Playing Hamlet Entry #4

What Would Mark Rylance Do?

4-18-2013 Thursday 3:46PM


Mark Rylance as Hamlet (1989)



I first saw Mark Rylance as Viola in Twelfth Night at the Globe Theatre in London in the summer of 2002. Then Valere in La Bête in 2010 in NYC. Then Johnny “Rooster” Bryon in Jerusalem in 2011 in NYC. He's also had his go as Hamlet (a few times), though I haven't seen him in the role, televised or otherwise. Based on what I have seen him perform, though, I have to ask: What Would Mark Rylance Do?

The first thing that comes to mind when I think of Mark Rylance is his command of the audience. When I saw him as the tight-fisted, stiff-collared Viola, I watched his every move. I mean, I didn't know him from Adam at the time (sorry, bro-in-law Adam (and Mr. Rylance; ignorant youngsters of old beg your pardon)), but who the hell were these jerks to be doing an all-male Twelfth Night? So one was watching closely. But nothing went wrong! In fact, it just kept going righter and righter.

I think that first instance of seeing him perform came together and made a gabillion times more sense when I saw him perform in NYC years later. It became clearer to me after my many more years of performing (particularly as a musician – a singer / songwriter on my own in front of an audience with only my music and my patter to defend me) that he was a master at living with his performative being in-between private and public command.

For instance, something I heard about his Valere performance floored me. Apparently between the London production and the Broadway production he changed up the accent from a cockney slob to a sort of American South hick slob. That, in itself, is at once an egregiously superficial character feature and a deeply significant identifier-clue to the audience about where from and what this dude is. And, in true Rylance fashion (if the unqualified can take a leap), that feature was highly personalized and “private” and therefore utterly commanding. In fact, it kept getting righter... from righter to righter to right-est...

There was a moment in Jerusalem, very early on in the play, when Johnny Bryon was – by my recollection – spouting quite a bit of exposition and character for the audience to absorb and enjoy (particularly for later payoff). He was rolling a cigarette and during his “patter” was all but looking directly at the audience. Not “direct address” – but so close to it that you wondered if he wasn't sneaking secret smiles right at you. “Hi! Yep, I know we're in a theatre together...”

So What Would He Do (were he playing Hamlet right here, right now, in my place in NYC at the in-aptly named Access Theatre)?

The cool and kind and awesome William Sadler gave me some unexpected advice on my first turn as Hamlet on Cornell University's professional stage. He was visiting an old friend an ex-professor of mine Stephen Cole (he studied with Prof Cole while receiving his MFA from Cornell) while we were in rehearsals. He happened to stop by during a rehearsal of the nunnery scene and during break I asked him what he thought – did he have any advice? “Oh, man... “ he mused – having played the part when he was a younger man, “Just... enjoy it.”

And you know, as oversimplified as that may sound, I think that that's exactly what Mark Rylance would do. During curtain call for La Bête, I watched him bound off the stage like my old black lab mix Devony when she got excited at the prospect of playing catch or going for a walk or getting a treat. He had just delivered an exhausting and hilarious and disturbing performance – and wanted more.

So. I will remember to look for joy. In the personal and the public – from what is experienced through me as character and with me as audience. It's all right there. To be toyed with, enjoyed – “Important – but not a shrine” (Tony Greco). And part of that joy will be knowing there are human powerhouses out there (though perhaps none the likes of Rylance) that stir up the imagination and the soul so much that they cannot but help to affect the lives of performers and their renditions of timeless characters from here to the end. Form and pressure – it's the age and body of the time's form and pressure!! “O ho – do you mark that?” (Polonius, 3.2).  It only gets righter and righter...

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Ben Williams is an actor and musician based in NYC.

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