Now Is the Rylance of Our Discontent

Just how good is the new Shakespearean superstar?

  • Share
  • Read Later
Boneau/Bryan-Brown / Geraint Lewis / AP Photo

Mark Rylance as Olivia, right, and Stephen Fry as Malvolio during a performance of William Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night."

Every few years, it seems, a new British stage actor becomes the darling of American critics looking to anoint a new Olivier. Ian McKellen had his moment, and, more recently, Michael Gambon and Simon Russell Beale. The current man of the hour is Mark Rylance, the former artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London, who is winning ecstatic reviews as the star of two Globe productions now playing in repertory on Broadway, Richard III and Twelfth Night.

In some ways Rylance (who has played Hamlet, Romeo and Macbeth among many other roles) is an odd duck among British Shakespeareans. His voice doesn’t have the resonant, mellifluous tones that we associate with the country’s classic thespians. It is raspy, often hesitant, more conversational than rhetorical, and his quizzical eyes and fretful manner seem more suited to comedy than tragedy. Indeed, it was in comedy that American audiences were first introduced to him — the 2008 Broadway revival of the sex-farce Boeing Boeing, about a swinging bachelor trying to juggle three different airline-stewardess girlfriends in one Paris apartment. His performance was so broad, and the play so silly, that I could barely sit through it. But it won him a Tony award for Best Actor.

He next appeared on Broadway as the boorish playwright in David Hirson’s verse play La Bete, and as the Dionysian leader of a band of hippie-like renegades in Jez Butterworth’s Jerusulem. Both were unmistakable star turns — acting with a capital A — but again too over-the-top and self-indulgent for me; still, both again won critical raves, and Jerusalem snagged him a second Tony.

(MOREShakespeare the Way It Was Meant to Be Spoken)

Yet I was willing to let bygones be bygones and looked forward to seeing Rylance in his real métier, Shakespeare. The two Globe productions currently on Broadway are meant to reproduce, as closely as possible, the performance style of Shakespeare’s own day. The set is a replica of the original Globe Theatre (with some spectators even sitting in gallery seats onstage); the actors wear period costumes; the music is played on period instruments; and, in the Elizabethan custom, all the female roles are played by men.

Eager to see Rylance in a part that didn’t encourage his comedy excesses, I tackled Richard III first.  Wouldn’t you know it — he plays Richard III for comedy too. Rylance turns the physically deformed schemer, one of Shakespeare’s great evildoers, into a simpering clown, affecting a kind of self-pitying oafishness. He forages for laughs in every nook and cranny of Richard’s speeches, starting with the famous curtain raiser (“Now is the winter of our discontent…”), stuttering and stumbling through the lines as if he were trudging through a swamp in hip boots. It’s a confusing performance, because it gives us no sense of Richard’s perverse charisma, the qualities that would enable him to gull, murder and woo his way to power.

Oh well, if comedy be the food of Rylance, play on. In Twelfth Night, doing his cross-dressing bit in the role of Olivia, Rylance is more sensible and appealing. Despite the white makeup, wig and Elizabethan ruff, he doesn’t camp up the female role with a falsetto voice or drag-queen affectations. He is often very funny as he charts Olivia’s gender-confused passion — resisting all suitors except for the shipwrecked girl Viola, who comes to her dressed as a man — and he provides the strong center of a very good, mostly straightforward production directed by Tim Carroll.

(MORE10 Great Shakespeare Movies)

And yet there are still too many gimmicks. When Rylance enters as Olivia, he scurries around the stage with fast, tiny steps, so that it looks like he’s got wheelies underneath his hooped skirt. It gets laughs, but it’s nothing but a visual stunt, bearing no relation to the character. He stutters, pauses for sarcastic effect, at one point even does a Jack Benny double-take. Sometimes it works  – “Malvoli, oh!” Olivia exclaims when Malvolio accosts her in garish yellow stockings — but most of the time he just seems to be pandering for laughs.

This wouldn’t be so bad, except that it comes in a production that has trumpeted itself as faithful to Shakespearean tradition in costumes, sets, music, casting — everything, it turns out, but the lead actor’s performance. Near the end of the play, as Olivia is digesting all the mistaken identities that have now been revealed, he/she stops to contemplate “these … um…um… things,” getting a big laugh at things. Would Shakespeare have approved of that um…um, breaking up his beautiful iambic pentameter? I doubt it.

Of course, it shouldn’t matter. Actors and directors have every right to interpret, to modernize, to make Shakespeare come alive for contemporary audiences. But then, by gosh, why can’t the women get a few parts? And put Rylance back in pants?

Correction:

The original version of this article misidentified the role Mark Rylance played in Boeing Boeing. He portrayed the best friend of the bachelor trying to juggle three different airline-stewardess girlfriends in one Paris apartment, not the bachelor. 

4 comments
Joe_Christiansen
Joe_Christiansen

Shakespeare wrote for the people. Mark is playing for the people. Listen to the audience. They love him from the moment he steps on stage. I have no problem with gimmicks when they work. And Mark hits the bullseye every time. I wish more actors would bring comedy to Shakespeare's tragedies. Three hours of Richard's evil manipulations without a sense of comedy would be interminable. 

Mark's Richard plays the fool but he is not one. He succeeds in his evil plots because no one suspects such a simpleton to be capable of these machinations. That Mark Rylance is able to mine Richard III for so much comedy only attests to what a terrific actor he is. 

And in regards to his Tony for Boeing Boeing - how can you criticize someone for being broad in a farce?! 

My assignment for you, Mr. Zoglin, is to write a 100 word essay on why audiences and critics (present company excluded) love him so much. Put aside your preconceived notions of what Shakespeare should or shouldn't be and just enjoy the performance!

acephale
acephale

Most of Olivia's lines are not written in iambic pentameter. Were that the only thing that suggested that the author had not actually read Shakespeare that would be one thing, but this whole review is pointing out how Rylance's performance is not faithful to easy stereotypes of Shakespeare's plays, and using that to say that he is not faithful to Shakespeare.

Of the two, I've only seen Richard III, but I challenge the author to tell me what about it deviated from Shakespeare's intention, and how he came to formulate his idea of what that intention was. Every joke is solidly rooted in the text, and works all the better for it. It is not Rylance's fault that others have been too caught up in a falsely solemn interpretation of this play. Richard III is hilarious, as this performance proves.

The stereotype of Richard III as evil genius has no basis in the play. After Richard attempts to convince Queen Elizabeth to let him marry her daughter (the longest scene in the play, and one I could not imagine working better than in this performance, in which the dark, dark comedy of his pleas can be appreciated) he mocks Elizabeth for his success, and is, of course, wrong about what happened. This obliviousness is often unexplored, but meshes perfectly with his willingness to say revealing and uncomfortable things to people, and his unpredictable turns against his friends.

Rylance isn't just playing for laughs, he's playing the kind of incredibly unstable person that would do what Richard does.

beg2differ
beg2differ

The writer is entitled to his opinion, but he should do some fact-checking before he writes a piece like this.  Mark Rylance did not play the part of the playboy in Boeing Boeing.  He played the playboy's very shy friend.  Bradley Whitford was the man juggling relationships.  

Does the writer know who he is talking about when he writes these reviews?  I expect better reporting and fact-checking from Time magazine, especially when arts coverage is being cut back in so many other magazines and newspapers.  

BTW -- I saw Richard III yesterday. People were cheering at the end like it was a rock concert.  If you are reading this and you care about great theatre, go see Mark Rylance in anything. 

laura_ghill
laura_ghill

Mr. Rylance is just a "man of the hour"? How odd as he's been recognized for years in England. Mr. Rylance is a magnetic presence onstage, and has been praised for years by many (and rightly so). Al Pacino once said "Rylance does Shakespeare as if the Bard had written it for him the night before"  - his interpretation of Shakespeare is immediate, and relevant to modern audiences without loosing the poetry of Shakespeare. Are we really criticizing an actor for taking a pause on a line? Overkill. 

I too saw "La Bete" "Jerusalem" "Twelfth Night" and "Richard III" and I wonder if we saw the same shows. To accuse Mr. Rylance of over-the-top-capital-A acting seems extreme and unwarranted. It appears that this critic was expecting a Very Serious Richard III and wan't open minded enough to another interpretation - an interpretation that totally works! The theatrical experience Mr. Rylance and the entire company creates at the Belasco (and previously at the Globe) is wonderful, immersive, and a joy. All theater should be so engaging and should be so lucky to attract the diverse audience that currently occupies the Belasco. 

This reader wonders if this critic aspires to set himself apart by attempting to tear down a popular talent.   

And please, want to see women in men's roles? Go to the Phyllida Lloyd all-female "Julius Caesar". The Globe (which was helmed by Mr. Rylance for 10 years) does all female productions as well.