Awards and critical acclaim don’t mean half as much to Mark Rylance as being able to look his audience in the eye, finds Caroline Bishop.
Mark Rylance pulls a blue metal rooster out of his bag and places it on the table in the dressing room he shares with Mackenzie Crook and a tortoise. Crook and the reptile are two of his co-stars in Jerusalem, the play which has transferred on the back of huge acclaim from the Royal Court to Shaftesbury Avenue, and the rooster is emblematic of Rylance’s character in Jez Butterworth’s comedy, Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron.
Rylance is everywhere at the moment. Following the premiere of Jerusalem at the Royal Court last summer, he spent the autumn in the West End in Simon McBurney’s production of Endgame before returning to Jerusalem last month, this time at the Apollo theatre. Just last week it was announced he will star in another comedy, La Bête, which will open in the West End in June before transferring direct to Broadway, where his last appearance, in Boeing Boeing in 2008, earned him a Tony Award.
It appears to be something of a golden age for the 50-year-old. The former Artistic Director of Shakespeare’s Globe and a hugely experienced Shakespearean actor, Rylance has earned plaudits before. But there is something about Rooster Byron that has caught the imagination of the theatregoing public and the critics alike, and suddenly Rylance is a commercial draw, with two major theatre awards and a nomination for a third already under his belt this awards season.
The furore doesn’t suit him. Though he claims “I’m as vain as the next person and as excited by praise,” Rylance, like Rooster, has an anti-establishment air that has him perplexing awards ceremony attendees by reciting poems by American poet Louis Jenkins as his acceptance speeches. When I meet him in person he seems a calm, softly-spoken man who has been around the block too many times to be made giddy by acclaim. That’s not to say he isn’t pleased that his time playing the character Butterworth envisaged for him some six years ago has been extended.
“I feel like English people have a certain pride in their own independent views on things”
“Johnny is a delight to play”, he says, peeling opening a chocolate bar. “I had a lot of fun doing Endgame, though it was darker and more concentrated. There wasn’t so much of a wildness I suppose, wild garlic, as in this one.”
Wild garlic is an apt description of Butterworth’s comedy, which, in Ian Rickson’s staging, proves pungent on the nose as the smell of trees and, at one point, burning flesh, wafts over the audience. Set in small-town Wiltshire on St George’s day, Jerusalem is an homage to modern Englishness, depicting a recognisable concoction of estate houses, binge-drinking, officious civil servants, wayward teens and Morris men. In the centre of the play is Johnny Byron, a law unto himself, whose supply of drugs and defiance of authority earns him the respect of an eclectic band of locals who gather at his caravan in the woods for night-long parties.
“Jez has tried to write a very English character, part of the English psyche, a sort of Falstaffian character,” says Rylance, launching into a speech equating Johnny with the Sufi belief in the nafs, the soul of a person. “The idea is quite close to the concept of a dragon in Western thought. It’s energy that rises up in us, an inspirational, intellectual, spiritual energy… a kind of hunger for life,” he says contemplatively. “The old mythology says you can only really find the soul of your character if you go and make some relationship with the dragon in your character. But Sufis are very wise about this and say you’ve got to be very careful, this is like an earthquake or a waterfall or a torrential flood, it doesn’t care for you, it’s not a loving being, it’s a part of you that’s very wild. So Jez Butterworth has created a character who is like that. People coming to the play really like him, and all the kids in the village really like him, but I don’t know if you’d want him living down the end of your garden.”
“It just felt like I was on the scrap heap. I felt very unwanted”
Listening to Rylance feels like being in the company of a wise old storyteller. Thoughtful and knowledgeable in his answers, when I ask him what Englishness means to him he reflects, in evocative detail, on England’s rural and cultural history. “I think that sense of humour and that sense of the ridiculousness and the sense of defiance… We’re a very violent culture, very successful in wars, that seems to be something that has grown up historically in the people and is in Johnny,” he says. “We forget now but it was such a wooded island, the forests on this island were huge. We were rather famous for being potty about gardens. So all these things – his love of the wood and his connection to nature and his horror at the increasing new estates and concretisation of the landscape and destruction of communities that’s going on now – this is a very English thing too I think.”
He has a unique perspective on the subject. Though born in England, Rylance grew up in the American Midwest and came back to the UK to go to RADA when he was 18. It is hard to believe now, but Rylance implies he was a provincial innocent when he first came to London. “It was embarrassing being a student in the Midwest; there was no news about anywhere else in the world. I didn’t know anything about Palestine and Israel, America’s misbehaviour, I didn’t know anything. And so it was really quite a thing to catch up with the brilliance and the awakeness and consciousness of the English students around me. It was also a feast to be in London and be able to go to all the theatre you could go to. It was wild to see how passionate people were about politics and how politics immediately affected things. It was very, very exciting. A little lonely too,” he adds. “It takes a while for English people to include you. Americans tend to include you right away, but only to a certain level. English hold you out and then when they do include you they include you much further.”
His words have a timely resonance. Theatregoers coming across Rylance for the first time in Jerusalem could be forgiven for thinking that he is the golden boy of Theatreland, such is the praise being heaped upon him. But he hasn’t always been so included. Though his acting abilities have long been lauded – he won a Laurence Olivier Award in 1994 for his Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing – during his 10-year tenure as the inaugural Artistic Director at Shakespeare’s Globe he was held at arm’s length by some in the theatrical community due to his perceived eccentricities and desire to experiment with original practices.
“It was embarrassing being a student in the Midwest; there was no news about anywhere else in the world”
“Things are going very well at the moment,” he says with more than a little understatement. “But I mean, I think people that have known me for a long time, my family and stuff, have felt more excited about the work at the Globe and other things that I’ve done which, because of the certain slant of the critics, were never praised as much. It doesn’t feel that different inside me, it feels like I’m just doing the same thing I always did.”
It is well-known that he doesn’t read reviews. “I stopped reading them many years ago when I did some experimental work. The kind of lashing I would get from the critics in this city made me realise that they weren’t really interested in thoughtful criticism. Because if so they would have said, ‘these people know what they are doing, they have tried something new, it hasn’t quite worked for this reason, but thank God someone’s not just repeating Trevor Nunn’s Macbeth, again, and getting five stars again’.”
For a while he shunned awards ceremonies “but that became more of a talking point than going along and just letting it go by,” so now he goes, and exacerbates his eccentric reputation by reciting poems about fish.
Beneath the quietly charming manner and the sparkling eyes made roguish by crow’s feet, there is a hint of melancholy about Rylance, a mix of sadness and bitterness which makes me think that, however much the industry now embraces him, past experiences have made too deep an impression on him to be shrugged off that quickly. Speaking about leaving Shakespeare’s Globe in 2005 after disagreements with the board, he says candidly: “It just felt like I was on the scrap heap. I felt very unwanted, which was more my problem than anything. It was quite hard the first year. And naturally, like any leader who leaves some place, it was very hard at first that no one came and asked me any questions, or seemed to value my opinion at all. In fact it seemed like I was a bit of a problem to have around. But as you can hear I don’t particularly get on very well with the business attitudes in this country. I share Johnny Byron’s disgust for all the obsession with finance and money and so on. That side of the Globe I didn’t care for so much.”
But that melancholy dissolves when he talks about audiences. Rylance acts for the people who come and see the show. “I really like it when people in the street come up and talk to me about the show, I like being able to see someone’s eyes.”
Audiences, he feels, are more appreciative of experimentation too. Of opening the Globe he says: “We were really, really uncertain when we opened the building whether anyone would stand. And they flocked in to stand. And they threw things and were more involved than the actors in a way with finding out what it was to be in that space. And when we would try things, all-male things, or try wigs or make-up or very odd, original practices, jigs or things, they always preferred that and flocked to that. They were very, very encouraging.”
“It takes a while for English people to include you”
They were critical, too, he adds, and then he is back to musing on the nature of Englishness: “I feel like English people have a certain pride in their own independent views on things. I think people are more guarded, they have their own independent view and they are not going to be pushed into something.”
He says he won’t do Shakespeare anywhere but the Globe now and he intends to go back in 2012, just as a player this time. “Lucky me I’ll just get the enjoyable part of it which will be playing on the stage, not having to worry about all the other problems you have to deal with as an Artistic Director,” he smiles.
But that is two years away and before then Rylance has the West End and Broadway to keep him busy. Though the outsider may be currently residing in the mainstream, you can be sure he will never forget why he is here. “The people coming tonight, they don’t want to see the award-winning performance you gave last year or last week, they want it to happen tonight, real and for the first time. That’s how I try to think about it. If I am blessed with anything,” he adds, “I am blessed with a love of playing. Since I was a kid I just love to play act, and so that’s what keeps me alive and keeps me going. The other stuff is topping on the cake, to some degree. But the real cake is being up with a bunch of actors playing on stage and with a nice audience enjoying it that night.”
Which is why, as our chat concludes and he heads from his dressing room to the Apollo theatre stage, he smiles and tells me “I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”