Get us in your inbox

  1. Photograph: Joan Marcus
    Photograph: Joan MarcusTwelfth Night
  2. Photograph: Joan Marcus
    Photograph: Joan MarcusTwelfth Night
  3. Photograph: Joan Marcus
    Photograph: Joan MarcusTwelfth Night
  4. Photograph: Joan Marcus
    Photograph: Joan MarcusTwelfth Night
  5. Photograph: Joan Marcus
    Photograph: Joan MarcusTwelfth Night
  6. Photograph: Joan Marcus
    Photograph: Joan MarcusTwelfth Night
  7. Photograph: Joan Marcus
    Photograph: Joan MarcusRichard III
  8. Photograph: Joan Marcus
    Photograph: Joan MarcusRichard III
  9. Photograph: Joan Marcus
    Photograph: Joan MarcusRichard III
  10. Photograph: Joan Marcus
    Photograph: Joan MarcusRichard III
  11. Photograph: Joan Marcus
    Photograph: Joan MarcusRichard III
  12. Photograph: Joan Marcus
    Photograph: Joan MarcusRichard III

Q&A: Mark Rylance on Shakespeare, Twelfth Night and Richard III

The great Shakespearean actor is taking New York theater by storm. Here he talks about his various characters.


Since stepping down as artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London, Mark Rylance has astonished Broadway audiences in Boeing Boeing, La Bête and Jerusalem (picking up two Tony Awards in the process). Now the superb actor has returned to star in a pair of all-male, "original practices" productions of Shakespeare at the Belasco Theatre: Twelfth Night (as Olivia) and Richard III (as Richard). We recently chatted with him about criticism, Kabuki, the authorship controversy and the challenges of playing one of Shakespeare’s most vicious characters.

Time Out New York: How much of the literary and critical history of the plays do you personally delve into?

Mark Rylance:
I try to take it mostly from the text. I’ve seen nearly all of the plays in my life, perhaps a number of times, so I have impressions of them. But I don’t read a lot of literary criticism of the plays. I tend to look more directly at the folio and the quarto, if there is one, and get right into the choices about which words and which organization of things to use of what the author has left us.

Those textual issues can get very thorny, as you know. In some plays, the differences are quite significant. Are you involved in the dramaturgical aspect of that, in terms of the choice of text?

Yes, yes, most definitely. [Director] Tim Carroll and I will sit down months and months before we do the production, when the budgets have to be done. There are important questions about how many actors we need, before we get the green light as to whether we can do it or not. And that demands that we go through the textual options very carefully at that time. For example, in the case of Richard III, we’ve made the very big—and perhaps unfortunate, for some people—choice of cutting Margaret, because I feel that one of the difficulties with the play is it can be too long. If you’re doing the play on its own, as we are, out of context of the rest of the history, and hoping the audience will have a complete evening by experiencing the rise and fall of this tyrant in this particular world, then something had to go, really. Margaret’s part has more to do with the build-up of events and karma and curses over the longer period of the whole history cycle.

Plus, she gives away the whole plot at the beginning.

She does. But she’s so strong, and if you have women in the play (rather than men playing women), then it is even harder to cut her, because she is a very important female part. But she rather obscures the other elderly woman, which is Richard’s mother. So there are decisions like that—and decisions about words. There’s a place where Richard says, “Richard loves Richard; that is, I am I,”—but in another quarto or folio, it’s “I and I.” I certainly will look at all the footnotes and different comments about the reasoning behind that very significant change, and then I’ll make a decision. But I may decide on different evenings to play it differently, to use the different options. Tim and I are very fluid about things like that, really. We’re particular, but often it’s half of one, six dozen of another [Laughs]. 

Other than perhaps you wanted to play these parts, is there a particular reason to pair these two in rep?

One of the advantages of putting these two plays together is that there are a lot of good parts in Twelfth Night. There isn’t a single lead part. I suppose Viola is a lead part, and Malvolio is a very famous part, but many of the other parts—Aguecheek and Toby Belch and Orsino and Olivia and the fool—many parts are very good. So you attract a good level of actors by doing that play. 

And then you can make them play smaller roles in Richard!

It means you get a stronger cast for Richard III, and a stronger cast makes it more difficult for him to get away with what he gets away with, so that was an advantage, yeah. I’ve played a lot of the parts in Shakespeare, too, and it was one of the parts that I hadn’t played. And it seemed a good opportunity to do a darker, rougher, earlier, more raw play, in contrast to Twelfth Night.

Olivia is not a part that necessarily stands out in Twelfth Night. Was that appealing to you in a way, as a challenge?

No, that wouldn’t be the way I would approach any part particularly. This production was created [by Shakespeare's Globe Theatre] for the 400th anniversary of the first recorded version of Twelfth Night, in 1602, which took place at a hall that still stands in London called the Middle Temple Hall. We were invited to create an original-practices production of Twelfth Night there. This was maybe our fourth or fifth attempt at all-male original practices. As artistic director at that time, I actually wanted to play the fool, Feste. But we realized that we were going to need some very young boys—Eddie Redmayne was actually the first boy to play Viola, and he was not yet a professional actor; he was still in the equivalent to an English high school—and we felt that it would be better for me to be amongst the boys playing girls, because I had a little bit more experience. I had also been visiting Japan and had been very impressed by the Kabuki onnagata actors—the men who play women in the Kabuki tradition. So, it actually wasn’t a part that I had wanted to play, but it was deemed to be the best part for me by Tim, and I agreed with him. Also, when you’re an artistic director of a place, people think of you as being the authority; so if you play an authority character like a king or a countess, that makes sense. So those were the reasons why I undertook Olivia at that time.

What were some of the things you learned from Kabuki?

The Kabuki tradition started in the same decade, 1600–1610, as the English tradition—and also in round wooden amphitheaters, quite extraordinarily, with the same roof over the stage and two pillars and all that. That tradition has a lot of similar roots to the Shakespeare tradition, but they didn’t have Cromwell or a civil war, so it’s lasted over the centuries, with refinement and changes. Basically, both of these acting traditions are really people acting in the street, in a constructed market square; the amphitheaters are a kind of manmade copy of a market square. So the expression of the voices and the expression of the bodies is very strong. Imagine trying to do a play in Columbus Circle or Times Square; you’re going to have to be very dynamic with your movements and your voice to hold an audience. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t interiority. I was particularly impressed by a number of actors in Japan and paid quite a lot of money to sit up close to watch them, to see if they were just doing this incredible acting technically. But when you sat up close, there were tears in their eyes—everything you’d expect from a close-up in a movie. I was very, very impressed by that. Simply put, what they did very eloquently was the relationship between stillness and movement and the relationship between silence and sound. They really explored the spectrum between those two. Particularly, the men playing women were very good at reducing the aspects of a man that are not very feminine and amplifying the aspects that a man can achieve that are feminine. So I was very moved by that. There’s an actor called Tamasaburo, who is my age, and another elder actor called Ganjiro, who came and saw me play Cleopatra and was very generous with his time with me. So I learned some things from those people. For example, the smooth movement of Olivia at the beginning of the play, when she’s still devoted to the seven years of grieving, walking around the garden every day and crying every day for her brother—there’s a sense of winter, like she is moving on ice, and moving very smoothly compared to the later part of the play, when she is very wild and erratic. It’s like the ice is melting and everything is breaking up. The whole movement into spring, the winter-spring movement of her physical nature—that way of thinking about her came directly from me looking at the way the Japanese actors were thinking about their characters in the Kabuki theater.

In the history and the critical literature, people have very different takes on Olivia. You can take her mourning to be deeply sad, or you can take it for self-dramatizing.…

Well, I think even people who self-dramatize, probably most of them are not conscious of that, and would not take kindly to that being [Laughs]— Grief can be very dramatic indeed, but I think you’d be braver than me to go up to someone who lost her brother and father in the same year and say, “You’re self-dramatizing.” But that’s literally criticism, isn’t it? It’s heartless, unemotional and pretty worthless.

Hey, come on. Not always! I do find some academic writing about Shakespeare very eye-opening.

[Laughs] I’m fooling you. And that’s true, that’s very true. There are some very perceptive things that can come from standing back and not being emotionally involved in the parts. Absolutely.

One of my favorite Shakespeare critics is Harold C. Goddard, but I sometimes feel like he’s bending over backward to rescue Shakespeare from a few of the more potentially problematic aspects of his plays.

There are things that are very difficult. But I find that the really illuminating things come to me once I really get on the rehearsal floor or, indeed, even more so, on the stage in front of an audience. Once I have found an objective, a desire or a motivation, when I’m playing with what the character needs and wants—sometimes then, if I’m playing that truthfully and committed to it, lines that did not make sense to me intellectually will suddenly make sense: “Oh, she or he is using reverse psychology at this moment,” or “She just moved all her psychological pawns over there, and now here comes the queen.” When you look at it intellectually, you don’t know where that’s coming from, but when you’re inside the part emotionally and psychologically, some things become clearer. 

With a character like Richard—who arguably exhibits more surface dazzle than complexity as a character—how much psychological depth do you go for?

I feel he lives very, very strongly for me. Richard, I would have thought, must be pretty much the first go at these extraordinary characters like Macbeth and Iago, who are convincing to other people and seem to be able to divide themselves. The separation that Richard expresses in the tent before the Battle of Bosworth when he remarks about how his conscience has a thousand several tongues—you hear him speaking with himself, both despising himself and adoring himself, in a very wild and modern bit of text of a character speaking with himself in opposing voices.

Which many insomniacs can relate to, I imagine.

But I suppose the question is that most insomniacs are not sociopaths or psychopaths.

Perhaps I was projecting.

I’ve read a few books about psychopaths and sociopaths and what we know of their state of mind; those readings certainly yielded things for me in the character. Though it’s a rough play, he’s got all the depth that perhaps will be expressed more clearly and satisfactorily later on with Macbeth or Iago or characters like that. I mean, obviously, the first thing you have to do with Richard III is make sure that you’re convincing a lot of very intelligent other characters—brothers, wives, friends and people who are involved in government—that you are harmless, and in fact that you are their greatest friend and supporter, while you are plotting and achieving their demise. That’s the main thing that one has to focus on.

Is there any academic work on Shakespeare that you are especially drawn to?

I am a great fan of Ted Hughes’s writing on Shakespeare—his great exploration of the two poems “Venus and Adonis” and “The Rape of Lucrece” as summarizing, really, the tragic equation or the motive behind all of Shakespeare’s work. I find that very illuminating.  But mostly I have been studying and have been inspired by the writings of an Englishman called Peter Dawkins, who writes for the Francis Bacon Research Trust. I’m not referring to his writing about the questions of the authorship, but his writing about the plays and the presence of Renaissance philosophies—Platonism, thoughts from the ancient world—and other things that flooded into Italy at that time: the Kabbalah, alchemy, different terms for describing the psyche or the soul and the way that the psyche or the soul changes. Those have been my primary study from the age of 28 or 29. And that work is very much in line with Ted Hughes’s work, I would say.

Putting aside the specific arguments, I’m fascinated at how angry people seem to get at even the suggestion that the official Shakespeare from Stratford may not be the author of the plays that we call Shakespeare.

Yes, it does make people very, very angry. I wrote a whole play about it, really to investigate it a bit more, because it has been such a surprise to me how angry it makes people. I’ve had now 30 years of it, and in fact I’m now labeled an “anti-Shakespearean” by the Birthplace Trust. I think it’s because those of us who do love Shakespeare and get fascinated by Shakespeare—part of it is that you feel at an early age, or at least I felt, like: Finally, here’s someone who can give me words for things I feel inside myself but I couldn’t express before. And so you feel that this is a really good friend and someone who really understands you and knows you and, therefore, that you know them. If someone comes and says to you, “That friend is not who you think he is—it’s someone else,” that could be very upsetting, because it could mean that you’re someone else. I think Shakespeare is more of a foundation stone for those of us who love him than we realize, and that’s why people get so angry and upset. It’s funny, though, because it doesn’t take much thinking to see that even if, say, you and I agreed on the name of the person, it would be impossible for us to imagine the same person—even if everyone agreed that it was the Stratfordian man, we wouldn’t agree on the same person. And I bet the difference in whom we imagined would have very much to do with ourselves and the lens through which we’re looking at him. The Birthplace Trust is basically an authorship society. All the other societies are the same; they can’t help but wish that everyone would agree with them.

Don’t you want everyone to agree with you?

[Laughs] No, I have come to feel that I really like the fact that people don’t agree. There are so many different ideas, and it seems to me a corporate idea to make every apple the same size so it fits in the same machine and you can charge the same price and all of that.

In each of the plays is there a particular scene that you especially look forward to playing, or that you feel that you are still grappling with?

I always love the first scene of Olivia’s, when she first meets Viola. I just always look forward to it. I don’t feel like I grapple with it too much because I’ve played the part for so long now that it feels almost second nature—though very exciting and lovely to do, and still the challenge to be present and being live and discovering things is the same, and I hope I’ve achieved that to the same degree that I ever did. Richard is a newer experience. I think I have done at most 100 performances of Richard, and though that seems a lot, when you do plays for, like, 400 performances—as I did Jerusalem, and I would have thought Olivia is up near that number—then you do start to discover different things further down the path. Richard can still really disturb me every night. I can come out and get very disturbed and isolated, and sit backstage just self-critical almost to the point of retirement. And I think that has a lot to do with his own very, very acid, critical, corrosive mind, that has a very acid view of the truth of life—how merciless and fierce nature is, that nature is a cheating, dissembling force, and his actions are simply an expression of that nature. It’s a very truthful state of mind that he’s in—nature isn’t very compassionate—but rather intense. But in plays, I feel there’s a hump, and once you get over it… I look forward to the wooing-of-Anne scene, and once I have done the opening scene and then the wooing of Anne, then we’re off. I always get nervous for those first two scenes, because it’s like a first date with the audience. It’s a first date. Are they going to listen to me? Are they going to believe me and accept me? Because I’m talking a lot with the audience. And you [in the audience], of course, express yourselves very differently every night. Though I could try and force you into certain reactions, I don’t really like to do that if I can help it—if I can be brave and actually just talk with you, and see where you want to go, and so use your energy rather than force my energy onto you. So those scenes are always the most exciting.

Follow Adam Feldman on Twitter: @FeldmanAdam

    You may also like
    You may also like

    The best things in life are free.

    Get our free newsletter – it’s great.

    Loading animation
    Déjà vu! We already have this email. Try another?

    🙌 Awesome, you're subscribed!

    Thanks for subscribing! Look out for your first newsletter in your inbox soon!