Mark Rylance interview for Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem
14th July 2009
I am drawn like a moth to a flame to mystery
Mark Rylance plays the part of an opinionated eccentric in his latest role. It suits him down to the ground. First published in the Daily Telegraph, 14 Jul 2009.
Mark Rylance is one of the finest stage actors of his generation. His remarkable facility for Shakespeare, evinced from the earliest days of his award-winning career through to his trailblazing decade at the helm of the Globe (1995-2005), and attested to by none other than Al Pacino, who once said that he made Shakespeare’s words sound as if the Bard had written them for him the night before, makes him one of the enduring marvels of our theatre. Yet he is also often characterised as one of our crankiest players.
“To describe Rylance as eccentric would be an understatement: nutty as a fruitcake might be nearer the mark,” Charles Spencer of The Telegraph once declared. And there’s been ample evidence to support that claim down the years.
Rylance made headlines when his company Phoebus Cart toured The Tempest to Britain’s “sacred sites” and later turned Macbeth into the leader of a Hare Krishna-like cult in a production that required Jane Horrocks’s Lady Macbeth to pee on stage nightly.
He ran the Globe while questioning the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays and in public often says the unexpected: at an Evening Standard awards lunch he lambasted the British arms trade and, when collecting a Tony Award for his part in the hit comedy Boeing-Boeing on Broadway last year, nonplussed his audience by reciting a piece by American prose-poet Louis Jenkins as his acceptance speech.
All of which makes him a snug fit for the lead role in a boisterous new rustic comedy by Jez Butterworth, Jerusalem, opening at the Royal Court this week. Johnny Byron is a Wiltshire waster, a wild-man of the woods who also has a touch of the Pied Piper about him. Holding vagabond court at his tumbledown mobile home, he’s a drug-dealing magnet for young malcontents. Rylance, in a gipsyish array of shorts, colourful shirt, big boots and battered-looking sun hat, describes him as “an indigenous force of nature, like a dragon or a forest fire”.
Set down a lot of Rylance’s statements, baldly, on paper – a casual reference to the Mayan civilisation, say, or the writings of Rumi – and many of them would cause eyebrows to be raised in sceptical amusement. Yet the unexpected pleasure of a face-to-face encounter with the 49-year-old is that in conversation he is utterly lucid, not remotely away with the fairies. In performance, he is often softly spoken, boyishly vulnerable, wavering. In person, he conducts himself in a more down-to-earth and direct fashion.
“Jerusalem deals with ideas that are definitely inflaming me at the moment,” he explains, during a rehearsal break. “The profit motive of corporations, the way the landscape is being made ever blander – these things are a horror to me. We’re facing difficult questions: how can the individual survive within these ‘communities’ that are being worked into our society? Can you be an individual when you’re on a motorway or in a Tesco store?
“The play is about how young people get caged into new estates with the prospects of soulless, nature-less working lives ahead of them. Johnny Byron is a useful way out for those young people but he’s also got a wild, reckless side to him – some audiences might well be horrified by him.”
Does it bother him that he gets labelled an eccentric? He laughs. “Can a person be too eccentric, given the present state of lunacy on the planet?” He points out that he’s a Capricorn: “I’m a goat – very stubborn. My wife [the composer and musician Claire van Kampen] is surprised by how much I love washing up dishes. I also like to build things!”
Born in Kent, the eldest son of two English teachers, he grew up in Connecticut, then Wisconsin, when his father was made head of a Milwaukee preparatory school. It’s not hard to conclude – and he confirms it – that he would have felt like an outsider in both countries.
“That’s true but it’s in my nature, too,” he says. “I’ve always been someone who, if you say, ‘There’s the fence, don’t go beyond it’, I try to do just that. I am drawn like a moth to a flame to mystery, to things I can’t explain.”
Rylance will for ever – or at least, so long as people still venerate Shakespeare in this country – be remembered as the actor who got the replica Globe up and running, and with a quality of artistic integrity that silenced the nay-sayers who predicted only the triumph of theme-park kitsch.
Does he go back there? Does he miss the place? Yes and no. “It was a great grief to go, but also a relief,” he says. “Eventually the job overwhelmed me. I had moments when I saw the success of it but mostly I couldn’t. I left because I had disagreements with the board about the general direction of the centre but to be fair, I was 10 years into it. I got tired and I was starting to make mistakes. So it was a good thing I stepped down when I did.”
Oddly enough it was at the Globe that the seeds of this current project were first planted, through a larky friendship between him and Ian Rickson, then the Royal Court’s artistic director (and Butterworth’s favoured director). “I used to invite him down to play ball-games in the Globe late at night. We had a weird game called ‘yard ball’. He would bring his crew down. I would call him Lord Chelsea – he would call me Lord Southwark and we’d have battles.”
Does that sound cranky?
Others might see it as a rather astute, unblemished form of networking: “I must have said how much I liked Jez’s plays because he sent me an early draft of this play back in about 2003, asking me whether I’d do it. I said yes straightaway.”
According to Butterworth, Rylance’s enthusiasm was instrumental in prompting him to develop the script further, to the extent that he now can’t conceive of anyone else in the role. “As far as I’m concerned you might as well burn this script after we’ve finished with it because I don’t see how anyone else could do it as well as he does,” he says. “You need to feel the charisma of a genuine eccentric, someone who gives you goose-pimples when they walk on. Mark Rylance just has all that, naturally What he brings with him is a real fire – heat and light together. When he’s on stage, you get proper illumination.”