When Mark Rylance was last on Broadway, in 2013, he played two very different roles: the female character of Olivia in an all-male production of Twelfth Night and the title role in Richard III. He first played both characters at Shakespeare’s Globe, the re-creation of the Bard’s original London playhouse that he ran for its first decade, from 1995 to 2005. In his review for The New York Times, Ben Brantley referred to Rylance as astonishing, and called his Olivia “the best I’ve ever seen” and a “bar-raising performance.”
He collected a Tony Award for Twelfth Night for best featured actor, adding to the two leading actor Tonys he already won for his previous Broadway appearances, in Boeing-Boeing (2008) and Jerusalem (2011), both of which also transferred from London. He has, of course, since also added an Oscar to his mantel, for Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies in 2015.
Now he’s headed back to the Belasco in Farinelli and the King, a new play by Claire van Kampen (Rylance’s wife and longtime Globe associate) that marked her debut as a playwright and originally premiered at the Globe’s indoor Sam Wanamaker Playhouse in 2015 before transferring to the West End. Rylance plays the 18th century Spanish monarch Philippe V, who suffers from serious depression and insomnia. Relief, if not a cure, comes from an unlikely source: the singing of a castrato called Farinelli. His singing is voiced by the celebrated British countertenor Iestyn Davies.
“We saw him at Glyndbourne,” remarks Rylance, referring to the exclusive country opera house south of London, “and we paid $300 a ticket to see him. Here you’re getting to hear him sing eight or nine Handel arias. And if you had to sit through all of those operas to hear those arias, you’d have to be there for 36 hours. You get all these key top moments in all these wonderful operas. So it’s a good deal!”
Rylance is particularly pleased that more than 200 seats are being offered at every performance for $32 each, similar to the low-cost ticket policy for his previous appearance there. “With Richard III, I had so much to talk to the audience about, and I do again here — and it really helps me to lift my head up, knowing all those younger people are upstairs who couldn’t have afforded it otherwise.” One of the cornerstones of the Globe has always been its accessibility, with Rylance initiating 500 standing tickets a night in the yard at the front of the stage for less than $7 each, a policy that continues to this day.
He is also personally connected to the play, partly through his wife but even more so through personal experience. “I’m like a gymnast whose muscles get too stretched. I’ve gotten better at it, but I have a lot of emotional energy. I’m afraid to say that some of the part is a bit familiar — though not all of it. I’m not as mad as him!”
Though his wife wrote the play, it was not written specifically for Rylance. But, he says, “my bad behavior was her inspiration!” Sitting beside us, van Kampen adds, “I wrote it aspirationally, that whoever acted it could do some of these things that he does. I wrote it with that standard in mind, but not for a moment did I think he’d do it!”
Yet it’s a role particularly tailored to Rylance’s own gentle eccentricity. The job of acting in the play is to sustain his performance over a long run, as he will have to do here. “Theater has gotten so much more industrial than it used to be,” he says. “Edmund Kean doesn’t appear to have been very disciplined as an actor, but he only had to do the equivalent of what the Rolling Stones would do, two or three nights, then he’d take a break. He didn’t have to do 14-week runs of eight shows a week. To some degree I think we’ve therefore lost some of the very wild performances we used to enjoy in earlier centuries, because the form doesn’t sustain the very wild performers I’ve sometimes seen in rehearsal rooms, and who for reasons of different addictions fell by the wayside. A lot of them went to film, where they could be more undisciplined.”
For Rylance, however, theater remains a first love, despite his recent forays into films that have also included the current release Dunkirk and two more Spielberg films, The BFG and Ready Player One. He also starred in BBC’s television series Wolf Hall (for which Claire van Kampen served as historical music advisor and arranger). “I’d not be satisfied if I wasn’t able to do theater. I learn so much from audiences.”
He’s thrilled to be bringing the play to New York now. “Broadway has always been such a place of song, even more so than the West End, so I’m hoping it will catch fire in that way and connect with people’s love of song and singing there.”
He’s also looking forward to being part of the Broadway family again. “The outer appearance of it is the most commercial of any place I’ve ever been in the world,” Rylance says of the Theatre District. “But the funny thing and a lovely surprise is that working in the Longacre, Music Box, and Belasco, I am friends with all the crews in those theatres — if I walk by the Longacre and one is outside, I am immediately brought in and I won’t get away for about 45 minutes! There’s a sense of community and real family, even more so than at the RSC [Royal Shakespeare Company] or National, where you’d expect it! And our audiences are part of that — the fact that we’re going back to the Belasco, again with early live music and candlelight and seating onstage and a piece about the past, means that they are going to a familiar setting, where they know who we are and where we are. I can’t wait to be back!”