So, Mark Rylance.

It may be a bit contrary of me to say that Rylance is the single most remarkable — really, the only remarkable — thing about the current Broadway productions of Twelfth Night and Richard III. Both shows, and particularly the comedy, have after all been hailed by US critics as virtually unprecedented works of theatrical genius. Twelfth Night has literally been called “unsurpassable” and similarly breathless and moonstruck appraisals dominated the reviews. Walter Kaiser sums up what seems to be the critical consensus: “You may, if you’re lucky, see another Shakespearean production that’s as good as this one, but it’s unlikely you will ever see one that’s better.”

It’s possible, of course, that none of the American reviewers have ever crossed the Atlantic, and that this is their first exposure to the kind of theatre Shakespeare’s Globe has been producing for almost twenty years, since its inaugural “Prologue” season of 1996. If their parochialism is that extreme, I suppose their utter amazement at a remount of a production now over ten years old may just about be understandable. It may also explain their failure to understand how these shows work. Back in the mid-90s, the Globe’s inaugural artistic director, one Mark Rylance, advocated strongly for a very light directorial touch — one that would not interfere with the communication between actors and audience (Rylance’s statement can be found in Shakespeare’s Globe Rebuilt, eds. J. R. Mulryne and Margaret Shewring, Cambridge 1997, 169-70). Tim Carroll is certainly a director of this kind: no particular perspective on the play, let alone any sense of what the point of its contemporary performance might be, is noticeable in this production. One might say that Carroll stays out of the play’s way; or one might say that he leaves it alone; or one might say that he doesn’t direct it. In any case, he leaves few to no noticeable traces of his work, which is why it’s particularly remarkable, and amusing, that the US reviewers unanimously praise and credit his influence — from Kaiser’s conviction that Carroll’s “inspired direction” is grounded in a “profound understanding of Shakespeare’s play” to Als waxing lyrical about the director’s “authority and vision as well as an inspired spatial sense” — as if whatever is powerful about the production flowed from a strong directorial approach, rather than from the self-effacing anti-directorial ideal that seemed to matter so much in the Globe’s early days.

I have more to say about the purported “original practices” of these productions, but will save that rant for another post. For now, I’m more interested in how much the critical reception of these shows relies on the conviction that what they offer is a uniquely direct access to Shakespeare’s text — that the actors, like time travellers or perhaps just archeologists of the stage, bring back meanings from the text’s point of origin that would be lost without their help. As Kaiser writes in his (astonishingly strange) review,

The language of Twelfth Night is not easy for the modern spectator or reader, as the proportion of explanatory notes to text on any page of the scholarly editions testifies. Yet these actors comprehend that language so thoroughly and are so marvelously at home with it that, even when the words themselves may be opaque, they are able to convey their meaning with elucidating gestures and facial expressions, leaving no one in any doubt about what is being said.

Kaiser’s understanding of performance follows a really rather remarkable logic. The language itself may be incomprehensible; but the actors have such a profound grasp of it that even as they speak words that are all but meaningless to their audience, they do things with their bodies and faces that make perfectly clear what they mean. Which might make one wonder why they didn’t just mime the whole bloody show.

A touch less facetiously, it might also make one wonder exactly how any amount of gesture and grimace can actually do what Kaiser suggests. How, for instance, can facial and gestural expression convey what Sir Toby means when he tells Sir Andrew that his hair “hangs like flax on a distaff, and I hope to see a housewife take thee between her legs and spin it off.” Of course Colin Hurley got a laugh on the line. But I very much doubt that most audience members laughed because they got that he was accusing Sir Andrew of being effeminate; that most of them immediately realized what a distaff was; that everyone knew what “hussif” means (the pronunciation of “housewife” the actor chose); and that the punchline truly registered with many people — the joke being that Toby hopes that Andrew will get an STD and lose his hair. I have no idea if Hurley knows all those things, though I very much suspect he does. But does he need to know them to do what he does to make the line funny? Because what he does is exactly the same thing every other Sir Toby I’ve ever seen has done: give the line a vaguely dirty inflection (though he mercifully does it without a smutty laugh or hip-thrust), thus signalling to the audience that a moment of “bawdy” has arrived and needs to be acknowledged with laughter. Admittedly, I can’t know that. It may indeed be true that to everyone but me, Hurley’s performance transported half a page worth of scholarly annotation and joke-explaining. But I doubt it.

Rather, I think Kaiser is half-right: the gestures and facial expressions indeed do the work that the language may once have done. It’s only approximately the same work, but the outcome is identical: the moment gets a laugh. That doesn’t mean, however, that anyone actually understands the text any better than before, that anyone has just been granted access to Shakespeare that would have been barred in a lesser production, let alone in a silent, private reading. What the audience is laughing at in this moment, and in many others, is an actor’s actions, not the text at all; and the only thing they get closer to is the effect, not the meaning or the content, of Shakespeare’s words.

Let me hasten to say that I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. It’s simply how it is on the modern stage with old texts full of old words, allusions, and jokes. Despite Shakespeare’s purported universalism and transcendent appeal, a great deal of his language is now incomprehensible, at least in the details. So actors find themselves, especially in comic scenes, in situations where they need to supplement the words they speak with some sort of action that signals their humorous intent — physical or vocal subtitles, you might say. (Straight-up miming or “translation” into modern language would be more like dubbing, I suppose.) So my point is not that this is unusual; rather, it’s pretty much inevitable. What’s different about this Twelfth Night might just be that its actors are especially good at communicating what is and isn’t supposed to be funny, and what is supposed to be emotionally engaging, to their audience — to make the spectators feel things, to guide their responses, and thus give them a sense that they’re gaining access to Shakespeare, and Shakespeare’s world.

Confession time. What do I, as a Shakespearean, do in moments like these? It’s a problem. Partly because there’s nothing worse than the well-informed solo laugh — the loud, self-satisfied chuckle that lets the silent audience members around you, and possibly even the actors, know that you got it; that you have those footnotes internalized, too. And partly because no joke you needed to have explained remains properly funny. Such an explanation may lead to understanding; it may even lead to a silent, educated smile (“Ah! Clever!”). But a belly laugh? Rarely. And it is of course the case that almost all of us had to have those jokes explained at one point or another — no Shakespeare scholar is born a Shakespeare scholar. So in a certain sense, knowledge doesn’t help at all: it makes it no easier to laugh out loud, and brings with it the risk of feeling — and being — obnoxious. And then there’s the problem of knowing the text too well: if you’re already aware that a particular joke is coming, will you still laugh at it? And if you do, and mean it, what are you laughing at? I’d say that half the time I find myself squirming, because an actor either doesn’t get or doesn’t care what’s funny about a particular line (or may not recognize it as a joke at all); and half the time I do laugh, but not because a funny line has been spoken, but because the actor did something funny, or said the line in a funny way — or, most commonly I think, because of the line’s effect on the other actors. Because while the scripted joke is predictable, how it plays, on stage and off, is not. Unlike scripted jokes, situational comedy, reactions, the way a specific line becomes funny in a specific staging are kind of “you had to be there” phenomena, which is why they are genuinely funny (perhaps there is a direct connection between surprise and laughter here), but also why they are even more difficult to capture and explain in retrospect than written jokes — precisely because all spontaneity is necessarily lost in the process. All of which is to say, the one advantage the specialist may have over the non-specialist in watching a performance like this Twelfth Night is the awareness that what we’re all laughing at isn’t quite Shakespeare; that, in other words, the reviewers are probably overly naive in their belief that “the performers here trust wholly in Shakespeare’s words and in the ability of the audience to understand them. So many interpretations of the canon now are tricked out in the condescending, high-concept garb of anachronistic settings, with comedy that exaggerates the (yuck, yuck) bawdy parts with broad, illustrative gestures” (thus Ben Brantley in the New York Times).

There may be one more advantage to textual expertise: if you know the play very well, you might also see more clearly where the production achieves unexpected effects. An example: I, for one, would never have thought that Olivia’s first line after Cesario leaves her in 1.5 — her self-quoting “‘What is your parentage?'” — was worth dwelling on. I’ve certainly never seen an actor do much with it. And then the Rylance effect happened. His discombobulated Olivia watches Cesario storm off; pauses; looks out at us; says the line, slowly — quotes herself, in disbelief — and puts her hand to her forehead, in a thoroughly modern gesture of exasperated self-disdain. Of course he gets a huge laugh, deservedly. And then he responds to the laughter, looking us in the eyes, shaking his head at himself, at the situation, perhaps at us. In all of this, he gives his character a self-awareness, a capacity for self-observation, and signals that she has already grasped that desire has turned her into a prattler, a realization the text only makes explicit five or six lines later. Some of this is “in Shakespeare,” to be sure, but where Rylance places it, when and how he communicates this self-recognition, the degree to which he turns the moment into an ironic exchange with the audience — none of that is governed by the text, none of it is predictable, and little of it simply illuminates or conveys “Shakespeare.” Rather, it transforms a play text into a performance, a transformation in which actor and script are equally involved, equally powerful, and which results in something necessarily unlike the text and more (or differently) interesting than the words on the page.

I don’t know a single other living actor who is as effortlessly surprising as Rylance, who lays claim to his share of authority with as much gusto as he does. He rarely ad-libs outright, but neither does he ever seem fettered by Shakespeare’s text and its metrical structure: Rylance’s rhythms, his pauses, his sudden speed, his trademark stammer, his ability to listen to himself and revel in the things he is saying — all of those are entirely his own. And if his arsenal of vocal and rhetorical choices tends to give Shakespeare a uniquely Rylancian inflection and quality, the actual choices he makes seem strictly governed by the impulses he receives from his fellow actors, from the audience, and from himself. His Olivia is perfectly able to stop herself in mid-line in response to a noise in the audience; his Richard gleefully laughs along with spectators, even taking delight in delayed reactions (when I saw the show, a line got a late laugh, in response to which Rylance stopped himself, whirled around, stared into the audience with an appreciative chuckle of the “not bad, eh?” variety, and then backtracked half a line to continue the opening soliloquy). When there were gasps in response to Richard’s “Shall I be plain? I want the bastards dead” in 4.2, he shot the spectators a challenging look as if to say “Did you mistake me for a clown?” — a move expanded on in the little happy dance Richard performs after Tyrrel exits with the promise that he will “dispatch straight” the king’s infanticidal desires, a giddy twirl that sets his far-too-large royal robes spinning and that ends with another eloquent glance at the audience, bordering on contempt: “Yeah, this is me. This is who you were laughing with just a minute ago. Why so serious now?” Obviously most of this must be well rehearsed, but in its responsiveness it feels extraordinarily spontaneous, as if the text were more or less stable, but its performance new every night.

None of this works quite as well on video, nor is it the best illustration of what I’m talking about, but if you haven’t seen Rylance on stage, have a look at this clip from the Globe staging of Twelfth Night:

The best representation of what he does I can find on YouTube is this old clip from the 2003 Globe production of Richard II:

(In case it’s not embarrassingly obvious: we’re now knee-deep into the gushing sections of this post.)

The critical response to Twelfth Night has been considerably more over-the-top than that to Richard III, and I too gad divergent responses to the two shows, if for rather different reasons than most critics I have read. The major complaint about Richard III seems to be that Rylance is too clownish, not evil or depraved enough, and that the action of the play is too complicated and too historically specific, whereas the comedy relies on “universal” themes and motives. I think the latter is largely tosh, and the former a misreading of this R3. But I do agree that as a whole production, Twelfth Night is more successful. This has little to do with the play’s timeless appeal, though. Instead, I’d say its the relative cohesion of the ensemble that drives this show, and falters in the other. Rylance’s Olivia stands out, to be sure — no one else is quite as free, quite as inventive, or, frankly, quite as over the top. Put differently, no one else tries to get away with running on stage swinging a huge halberd; nor does anyone else shriek quite as much, throw things at people and after them with quite as wild abandon, or use quite as extravagant a set of gestures. But the entire cast operates with a degree of freedom that at least puts them in the same theatrical universe as Rylance. Liam Brennan seems entirely comfortable with making noises to express himself even if Shakespeare didn’t give Orsino any noises to make. There is a brilliantly choreographed extended interaction between Orsino and Cesario while both listen to Feste’s song “Come away, come away, death” in 2.3, with an Orsino that is unable to take his eyes off Cesario, and finds himself increasingly keen to touch the boy, but is also so baffled by what he’s feeling that he keeps trying to translate gentle touching into masculine thigh-slapping, arm-grabbing, and bear-hugging; this stands as one of the most inspired and effective pieces of invented action I’ve ever seen (it it’s Carroll’s, tip of the hat to the director), and it precisely captures the particular allure of Cesario’s polymorphous attractiveness, which the text talks about endlessly. And there’s a general spirit of exuberance and responsiveness that informs almost every performance.

The same can’t be said of Richard III. There, the only actor approaching Rylance’s level of freedom of play is Colin Hurley as Edward IV, though that freedom largely disappears when he doubles as Stanley. Samuel Barnett, a remarkable Viola, has one great scene in Richard III as Edward’s widow, Queen Elizabeth, but otherwise plays it fairly safe; and Liam Brennan, so fresh as Orsino, doesn’t find similar degrees of spontaneity in his Clarence (which turns the narrative of his nightmare vision of his own death into a well-paced recitation of a passage of high poetry — common enough in Shakespeare performance, but disappointing in this context). The biggest problem may be Angus Wright’s Buckingham. Wright’s gaunt, overly courtly, rather stiff physical presence is great as Sir Andrew, as is his plummy voice: it all adds up to a pathetic emblem of quasi-aristocratic twittishness. As Buckingham, though, Wright completely lacks the very qualities he loudly proclaims to have: there is no evidence that he can in fact “counterfeit the deep tragedian,” can transform himself into another; this Buckingham may be a political player, but he’s not a chameleon. And without this temporary soul-mate and congenial sidekick, Richard is left as the sole torch-bearer for playfulness within the play, unmoored and disconnected from what is going on around him. (The lack of connection between Richard and Buckingham also leaves the king’s dismissal of his principal ally without any teeth in 4.2.)

As far as I’m concerned, then, the shortcomings of this Richard III have very little to do with the main actor, and much with the rest of the cast: Richard may be isolated within his world to an extent, but here, the actor playing Richard is also isolated within the ensemble, and is left disconnected from the production as a whole to such an extent that the difference between what Rylance is doing and what the other actors seem to be going for are too great for the show to ever develop the kind of collective spirit and momentum that drives Twelfth Night. (It’s also a bit of an odd dramaturgical decision to cut Queen Margaret out of the play altogether, but leave other supernatural elements in — without the propulsive quality of her curses, and the complicated delight she takes in her former enemies’ downfall, Richard III becomes a relative flat and uncomplicated play.)

I want to end this already over-long post with a brief reflection on why Rylance’s work strikes me as so remarkably well-suited to Shakespeare, and why I wish there were a whole school of Rylance. I wrote earlier about his extraordinary ability and willingness to connect with the audience — his habit of looking you straight in the eye. It can be an unsettling experience, this sense of being acknowledged as present in a situation where my enjoyment depends in good measure on my certainty that the character and I do not inhabit the same space (if Richard can look at me, how safe is my life? If Olivia can see me, shouldn’t I explain to her what she’s getting wrong?). But wait, you may say: the character isn’t looking at you. Some guy called Mark Rylance is, and he’s breaking character when he admits that you’re there. Except he’s not. And in that lies the truly quite unique quality of Rylance’s connection with his characters and his spectators, the quality that makes him such a quintessentially Shakespearean actor: that he can acknowledge the audience, admit that we are in a theatre and that he is on stage, and at the same time remain in character as someone inhabiting, at that very moment, an English castle or a palace in Illyria. When Rylance’s Richard looks at you, Richard is looking at you. It’s a real look exchanged between a real person (you) and a fictional character.

There’s no way of verifying this observation. It’s how I have experienced what Rylance is doing. Perhaps the effect has something to do with the way he inhabits the language of the plays as well, the way he combines his highly idiosyncratic delivery with a fairly strict adherence to the actual words. Rylance is always very present in his performances, but also works hard to keep that presence at bay, to mediate it somehow. He speaks, but he also listens to himself and more often than not, he almost seems surprised to hear himself say the words. (The same applies to how he relates to other actors on stage, especially in Richard III: his Richard is an intently attentive listener, and this attentive quality immediately kicks up the energy of every scene he is in.) In all this, he comes as close as anyone I’ve seen to the effect theatre seemed to have had in Shakespeare’s own time, as an art that depended both on presence and absence, that never settled for either representation or presentation, that kept fiction and reality in a constant dialectic tension and derived its power to create credible fictions from a willingness to lay bare the mechanisms of its own fiction-making. Rylance both takes charge and submits, at the same time; he is present and he disappears. I’m increasingly convinced that his actorly persona is the closest approximation we have to what it might have been like to see Burbage on stage.

6 Responses to In Praise of Actors, Part II (Mark Rylance)

  1. Oliver Senton says:

    Really interesting post, dispositio. But there’s a misperception there I’ve seen before, that what Shakespeare wrote is a text that contains all truths; that actors can only ever approximate the clarity of the ‘original’, ie: the text. What Shakespeare wrote was a menu, with the dish to be cooked and served by actors he knew and understood deeply. The text is just the map; the performance is the territory.
    Theatre is a form of constant approximations and redefinitions; this is indeed something that the great Rylance and others understand. But I’ve seen the extemporaneous vocabulary you talk of used by many fine stage performers.
    Thanks for keeping the debate going.

  2. You touch on what, for me, is the true genius (and sometimes maddening paradox) in Shakespeare – the soliloquies. If the soliloquies are directed to the audience, as I (and many others) believe they must be, then the characters are speaking to the audience. Which means they know they’re being watched. Which means you ARE in the same space as them.

    You’re not talking to a fictional character, you’re talking to a real actor playing a role – and therein lies the fun (and danger.) You could tell ‘Olivia’, or ‘Othello’ what they’re getting wrong; and therein lies your complicity in the tragedy. It’s that complicity that I LOVE while at the theatre, and it’s what I especially liked about Twelfth Night. (It’s also why I rarely go to the theatre, because that complicity is usually absent and the performance, therefore, kinda boring. (see esp. this season’s “Waiting for Godot”. )

  3. Tom Reedy says:

    “. . . the quality that makes him such a quintessentially Shakespearean actor: that he can acknowledge the audience, admit that we are in a theatre and that he is on stage, and at the same time remain in character as someone inhabiting, at that very moment, an English castle or a palace in Illyria.”

    Bravo! I also think that the actors of Shakespeare’s time performed this way. Hamlet wasn’t talking to himself; he was explaining his state of mind to the audience, most likely walking back and forth down-stage and looking directly into the audience and questioning them, too. The actors were performing, not method acting, and it was a bit too early for realism.

    Regarding the jokes, this double-mindedness is the curse of all Shakespeareans, but If I’m involved in the drama, a good actor makes me forget everything I know. Just recently David Walliams’ Bottom made me forget I’d ever seen or read the play.

  4. Julie says:

    I am very interested in what you will say about “original practices” and specifically, leaving women off the stage in service to it. Mark Rylance may be very good, but all the other people currently choosing to mount all-male productions either in the name of trying to be like Rylance or under the “original practices” banner are, well, freaking me out a little. Roles for women in Shakespeare (and therefore places for women in companies that do Shakespeare as their main offering) lag behind roles for men (obviously), so not giving work to actresses who might play Rosalind or Viola or Beatrice because women weren’t allowed on stage in 1604… Well, that’s troubling to me. There seems to be some perception that it’s funnier and cooler to have the likes of Mark Rylance or Brian Bedford look hideous in a dress and play the main female role, instead of giving a woman a chance to ply her craft. When that extends to the whole company, and the others aren’t as successful as Rylance, you really start to have problems. As a one-off, who cares? But as a matter of course or a central tenet of production? Not so nifty. Given that you are sensitive to the misogyny in SHERLOCK, I’m wondering how you see this trend. Original practices? Return to the repression of yesteryear? Or the flavor of the month which really just serves as an excuse to give Mark Rylance a huge spotlight, but won’t really come off for the imitators, anyway?

    • Neil Howlett says:

      In response to Julie I’m going to mentioned again Propeller Theatre Company in England, who are an all-male Shakespeare company who have been running since 1997 – another product of that remarkable minute hothouse of theatricality The Watermill in Newbury (the home also of the John Doyle ‘Sweeney Todd’).
      I don’t know why they are all male – I don’t think they are paying hommage to Mark Rylance. They’re just very very good (and don’t look at all hideous in dresses).
      There is a statistical problem with the balance of roles for make and female actors, but that’s not a good reason to fetter companies by requiring equality, and we have recently have several all female productions.

  5. David ferry says:

    Very good post.

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