Now Is the Rylance of Our Discontent

Just how good is the new Shakespearean superstar?

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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.

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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.

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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?


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.