Interview with star actor Mark Rylance (1)

16th April 2004



Prior to the 2004 season at Shakespeare’s Globe, ‘Star-Crossed Lovers’, Heather Neill talks to its tireless artistic director.

There’s a lot of reverence and fearful stuff around Shakespeare.



Prior to the 2004 season at Shakespeare’s Globe, Star-Crossed Lovers, Heather Neill talks to its tireless artistic director.

Recording date: 16 April 2004

Transcribed by the V&A © This transcript is copyright of the Trustees of the Victoria and Albert Museum. If you wish to refer to this in publication its reference is INTERVIEW: MARK RYLANCE (1/2) and you must use the full url as displayed in your browser’s address bar.

Heather Neill: This is Heather Neill for TheatreVOICE at Shakespeare’s Globe in London. The reconstruction of Shakespeare’s Bankside Theatre, rebuilt near the site of the original in Southwark, as accurately as could be determined, opened officially with a production of Henry V in1997. Mark Rylance played the King in that production, and he has subsequently given memorable performances as among others, Hamlet, Cleopatra and Olivia in an award winning all male Twelfth Night, which began life at Middle Temple Hall in 2002, ran successfully at The Globe that year, and was revived both at The Globe and for an American Tour last year. Mark Rylance (who has been the Artistic Director of The Globe since its inception) is with me now to talk about this year’s season. Mark, each Globe season has a title reflecting its theme, for 2004, when the chosen plays are Romeo and Juliet, Much Ado About Nothing and Measure for Measure, the title is ‘Star Crossed Lovers’, but I believe there was the chance of another title at one stage: would you like to expand upon that for us?

Mark Rylance: Yes, Hi Heather. The original title that was in my mind was the ‘Season of Suicide’, which the Board of Directors here rightly raised their eyebrows at, and it’s not the most attractive subject of course. I was thinking about that because I’ve received letters from The Samaritans for a few years now, and I was so shocked by the statistic of two young people under the age of 25 killing themselves everyday in the UK. And one of the letters in fact, that I got, had a copy of an article about a young couple aged 16 and 19, who had killed themselves and left a three-page note to their parents. First of all apologising for doing what they were doing, but expressing that they could not bear to live without each other; and indeed the article was entitled ‘Young Couple Kill Themselves in Romeo and Juliet Pact’. And I thought about that a few years ago and thought, ‘Ah, when we do Romeo and Juliet we should link with The Samaritans and then it turned out that this year was the 50th anniversary of their inception. They were begun by a local priest actually, in London, called Doctor Chad Varah, who just started to give advice to people in his parish, and was overwhelmed by the amount of people who were seeking a space where they could talk about their feelings, and he started to do some enquiries himself and discovered that three young people under the age of 25, a day, were killing themselves in London alone, in 1954. So he started to, he founded The Samaritans which is now 18,000 volunteers who answer phones 24 hours a day.

So it started with Romeo and Juliet and that kind of thought and then the plays Measure for Measure and Much Ado About Nothing came forward in my mind as they also have friars. Friar Francis and Friar Ludovico, he calls himself in Measure for Measure, who, in their ways, are trying to help the young people who are facing these seemingly insurmountable obstacles to their life, and particularly to their love, to their very early and strong force of love in young people which very difficult to dam up or try and redirect or stop it’s as dangerous as trying to do such a thing to a big river. And so the three friars in the plays in a certain way represent three Samaritans in Shakespeare’s conception, and the whole season has something to do with, something to share with the effective and ineffective ways of advising or counselling young people who have these very fateful situations and that’s where the Star-crossed title from the prologue of Romeo and Juliet seemed appropriate. So that’s how it came about.

Heather Neill: Thank you. Well this season you’re going to be playing the Duke in Measure for Measure yourself.

Mark Rylance: Yeah.

Heather Neill: You’ve played in tragedy and comedy on this stage. Now it looks a very frightening arena for some actors, I know at least one person who says, “Oh there’s nowhere to hide on there; I’d never be on The Globe stage.” But can you give some idea of what it actually feels like to be on that stage, for an actor?

Mark Rylance: It’s difficult for me to speak for everyone isn’t it because I’ve been here since it was built and, as some people will say, it’s my home pitch, so for me it feels like home. So I have to think what are the more enduring characteristics of it? First of all…

Heather Neill: The audience are obviously very important.

Mark Rylance: Yeah, the presence of the audience, the fact that we can see each other and the fact there’s the architecture helps actors to talk with the audience, rather than for them, or to them. It also, actors are, people might be surprised to hear this, but actors generally, I find, are their most, are their strongest critics, they, we generally have a lot of critical thoughts about what we’re doing and a lot of effort goes in to trying to clear those critical thoughts and just play and escape them by being in, pretending to be other people in a sense as an obvious possible motivation for doing such a thing as acting. And so if you have a darkened theatre, like a darkened bedroom when you’re a child and you can’t see what’s over in the corner behind the cupboard, you’ll project into that space what is in your own mind. So a lot of actors when they arrive here first of all and the first time you come out onto the stage you imagine it’s a very critical audience who have to be dragged up and into the play, and actually what you see when you see the audience is that, of course, they’ve paid their money, they’ve made the effort to come, they want it to be thrilling, they want it to be engaging that’s why they’ve come. And so one becomes aware that you don’t have to generate so much yourself, that it’s there in the room. If it’s one room, which is a circle, like the Globe is, suggests more than a rectangle, it’s one circle which we’re all in. And yes we’re going, we know the lines, we’re going to spark the imagination of the whole room, but the audience is going to do just as much imagining as we are. And sometimes they’ll go through something that’s much more dramatic sitting in their seat or standing in the yard than what we’re doing. So, there’s a, I think before I came here I unconsciously thought that the play happened on the stage, amongst the actors and I was very fascinated about the ability of the actors to pass and explore different dynamics and you know we rehearsed and then the audience came and watched like you’d watch a sport’s match or something, you watched and you weren’t involved. And here at The Globe I have much more of a sense of the play happening out in the space between the actors and the audience and that, that we contribute and pass the ball, as such, just as much to the audience, as we do to each other.

Heather Neill: Of course you have to put up with pigeons and helicopters and things you don’t normally have to put up with in a theatre as well, which can be, I should imagine, distracting for an actor not used to this environment?

Mark Rylance: You have to keep an ear awake to what’s happening with the audience and indeed what’s happening in the sky above the theatre. If it’s about to rain, if it’s raining, if there’s birds flying in, if there’s airplanes flying over, helicopters. There’s a wonderful random play of life in the real globe outside The Globe which isn’t closed out, and indeed it’s not a black space, a black box which most modern theatres are, a completely neutral space which is designed to disappear as soon as the set is lit and the fantasy comes to life. But here they’re mixed together and the theatre itself is not a black box; it has a very strong character and because the roof is open it has its own events that carry on. Now this not only a help, it can be a block and a hindrance to actors if they try and create something that’s rigid and unchanging and exactly the same every night. I think that’s not so helpful in the theatre, it’s not like film or television or other recorded mediums of storytelling; it’s benefit is that it’s live and direct and that it responds to the nature of the audience. And when you come as an audience to the theatre you get something that has never been the same, ever at any other point – much like when you go to a football match or a tennis match, or any of the live sports which are so popular. I bet they wouldn’t be half as popular if it was the same thing every week, the same kind of match, but it’s always different and there’s always different possibilities. So I find the possible interruptions of birds or planes or things, they, I find they all very much help in the spontaneity of the performance and the fact that it, that each time it has to be different, and the audience enjoys, funnily enough, they seem to enjoy it even more when it rains, I don’t quite know why, but there’s always a very loud cheer at the end of a rain performance. And I think that they know that we’re, though we’re not getting wet, maybe they think that we are getting wet as actors, and we’re not really sharing what the yard are sharing, and 850 people sitting in the galleries are also not getting wet. But they know that it’s been a special evening, you know. They know that everyone’s been in the same space, encountering the same weather and circumstances, so I think that’s all to the benefit of the real joy of theatre which is a live, spontaneous event, where things can go wrong and things can go right.

Heather Neill: Now this season you haven’t got an all male production, which I know some people think is the only thing that happens here, who wrongly think that everything is an attempt to recreate what actually happened in Shakespeare’s day. But you do have an all female production, now how did that come about, how have all female companies, it’s Much Ado isn’t it that’s being done by women this year?

Mark Rylance: Yeah. When you recreate something from the past, sometimes the most obvious way is to recreate it materially, factually, materially. But sometimes I feel one gets nearer by recreating the spirit of something, and the matter, what the matter meant in that time 400 years ago, means something different now, and so sometimes to get the same, to be true to the original you actually need different matter. And this of course leads to many modern dress productions and we’ve done as many modern dress productions as we’ve done Original Practices. And certainly before I came to The Globe I loved doing things in modern dress, that is in the spirit of the original, they played in their own clothes, very wonderful fancy clothes, but their own clothes that you could see people wearing in the court at least, yeah and in the street and in different areas of society. So if you do something in modern dress you’re in a sense being truer to the original because you’re following the spirit. In the case of the gender of the players, yes at that time only men were allowed to play on the stage, women weren’t, but much more shocking than the fact that men were sometimes playing women was that fact that common people were pretending to be aristocrats, and very famous aristocrats, Kings and Queens and famous Roman aristocrats. This even in the case of the clothes they wore, even in the case that they may have worn purple on the stage. If they’d walked out of the theatre onto Bankside wearing purple, they could have been arrested or, indeed killed on the spot, or thrown into prison because even the clothing of society at that time was designed to help people at a distance see whether it was a Lord, or a Sir or a common man approaching and behave accordingly. It was very, very, very regimented and hierarchical the society and Shakespeare was working to try and work away that and loosen that a bit, I believe. So to try and capture the same, the spirit of the players, the daring of the players on the stage, for an Elizabethan audience, I find the all female thing comes a little bit nearer because it’s much more risky and daring and a greater challenge to have an all female company. It’s not the material fact of the original, it was an all male originally, but it is in the spirit of people very clearly not being what they are pretending to be. The benefit I hope is that the perspective, from women, on plays which are predominantly about men, is fresh and new. And actually in the case last year of Taming of the Shrew, you know, showed a great irreverence, and a great, sometimes more ability to reveal and mock, or take on things that the men might not be able to do when they played themselves.

So that’s what the theatre is about really, it’s very helpful to get a perspective from someone else imitating you or reflecting something back to you, like a good friend or a brother or a sister often does to us, you know they will reflect something back to us and we’ll realise something about yourselves so that was one of the things about the women doing it. The other main thing is that, you know, because of the repertoire, the nature of the Elizabethan repertoire, actresses say of my generation, in their early forties or late thirties, will have played roles, as I have played, and will have roles into their thirties and then suddenly there are not the roles there for them. Whereas I go on able to play the Duke, Iago, eventually King Lear, Prospero, all kinds of roles are there for me to use my experience and the time and training I’ve put in to carry on growing and share the things that happen to me as I get older and wiser, hopefully. For woman they have to drop out of the classical repertoire, and I’m not talking about a politically correct kind of response to that, I’m just recognising that like a great resource of untapped talent and skill there, waiting to be used in different ways. So, for example someone like Sarah Woodward who’s coming to play Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing, well she’s played all the great classical leading roles, she’s a very, very experienced actress, but there’s no role, really anything like the fun of Dogberry, for her in the female repertoire, so it makes, it’s a fantastic use of her skill I feel, and it just brings back that there’s almost a kind of circus or tightrope aspect to the theatre, which is not a bad thing, of, “Are they going to fall off that, they’ve set up, are they going to pull this off? Are they really going to make me believe that they are this person that they so clearly are not?” And that’s great, it stretches the audience’s imagination and one of the delightful things I’ve found here is that the imagination of the modern audiences is incredibly flexible and generous, and giving, and they’ve been learning over the seven years as much as we’ve been learning on the stage.

Heather Neill: Yes I was going to ask you about that because to begin with audiences seemed to feel that they had to role-play and were joining in an inappropriate way and you don’t seem to get any more. People listen, now, in a way that perhaps they found, rather more, they were self-conscious about in the first year or so. Is that true?

Mark Rylance: I think we, both the actors and the audience were self-conscious in the first year, for a few years. I think it was such a foreign experience and we, both groups were endeavouring to find, think, “How do I behave here? Oh I can leave, I can leave without it being embarrassing; oh I can have a drink or a sandwich, or I can move from my seat and stand right up at the front.” There were all kinds of things that the audience have just learnt through instinct, of how to behave. One of things that used to happen, you’re right that used to happen is that some people came role playing as their imagination of Elizabethans. And I’m not talking about the people who come dressed up as Elizabethans which very rarely and sometimes happens, but people would come and they would throw things at the French in Henry V. Some of this was a kind of debunking of Shakespeare and I didn’t blame them personally. I mean, I think there’s a lot of reverence and fearful stuff around Shakespeare particularly when you meet him in an exam paper or something like that and we still have a lot of mindsets about Shakespeare from the Victorian period.

Heather Neill: Perhaps this is an appropriate moment to mention The Globe’s work in education, because the change in audience reaction might be partly because it isn’t true that everyone’s a tourist who comes here, there’s a very strong relationship with the local people as well. And children are performing on that stage all that time that the theatre season isn’t happening, the education season is. And this, at the moment there’s a concentration on Shakespeare in Islam which I imagine that you’re interested in as well, although the Education Department works slightly separately from you, but you’re linked as well of course.

Mark Rylance: Yeah, well this is a very unusual theatre because Patrick Spottiswode the Director of Education was here in 1985. I came with a very small theatre company and rented a space from him in 1985. And so, whereas in a lot of theatres the Education Department is tacked on afterwards for some kind of funding, or for good reason, here the Education Department was here for a good 10, 12 years before the Theatre Department got going. And they do, they see 60,000 young people in the winter and they indeed have first call on the stage from September to April Fool’s Day when it hands back to me. We, Patrick and I absolutely share a desire to try and help young people to meet Shakespeare as a theatre artist on the stage rather than as the literary artist on the page. Which he is more commonly introduced in that way and I think he made quite clear that he wanted to be heard before he was looked at, or he cared more about his words being heard, spoken and played in a playful, emotional context than just considered intellectually; so Patrick does a lot of work on that, yes in the local area here and yes you’re right I think it’s only 16 per cent of our audience who come from overseas. It’s probably a little bit more on door trade, because figures like that are only drawn from credit card bookings. And I love it that people travel and decide to come to us, I think that’s great. I’ve had great revelations about my life when I’ve been on holiday away from home and gone back and been able to change things, at least for a few weeks. But most of the people here come from London and from you know the counties of England outside of the city.

But I so, yes, the audience has very much developed and there’s a whole raft of events and things for those who want to have a more intimate connection and/or consider the plays more deeply, which the Education Department does. And they run parallel seasons like the this one for a season looking at the relationship of Shakespeare and Islam which has been going on now through the winter and it’s proved so popular that Patrick’s going to continue it into the autumn. And there’s a lot in Islam of course, it’s more, becoming more popular now the poetry of Rumi and the other Sufi poets, which is in many ways very similar to Shakespeare’s thoughts on the forces of love and particularly divine love I suppose. So yes there’s a lot of things going on around the Globe which have encouraged the audience and the actors to take it a bit deeper and get the most out of the experience.