Mark Rylance is dressed for rehearsals in loose black trousers and top, plus a puckish red knitted cap beneath which irrepressible tufts of dark hair sprout. His smile is wide, his face open, his dark eyebrows faintly saturnine – although heaven knows he can transform himself at will, creating Thomas Cromwell’s inward features and calculating mind, or Rooster Byron’s air of dangerous, Dionysian provocation.
He was lucky during lockdown. Although theatres ground to a halt, film production was able to press ahead, and he made six – six! – films. First out was a student short (lucky students). Then there were a bunch of other things, including Don’t Look Up, which came out in December: a climate-crisis allegory about scientists trying to warn a heedless world of a massive comet about to hit Earth, with a ridiculously starry cast including Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence and Meryl Streep.
Here he is now, though, on his lunch break while he works in a deeply ungrand arts centre just south of the Thames in London. He is in rehearsals for a play called Dr Semmelweis that he has created with writer Stephen Brown. Tom Morris, he of War Horse, is directing. And Rylance couldn’t be happier. He has not worked on a play since Othello at the Globe in 2018. It has been the longest time he’s ever been out of a rehearsal room. “The first day here, oh God! It was so joyous to be in a room with other people. Theatre is so flexible and it’s so different from being an actor in a film. It’s a thousand times more enjoyable.”
So speaks the actual winner of an Oscar. He won best supporting actor for his role in Steven Spielberg’s 2015 cold war drama Bridge of Spies, a role he was offered after “my friend Dan Day-Lewis brought Steven to see me doing Twelfth Night on Broadway. So, the first time I met Steven was in the basement of the Belasco theatre, where Houdini used to drop an elephant through a trapdoor into a tank of water to make it disappear.”
A few weeks later, Spielberg offered him the part of the spy Rudolf Abel (to be fair, he’d tried to get him to be in Empire of the Sun in the 1980s, but Rylance turned him down). “It was a good part,” he says of Bridge of Spies. “And it got even better after Joel and Ethan Coen rewrote it. Looking at the two versions, it was like looking at the first and second quartos of Hamlet.”
Throughout our conversation, he will refer to the world of movies – dining out with Joel Coen, exactly what it’s like working with Terrence Malick – as if it’s an amusing sideline, a hilarious hobby he has somehow stumbled into (“Really a funny fun thing,” he says lightly at one point). But film is not the point of his life; movies don’t do for him what the theatre does. Even working with Malick, playing Satan in the forthcoming The Way of the Wind, it’s not the same. It doesn’t have the same element of play, the same connection with an audience.
Rylance, at this point in our conversation, suddenly takes on the role of Malick, leaping up to act out his directing technique for my benefit. Given that the famously publicity-shy Malick never does interviews and barely speaks in public, this is completely fascinating, and I can only apologise that the medium of print cannot do justice to Rylance-as-Malick’s breathy tenor as he conveys him darting around a cave in Malta with a GoPro camera, issuing instructions such as: “‘Ah, Mark, just take the script as a kind of indication of what you might say. Say whatever you want, really … Say: ‘God is beautiful’… No, say: ‘God is everywhere.’”
The idea behind the play Rylance is rehearsing came after he read a brief, furious biography of Ignaz Semmelweis, written by Louis-Ferdinand Céline (the French novelist who became notorious for his antisemitic diatribes of the 1930s). Working as a doctor at the Vienna general hospital in the early 19th century, Semmelweis noticed that new mothers and babies had much less chance of dying from puerperal fever when they had been cared for by midwives and nurses than by doctors. Why? He eventually discovered that the doctors were attending to women almost in the same breath as conducting autopsies. If they thoroughly washed their hands, fatalities were drastically reduced.
The trouble is, his discovery fell on deaf ears. He just wasn’t taken seriously. It would take Joseph Lister, Louis Pasteur and the use of microscopes to prove the existence of bacteria, 40 years later. The result, Rylance explains, was that “literally hundreds of thousands of women were killed accidentally by doctors. It’s an example of an incredible advancement in human understanding that doesn’t land.”
Semmelweis, says Rylance, was “like the sharp knife in the drawer”; here he brandishes the available prop, an excellent wooden-handled, folding knife with which he’s attacking his salad. The doctor was, partly, his own enemy: he wasn’t a natural persuader; he was angry, impatient. The story isn’t as if written by Aeschylus, he tells me – the hero destroyed by a cruel fate – but more like something by Sophocles, the hero unwittingly complicit in his own downfall. Despite the fact that Rylance has been thinking about the play for years and that it was meant to premiere in the spring of 2020, the material – trust in scientific evidence and hand hygiene, for heaven’s sake – seems ridiculously prescient.
Soon after Dr Semmelweis’s run at the Bristol Old Vic, Rylance will be on stage again, this time in London, with Jerusalem. The play by Jez Butterworth, directed by Ian Rickson, was a sensation when it premiered in 2009, running for 420 performances in London and on Broadway. A twisted pastoral marinated in the deep, dark mythology of England, it was an extraordinary piece of ensemble theatre lit up by Rylance’s central performance as the magnetic Johnny “Rooster” Byron, a character brimming with Falstaffian, punkish energies.
It will be an event. Jerusalem is a “state-of-England” play, one that poked and prodded, albeit indirectly and allusively, at the politics of the time. It will mean something different again when it returns to a post-Brexit, austerity-hit, Covid-beset country. The original production was never filmed, except for archival purposes (“I’m not interested in filmed plays,” he admits). That means that for the past decade, Rylance’s performance has existed in the memory of those who saw it, which is the true essence of theatre: irreproducible. There was talk of turning it into a film, he says, but “I wouldn’t be interested in that. They’d have to get someone else to do that. It would be a dry bob, as some used to say.” (Later I find this phrase in a 19th-century Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, in which it is defined as “copulation without emission”.) For him, it’s all about being in the room with an audience.
What made him want to go back to Jerusalem? Well, before TV and film, he says, actors used to return to their best parts, and tour them. If It’s a Wonderful Life had been a play, Jimmy Stewart would have reprised it endlessly, he reckons. Eugene O’Neill’s father, the actor James O’Neill, even called his summer house Monte Cristo Cottage after his most celebrated part, Edmond Dantès in The Count of Monte Cristo. “And if you’re lucky that will happen in your life as an actor, as it did with Jerusalem for me, and for Ian Rickson and Jez Butterworth, with the three of us moving into something that was greater than any one of us.”
He would like to do it every decade. He is 61 now, and was 49 when the play premiered. Back then, in the first run, “I always said that I’d like to do it again in 10 years. I’d like to do it 10 years from now, if I can. I would like to do it at 71, and 81. I’d like to do it and see if it emerges into being something that’s more than just about that time when it hit so powerfully.” Micky Lay, the real person on whom Rooster was loosely based, now dead, was 74 when Rylance went to visit him in Pusey, Oxfordshire, proffering a bottle of whisky. “That was the second time: the first time he told me to fuck off, then I remembered that you always need to take a dragon a gift.” Most of the original cast has agreed to return, even those who had tiny parts, although the younger roles have been recast (the teenage characters needing to be played by young actors, plus some changes made to improve diversity, since times have moved on in other ways, too).
Rylance was worried that Mackenzie Crook wouldn’t want to come back, but no, “he’s more fired up than I am”. He adds: “I had dinner with Ginger … ” – he uses Crook’s character’s name before correcting himself – “with Mackenzie the other night, the first time for maybe six or seven years, because he’s a very private gentleman. Ahhh, he’s a genius,” he says with disarming fondness, and chuckles. “I said to him: ‘It’ll be quite a moment when I say: ‘Morning Ginge,’ for the first time in front of people at the Apollo again.’” He is right. It will.
Another anniversary is looming: this summer, it will be a decade since Rylance’s beloved stepdaughter, Nataasha van Kampen, died, aged just 28, of a suspected brain haemorrhage, on a flight from New York to London. Rylance had married her mother, the theatre composer Claire van Kampen, when Nataasha was very young; the whole family, including Chris van Kampen, Nataasha and her sister Juliet’s father, were very close. It was shortly before the London Olympics opening ceremony, which Rylance was supposed to begin with Shakespeare’s words from The Tempest, “The isle is full of noises …” Kenneth Branagh stepped into the breach.
I ask him how he and his family are now. In the early, shocked days after her death, he tells me, they had an open house at their home in Herne Hill, south London: “Someone came who had lost a child 20 years before, and she said: ‘It never changes. This is it, it never gets better.’ And Juliet kicked Claire under the table, as if to say: ‘That’s not going to be us. There’s no way that ’Taasha would want us to stay in this absolute pit.’”
It has, of course, been unspeakably hard. It was as if the family was a string quartet, he says, and they had suddenly lost a violinist; each of them had to learn to play the violin “and step in and play it” when needed, keeping Nataasha’s character, her spirit, her way of seeing the world close-held in the family. In fact, it was because she’d always been keen on his doing film work that Rylance started acting in more movies. “Though there’s not a day we wouldn’t wish her here, growing in the physical world, she feels both very far away and very, very near,” he says. “For me, love is stronger than death. And you know, we are very sad sometimes. But we’re also very happy sometimes, and we feel her come with us as much when we’re happy, if not more, than when we’re sad.”
At a certain point during our conversation, I ask Rylance how he does it. How he acts, that is. Absurd question: you might as well ask a great chef how she cooks or a great soprano how she sings. But he answers seriously. He tells me about his teachers: Mike Alfreds who founded Shared Experience, and Philip Hedley, once artistic director of east London’s Theatre Royal, Stratford East. “They had digested Stanislavski, you had a real awakening of how you could layer and layer and develop things.”
But it’s not quite that, he says. “What I am looking for is something that is moving. I am hunting for some engine … By now, at 61, I have discovered that my mind is really a helpful host into the room, but it’s not the cook.” There has to be something living, something playful, in the performance itself. And it comes partly, and powerfully, from the audience.
He tells me about playing Hamlet at the Barbican in London with the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1989. It was 5 June. He had seen the news: seen the footage of a man walking out in front of a line of tanks in Tiananmen Square, then stopping, right in their path. “And I remember coming on and saying: ‘The time is out of joint. O cursed spite, that ever I was born to set it right.’” In his imagination the auditorium itself, in that moment, became that line of tanks. “Or was it,” he wonders, “that a lot of people in the audience were also aware of that thought? That you might, at some point, find yourself in a time that’s out of joint, and be the one standing in front of the tank, stopping it?” Whatever it was, Rylance has a kind of extreme porousness that means worlds, not just words, can flow through him. And when he speaks those lines of Hamlet’s, I feel my stomach flip. It doesn’t matter how he does it. He just does.
Dr Semmelweis is at the Bristol Old Vic from 20 January to 12 February.