Mark Rylance spent ten years as artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe, during which time he oversaw the launch of the South Bank replica of the Elizabethan playhouse and its rise to become one of London’s most recognised landmarks.
At the Globe, his many performance credits included Henry V, Antony and Cleopatra, Twelfth Night, Richard II and Measure for Measure, as well as Cymbeline, The Golden Ass, Hamlet, Antipodes, The Honest Whore and A Chaste Maid in Cheapside.
Rylance’s many other London stage credits include Much Ado About Nothing (for which he won the Olivier Award for Best Actor), Life x 3 and True West in the West End, Bloody Poetry at the Royal Court, and The Wandering Jew and Countrymania at the National.
His work with the RSC includes Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Peter Pan, The Tempest, The Taming of the Shrew, Tartuffe, The Roaring Girl, Lear and Arden of Faversham. He also appeared in The Maids with Shared Experience, and The Caucasian Chalk Circle, Don Juan, Depserado Corner and The Battlefield at Glasgow Citizens Theatre.
On television he starred as David Kelly in The Government Inspector, for which he won a Bafta. His other screen work includes Leonardo, Loving, Love Lies Bleeding, In Lambeth, The Grass Arena and Incident in Judea on television, and Intimacy and The Other Boleyn Girl on film.
Mark Rylance now returns to the London stage for the first time since stepping down as artistic director of the Globe, to star alongside Roger Allam and Frances de la Tour in Marc Camoletti’s classic Sixties comedy of errors Boeing-Boeing. In the farce, a Paris-based architect (Allam) attempts to juggle airline schedules to match his three air hostess fiancees’ work timetables, aided by his housekeeper (de la Tour) and naïve friend (Rylance). Boeing-Boeing, which originally opened in London in the mid-sixties, opened at the Comedy Theatre last week (See News, 21 Dec 2006).
Date & place of birth
18 January 1960 in Kent.
RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Art).
First big break?
I suppose the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow giving me my first job after I left RADA, that was a big break to be able to do a full 60 weeks at a regional theatre and I’ve never forgotten it. I learned that theatre companies are like families and it was lovely to tour and I learned that often very old texts could be, if you treated then with love but not false reverence, really lovely modern pieces of theatre. And cheap prices are very important too. At the time I was there, every ticket in the house was 90p which meant that a wide range of society came to the theatre and loved it for providing such cheap entertainment. And the actors were quite wild too, there was nothing very safe in that theatre, it was unpredictable like a circus.
Career highlights to date
I’ve enjoyed more than anything acting on the Globe stage, I think it’s the most wonderful stage in the world and to play comedy or tragedy to 1,500 people, 700 of whom have only paid £5 and are standing, is just a wonderful experience to hear the sound of the laughter and feel the presence of the audience. It’s just amazing. Now in other theatres I miss having groundlings. I do think standing is a very good thing, many more theatres used to have more standing room and I think it should be brought back.
The Golden Ass at the Globe and Richard II at the Middle Temple Hall and the Globe, and Twelfth Night. The opening production at the Globe, Henry V, was very remarkable as an experience. And I’m really enjoying Boeing-Boeing, it’s definitely going to be one of my highlights. I also had an extraordinary time working with Phoebus Cart, my own company.
You’ve been very successful on screen as well as on stage; how do you think they compare, and do you have a preference?
I have a preference for theatre because it’s more of a community. Film is more technical and a bit more lonely and boring, but the work is challenging and certainly I’ve been involved in some terrific films like Government Inspector, which was really fantastic, and The Grass Arena for television, but theatre is where I feel happiest.
Favourite co-stars? What do you think makes a good actor?
I hate to pick out anyone; I’ve very much enjoyed working with most of the actors I’ve worked with. What makes a good actor is a sense of playfulness, a willingness to turn up and not just in body but in heart, mind and soul. That’s the most important thing really. Just turning up and having a good sense of humour.
Favourite directors? Are you planning to direct more in future?
Tim Carroll and Matthew Warchus, who taught me an enormous amount. I have directed a few times; people often think I directed plays at the Globe, but I was an actor manager there. I am keen to act but not so keen to do more directing. I am, if anything, keen to write. I’m working on a couple of plays at the moment that I’ve written; The Big Secret Live: I am Shakespeare Website Daytime Chatroom Show, and I’m also writing another big piece about the steel industry inspired by when I was on tour in America with Twelfth Night in Pittsburgh. I have an ambition to direct a film but these directors I’ve mentioned are so good that increasingly I see that my place is to be an actor in a company, that’s where I’m best used.
Shakespeare, Ionesco and Shepard; I like O’Neill. And I very much like Middleton of the Shakespeare period, I think he’s fantastic.
What’s the last thing you saw on stage that you really enjoyed? Why did you enjoy it?
Faust by Punchdrunk was fantastic. I loved everything about it. I went four times and I experienced something different each time. The acting was superb and the conception of it is just superb. I know site-specific promenade theatre has been done before, but Shakespeare has been done before but still productions come along where everything’s really, really well done. It was excellent.
What’s the first thing you remember seeing on stage?
I know I was taken to Peter Pan very early on and was very frightened by the crocodile in it. I don’t remember this, it’s something my parents told me, but apparently we were staying at my grandparents’ house in Kent and they had a grandfather clock that ticked very loudly and I got very frightened at night time that the crocodile was coming up the stairs to get me. I must have been about three or four at the time. And then of course early on in my career I played Peter Pan at the RSC, so I got my own back on that crocodile!
What’s the best advice you've ever received?
Two things; there was a wonderful headmaster at RADA called Hugh Cruttwell and he said “I don’t believe you”, and that idea that your main task is that people must believe you and believe in who you are whatever you’re doing, whether stylised or naturalistic, is very important. And the other bit was given by an actor when I was 26 or 27 called William Russell - for some reason actors don’t give advice to young actors any more, directors discourage it – but anyway, he said I should go and work on my voice to improve the range. And so I did and I think that has helped me enormously.
What do awards mean to you?
I don’t receive awards any more. I don’t think they’re a very good thing in the theatre. I think it’s a terrible thing that there aren’t awards for ensemble acting because what I like is what happens between actors. For example, in Boeing-Boeing, what happens between Roger and Frankie and I is something larger than either of us and yet awards only recognise an individual and I think it’s very distracting and to do with the vanity of critics and individuals. I think there should be more awards for whole companies, or perhaps scenes in shows, we could say this scene worked particularly well. But we have to recognise it is the effort of more than one person who made that scene or show good.
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be & why?
I think I would swap places with President Bush and stop this war. And try to start focusing on climate change, which is going to wreak such havoc to millions and millions of people which is so utterly tragic.
I very much like the poetry of Rumi, the Islamic poet. I love a lot of poetry, really, rather than novels. I like the work of Walt Whitman the American poet and I like the writing of Sir Francis Bacon the Elizabethan Philosopher – who potentially wrote a lot of Shakespeare’s plays.
Favourite holiday destinations
If I told you then everyone would want to go there!
Favourite after-show haunts
I like sitting by the river at the Globe and having a drink. While I was there we had a club called the Chalky Arms, which was a quote from King Lear where one of the villains says “bind his chalky arms” before they blind Gloucester. And so we called the club that because we would get blinded.
Why did you want to return to the London stage in Boeing-Boeing?
I like working with Matthew Warchus very much. We worked on Much Ado together and I think it was the first time he did a play in the West End, and we've worked together several times since, and so Matthew and I were talking about doing some projects together and he said “I’d really like to do something before Lord of the Rings", so we threw this together quite quickly. I love dong comedy and Matthew had come to see Tim Carroll’s production of The Storm at the Globe, which I was in, and he really loved that and laughed a lot and said “I’d really like to do some comedy with you.” So here we are!
Describe your character
He’s a kind of classic character you find in Restoration comedy, a country land owner, his grandfather and father have been in the olive oil business for a few generations in Provence and he arrives in Paris to visit an old school friend who Roger Allam plays - they obviously went to some private school somewhere - and he’s a provincial character arriving in a very urbane situation. Frankie is the maid, and Roger has this extraordinary set up as an architect who has these three air hostess fiancées all visiting him at once, and so I’m the very honest, slow paced, calm small town country man who arrives and oversees the chaos.
What do you think makes farce such a popular genre of theatre, with recent successes including Donkeys' Years and See How They Run?
Farce first of all establishes an almost mathematical, ordered world, for example in Noises Off you have the order of a performance of a play, and in this case this incredible organisation of air hostesses all arriving at predestined times and everything working in incredible order. And then what happens is Pan arrives, and there’s a force of chaos and all the coincidences of natural events - how things actually happen, not how man plans for them - happen. In tragedy they happen in a terrible way, but in farce you are able to laugh at them because they are not life threatening. People love them because they are chaotic and give people a very enjoyable dose of panic!
What are the challenges of playing farce? How does it compare to Shakespeare, if they are comparable?
It’s like playing a sport, and you have to know your lines very well. Really the acting is very straight forward because they have very clear objectives, obstacles and situations, and you have to just immerse yourself in it. It compares very well to most of the fifth acts of Shakespeare’s comedies if you think of Twelfth Night and Comedy of Errors when a number of different realities are suddenly revealed all at once on stage and things become unravelled and everyone realises what they should have seen all along.
What’s your favourite line from Boeing-Boeing?
I guess “it’s not impossible” is an important line for my character. He’s a very calm character, almost a glider in that he glides in and out of things and has a very simple, clear way of solving problems. If you were to put a slogan on a t-shirt for this character, it would be that line.
I’m writing a play at Chichester, The Big Secret Live: I am Shakespeare Website Daytime Chatroom Show, a comedy of identity crisis about a man who is obsessed with the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays. We know Shakespeare collaborated with other people on some of them, and yes I think it’s reasonable to doubt that he wrote the plays attributed to him. If you look at the other candidates for authorship you learn a lot about the plays themselves. But it is a very light-hearted look at this issue, not too serious. And then I’m going to play Peer Gynt in Minneapolis, and I'm reviving my company Phoebus Cart, which is going to do original practices Shakespeare at Middle Temple Hall. We’re planning to do Othello in the summer of 2008.
Mark Rylance was speaking to Caroline Ansdell
Boeing-Boeing opened at the Comedy Theatre on 15 February 2007 (following previews from 3 February).