Illustration by James Ferguson of Mark Rylance
© James Ferguson

It is a beautiful, warm morning, the kind that only occurs a handful of times over the average London summer, and this makes up my mind: I’m going for an early morning swim.

My guest Mark Rylance, busy during normal working hours in rehearsal for the Old Vic’s new production of Much Ado About Nothing, which he is directing, has chosen the much-praised café of Brockwell Lido in south London to meet for an 8am breakfast. I will beat him to it, just for the hell of it, taking in a few lengths of the Olympic-sized pool before our rendezvous.

The water is less bracing than I feared and Rylance looks half-impressed, half-bewildered when I tell him of my exploit. What is amazing, I say, is that there are people on the planet who can swim that distance – I wave from one end of the pool to the other – in just a shade over 20 seconds. Rylance scrutinises the pool intensely.

“No,” he finally comments, “I don’t think I could do it in 20 seconds.” The line is delivered deadpan. For the briefest of moments, he sounds like an Olympic hopeful who has resigned himself to never quite attaining the highest international accolade in his sport, and I’m not sure whether to sympathise or laugh at the joke. He cracks a smile to relieve the tension. It turns out he just does a bit of breaststroke now and again. We order coffee.

There are few actors around who can deliver a line like Mark Rylance. His performances on stage are virtuoso turns, showing such extraordinary control of his craft that audiences are utterly in thrall to the rhythms and cadences of his dialogue. He moves with precisely-calibrated carelessness, takes risks with his timing like a drummer who plays just ahead of the beat, and is a master of the underrated art of slapstick.

I once saw a short film on YouTube that shows a group of young and earnest American acting students discussing Rylance’s genius. You begin by admiring his performance, says one of them, “but by the end, it is a challenge for us to live better”. He makes us feel, says another, “that it is your job to be more beautiful and more alive”. Even allowing that there can be no more hyperbolic being on the planet than an American acting student, these are rare accolades.

He is dressed today in an all-maroon ensemble of baseball cap, shirt and shorts, like a West Ham fan on holiday, and we quickly dispense with the business of ordering – we both have scrambled eggs and salmon, and fresh orange juice – in order to tuck into Shakespeare. His production of Much Ado is notable for the unusually advanced years of its comic protagonists Benedick and Beatrice, played by James Earl Jones, 82, and Vanessa Redgrave, 76.

Rylance, who is 53, says he was inspired by seeing their interplay on stage in a Broadway production of Driving Miss Daisy. “I thought they would be delightful – you could see from their sparring that they clearly loved each other.” Can you always tell, I ask? “Not on stage, no. Someone just said to me the other day they had had a hateful time with their co-star in a television programme that I had watched for a couple of years, and I had no idea. You can’t tell in the theatre either. I can tell backstage, though, by the way people say goodnight to each other.”

I say the actors’ ages must add an extra poignancy to the eventual blooming of the love affair between Benedick and Beatrice, as they cannot have much of a future together. “Ha ha,” Rylance laughs loudly, “that thought had never even entered my mind.”

I apologise for being morbid. “What you do get,” he says, “is two people who don’t want to lose control of their lives, who don’t want the fuss of the other gender. Older people get away with a lot more. They can swear and shout. They are very …strong with each other.” He laughs again. “When they do open up to affection and love I find it very touching.”

His directorial approach is, he says, rooted in not allowing the performances to become too “controlled”. “When you play eight times a week, you inevitably learn things along the way. If the production is too locked down, there is nowhere to go, [it is] like seeds under concrete.” Both of his stars are “inspirational”, he says. “It is delightful to watch them.”

Breakfast arrives and we attack it hungrily: the swim has whetted my appetite, while Rylance, I am guessing, has a physically demanding day of rehearsal ahead of him, even if he is not actually in the cast. If Jones and Redgrave manage to come close to the spontaneity that their director displays on stage, it will be quite an evening. It was his bravura comic performances in 2007’s revival of Marc Camoletti’s farce Boeing Boeing (for which he received a Tony award) and then Jez Butterworth’s 2009 lament for rural England Jerusalem, (Critics’ Circle, Olivier and Tony awards) that catapulted him to prominence.

In both, he showed an almost reckless desire to reinvent the role on a nightly basis. In Boeing Boeing, he says, “Roger Allam and I would be back at the fire escape every interval, saying, ‘If I do that, then you can do this, and they won’t see that coming.’ We were like fly fishermen with the audience. It was such a delight to constantly refine the farce. It became a game and a challenge.”

That approach has not always been the case with productions of Shakespeare, I say. Fashions have changed: I studied the plays at school in the 1970s, sat around a stuffy classroom obsessing over ideas and rival interpretations, never so much as standing up to see what it was actually like to perform them. Rylance agrees.

“There was a time in the 1960s and 1970s when the universities entered the theatre via the RSC and all that seemed to matter was learning the message of the plays. And that led to almost static, over-controlled productions. It was like John McEnroe and Björn Borg presenting tennis as a comment on the first world war instead of just playing tennis.

“We have set Much Ado in the second world war but we are not saying anything about the second world war. The actors can play it freely and fully, like a tennis game, playing to win. The audience will get the idea. They don’t need us to direct them one way or another. When I am in the audience, I want to be in the same room as Brutus, Mark Antony, Julius Caesar, to be feeling what they are feeling.

“I am not anti-intellectual, which I have been accused of. But we have to fight a bit in the theatre to reclaim [the plays] as theatrical texts.”

Rylance promises that his Much Ado will take liberties with the text, too. “It is hard to believe that the equivalent of a Billy Connolly or a Robin Williams would not have had some fun with Dogberry [the constable whose malapropisms are among the comic highlights of the play].” He says that some of the first folios of the plays contain reaction lines that are rarely played today.

“In the first folio of Hamlet, there are “Ohs” after Hamlet’s death. I tried it a few times. I got told off by Ian McKellen for not shutting up after “The rest is silence”. He said the audience had had enough of me.”

Rylance was the first artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe from 1995 to 2005, and has recently figured prominently in the debate over the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays, believing that they may have been written through a loose collaboration of some of the playwright’s contemporaries.

“I am not certain about any of it,” he says when I raise the subject. “I have a lot of different possible scenarios in my head. I certainly think it possible that the man from Stratford wrote the plays. I know a lot of very intelligent people who utterly believe it. I may be missing something.”

Feelings evidently run high on the subject. “I am anti-Shakespeare in some people’s eyes,” says Rylance, with an air of incredulity. “It is like being a plumber and being accused of being anti-water, or anti-pipes.” This is said without any bitterness. There is a permanent air of ingenuousness, and the hint of a smile around Rylance’s malleable features.

“What is important is that he, whoever he is, is such a fundamental part of the English or British psyche,” he concludes. “It is wonderful that there is an artist that is so connected to our sense of identity. I don’t think America has the equivalent. [Walt] Whitman comes close but he isn’t as central as George Washington, or Columbus – a genocidal murderer who has monuments built to him all over the place.” The accusation is delivered as a matter-of-fact and he moves swiftly on. “We are lucky that we have Shakespeare as a pinnacle of what we have achieved as a nation.”

We refresh our very good coffees. Let’s turn our attentions to laughter, I say. It must give him an enormous sense of power, this ability to render audiences helpless through comedy. Did he always recognise his possession of that talent?

“It was always a surprise to me,” he says. “I often didn’t know why people were laughing. I still don’t sometimes. Then I started to home in on it. It is a lovely thing, to make people laugh.”

I read him the accolades from the American students (he has not seen the YouTube clip). “Wow,” he says quietly, a little embarrassed. There is a short pause. “I think I find it easier to live on the stage than in life,” he says softly. “At times when I have gone to counsellors, one of the things I was told was that I needed to transfer some of the ability to enjoy myself in plays into my own life.

“In an odd sense, I can picture myself among those students, talking about myself on stage with a certain amount of envy. Why can’t I feel as free and as liberated in life? I trust myself on stage more than in my life.”

Was he addicted to making people laugh? “The criticism I will take on board, which is what my wife would say, is that I sometimes think, ‘Why get one laugh when I can get seven?’ Some people might say I need to be liked. Maybe I go too far sometimes, I’m sure.”

He defends humour as a way of depicting more profound emotions on stage. “Hamlet has some very funny lines. I have no problem with a Hamlet who makes me laugh. People who are always sad are not the most tragic people around.” Rylance suffered his own tragedy last year when his 28-year-old stepdaughter, the film-maker Nataasha van Kampen, died suddenly, forcing Rylance to pull out of the Olympics opening ceremony. He has requested not to be asked any questions on the subject.

We have something in common, I say: we both moved to the US at the age of two (Rylance, born in Kent to English teachers, moved back to the UK on a Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts scholarship in the late 1970s). As I am a couple of years older than him, I tell him my earliest memory is of Kennedy’s assassination, which I guess he doesn’t remember.

“No, I do! I remember being taken from a sunlit courtyard into a dark room, where my father was staring very seriously at a small box in the corner.” By the time of Robert Kennedy’s murder, he says, the eight-year-old Rylance was already sharpening his directing skills. “I organised a funeral cortège and walked around the high school grounds where my father was teaching.

“Everything had to be acted to be real.”

It’s a neat line on which to conclude. The day is warming up, the swimmers are slipping into the pool in ever-greater numbers, Rylance has to return to supervising his sparring lovers. He speeds away, crackling with energy. As I am settling the bill, a waitress sidles up to the table.

“Have you finished your plotting?” she asks with a smile. I raise a quizzical eyebrow. She couldn’t help catching fragments of our conversation, she says. She is in the theatre too. I tell her the purpose of our interview, and she immediately invites me to a production of Hamlet, which she is directing at a nearby Brixton car park.

I wish Rylance were still here, so they could have chatted. Shakespeare in the multi-storeys: that would have put an extra spring in his step, as if it were needed.

Peter Aspden is the FT’s arts writer

‘Much Ado About Nothing’ is at the Old Vic until November 30


The Lido Café

Brockwell Lido, Dulwich Road, London SE24 0PA

Orange juice x2 £6.00

Eggs and smoked salmon x2 £15.90

Flat white coffees x4 £9.60

Total £31.50


Shakespearean drama: No folio, no Malvolio?

Earlier this month the University of London announced plans to auction the first four folios of Shakespeare’s plays, writes Lowenna Waters. It was hoped that the sale of the folios, bequeathed by American philanthropist Sir Louis Sterling in 1956, might raise between £3m and £5m for reinvestment in “special collections”.

The proposal provoked an outcry among Shakespeare experts. Christine Ferdinand, librarian of Magdalen College, Oxford, called it “egregiously wrong: the value of having these works together is hard to describe for scholars,” she said. The university has since dropped the idea.

The first folio – from the Latin word for “leaf” – was published in 1623, just seven years after Shakespeare’s death, compiled and edited from original manuscripts by his fellow actors and friends John Heminge and Henry Condell.

Divided into “Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies”, they remain the most authoritative early printed collections of Shakespeare’s plays, with 36 printed in full, 18 for the first time.

Before the folio edition, seven plays had been printed in quarto editions – unbound booklets referred to by the editors of the folio as “maimed, and deformed by the frauds and stealths of injurious impostors”.

Without the folios it is thought there would be no trace of Macbeth, The Tempest, or Twelfth Night to name but a few.

Without the folios it is thought there would be no trace of Macbeth, The Tempest, or Twelfth Night to name but a few.

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