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Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Mark Rylance Shakespeare Muse of Fire Interview


I just watched Mark Rylance's interview for the Muse of Fire documentary.

It's a brilliant interview, and you shouldn't miss it.




I had the pleasure of seeing him on Broadway, as Olivia in Twelfth Night and as Richard III. I wrote about them here and here.

I was very excited to see this interview, since Rylance is arguably the greatest living Shakespearean actor.

After watching the interview, there is no argument. He is the greatest living Shakespearean actor. 




In the process of performing so much Shakespeare (some 50 productions of Shakespeare and his contemporary playwrights) and in his capacity as the first artistic director of Shakespeare's Globe, he tore down the wall between the audience and the actors on stage in order to recreate the most authentic playing experience. This experience was very close to the one that Shakespeare knew, some 400 years ago.

In other words, no other actor understands how to perform Shakespeare the way Shakespeare would recognize.

But, Mr. Rylance did not go far enough. He did not take the final step in his lifelong journey to find the authentic Shakespeare form of performance.


As Olivia in Twelfth Night

In this excellent documentary, he explains how over the years he became accustomed to seeing the faces in the audience, and hearing the noises the audience made, whether it was a laugh, or a sigh, or a cough, or the silence they make when they are fully engaged in the play.

But sometimes the audience would speak back to the actors while they were performing. During a performance of Henry V, an impatient man said: "Move it along."

Mr. Rylance, to his great credit, took this as a challenge, and did not just reject their behaviour as rude and irrelevant. He actually began to anticipate people in the audience who would say things. Instead of thinking of the audience as something apart from the stage and the actors, he began to think of the people in the audience as actors, too! How brilliant! 

He realized that even if the audience is rude and interrupts the actors on the stage, it is "great" because they are engaged in the play. He and the other actors would try to play back to the audience if they spoke aloud to the stage.

What Mr. Rylance and his fellow actors were attempting was truly brilliant.

But they did not go far enough.


As Richard III

One of the very first discoveries I made when I started writing my own versions of Shakespeare's plays, is that the audiences in Shakespeare's time spoke back to the actors all the time. In fact, I think Shakespeare was so accustomed to this that he anticipated it in his writing, and he wrote certain moments in every play that not only expected audience feedback, but elicited it!

These moments in Shakespeare's plays are today called "soliloquies," when an actor speaks TO an audience. But nowhere does Shakespeare himself use the word "soliloquy." I am convinced that Shakespeare was writing "colloquies," where the actor speaks WITH an audience. Not a monologue but a dialogue.

Near the end of Hamlet's "To be or not to be" speech, as Ophelia arrives, he says: "Soft you now, the fair Ophelia!"

"Soft you now" means "be quiet" or "hush." Hamlet is not telling himself to be quiet. He is not telling Ophelia to be quiet. He is telling the audience to be quiet.

Why would the audience speak with Hamlet at this moment in the play? Well, he is trying to decide between living or killing himself. Naturally, the audience would be telling him to continue his struggle, and get revenge.


As Hamlet, in 1988

When Hamlet discovers Claudius at prayer, he doesn't know whether to kill Claudius or not. This is yet another example of how Shakespeare elicited a vocal response from the audience. In the audience there would be people who would say "Kill Claudius now and have your revenge!" while others would caution against it.

Again and again, in every single play, there are moments where Shakespeare not only expected the audience to speak, but was encouraging it.

Why?

Mr. Rylance makes an excellent point that performing a play is like a tennis match or a game of football. He is absolutely right. And I have never been to a sporting event where the crowd is absolutely silent.

Shakespeare knew this too. Arguably the greatest competition he had for his plays was a bear-baiting match, where the audience would bet for or against a bear that is torn apart by hounds. I suspect the audience for those kinds of events were very very loud, and it was one of the few times in their daily existence where they could shout as loud as they liked.


As Richard II, in 2003

That was what Shakespeare, writing plays, had to compete with. An Elizabethan theatre-goer might struggle to decide what to see as they stood outside the Theatre in Shoreditch: "Should I spend my money on Shakespeare's play Richard III, or spend my money on a bear-baiting match at the Curtain theatre, only a stone's throw away?"

Shakespeare had to allow his audience to vent their anger, let them yell, and let off some steam while watching his plays. People want to be heard and be seen. Going to a play was a spectator sport, where the audience could be just as important as the actors on the stage.

In fact, the audience is more important. Without the audience, there is no play. Without his audience, Shakespeare could not write. His audience was the light that guided and illuminated his plays. I wrote about this in greater detail here.

I truly wish that Mr. Rylance returns to the stage again, and performs some Shakespeare soon. I hope that he might try this approach with the audience. I think it would be a thrilling moment for him as an actor, and a revolutionary moment for the audience.

He has spent his professional life trying to tear down the wall that divides the actors from the audience. I think that wall would come crashing down as soon as he looks at the audience more often and speaks not to them, but with them.




Also, without Mark Rylance, who else is there that can or would devote so much of their life to Shakespeare? The world is in desperate need of actors with that ambition and talent. 

He has spent so many years blazing this trail, and discovering so much about Shakespeare that was all but lost. Without him, I fear we may lose it all again, and the wall that divides the audience and the actors will rise higher and higher.

I should add that, in the interview, he does discuss the authorship question in some detail. He believes that there is more to the story, for the authorship of the plays, than is found in the story of the man from Stratford. He has researched the possibility that the Earl of Oxford may have written them, or Mary Sidney, or Francis Bacon.

I don't believe that anyone else wrote the plays, but I don't believe that Shakespeare wrote them in a vacuum. For example, one of his artistic patrons was William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke. Pembroke's mother was Mary Sidney. It is entirely possible that Shakespeare knew her, and she must have had a great influence over all of Shakespeare's plays.

In any event, as much as I am put off by Mr. Rylance's interest in these other authorship candidates, I could not help but agree with him that there is more to the story. I just have a different story, one he has not yet heard.

Also, as much as he has clearly studied the plays, and how to perform them, and the history of how they have been performed, I did not hear him speak about Elizabethan and Jacobean history. I wonder to what degree he knows what was happening in Shakespeare's lifetime, and how these events influenced, and could have produced, the man from Stratford.

Finally, there is a moment in the interview when one of the documentarians, Giles Terera, asks how a knowledge of the history of Shakespeare's life, or who in fact really wrote them, could make a difference to someone watching the play today. As Giles puts it: "How does that help my auntie enjoy the play?"

I would say that without the knowledge of the history of Shakespeare's life, or who wrote the plays, and why the plays were written -- we may never understand what the plays really mean. 

If we don't understand what they mean, then we are not truly appreciating what Shakespeare wrote, and the plays have over the course of 400 years have become corrupted. My work has been to strip the plays of our modern corruptions and return them to their proper historical context.

I hope you watch this remarkable interview, and I hope you watch the other free interviews from Muse of Fire. Also, you should not miss the Muse of Fire documentary itself. It is very entertaining.

Cheers,




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