. I was very aware of the wonderful life of the theatre in this city, and how nobody knows about them but how they really change lives. They changed mine, and it echoed with the theme that the Globe was thrusting into my life, too, of us being in the middle of the audience, not at one end to them with the audience looking at us in awe. Instead, it was about actors being able to tell a story well enough without lighting and microphones and sets. What was it that could hold so many people? Sometimes it did and often it didn’t in the Globe – and I realised it was something to do with being honest. You’ve got to delve for something honest and real that at least seems spontaneous, and hopefully is spontaneous, to capture them.”
That highlights another conundrum about theatre: how to make it not just resonant and relevant but also keep it fresh: “Repetition is a big problem in the theatre – in my time, there was no training for it, and it is hard to give you the experience of doing more than five shows in a row at drama school. But there are things you can do to keep refreshing yourself, just simple things like coming out of your head and into your senses. If you’re onstage and stuck, come out of your mind that is causing you difficulties and think about what it smells like, looks like and sounds like, and get into the present moment.”
In addiction, of course, the aim is to use whatever it is – drugs, alcohol, sex, shopping, gambling, eating – to take you away from the pain that you’re experiencing and give you a different, present-tense experience. “I call it wrapping a duvet around yourself, to give you an impression of bringing you closer to the present.”
Nowadays, Rylance stays present and connected thanks to the theatre itself. And he is happy that his own celebrity is bringing people to share it now.
“I bet a lot of people filling the theatre at the moment are Wolf Hall people and in a few months they’ll be Spielberg film-goers. The publicity machine for films and television is so much bigger than for theatre. And it’s lucky for me that I’m becoming a draw at a time in my career when I have a lot of experience.”
Farinelli and the King runs at the Duke of York’s, London, until December 5.
Rockston Stories, presented by Outside Edge Theatre, is at Hoxton Hall, London, until October 17
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