ENDGAME by Samuel Beckett, running at the Duchess Theatre from October 2 to December 5, 2009
Simon McBurney as CLOV, Mark Rylance as HAMM
Mark Rylance as HAMM, Tom Hickey as NAGG, & Miriam Margoyles as NELL
McBurney and Rylance in rehearsal
ENDGAME by Samuel Beckett, running at the Duchess Theatre from October 2 to December 5, 2009
Simon McBurney as CLOV, Mark Rylance as HAMM
Mark Rylance as HAMM, Tom Hickey as NAGG, & Miriam Margoyles as NELL
McBurney and Rylance in rehearsal
If you had only seen Mark Rylance on stage, or read about him, meeting him might daunt you. Take his turbocharged performance in Jerusalem, Jez Butterworth’s state-of-the-nation summer hit, where he was overwhelming as the maverick Johnny “Rooster” Byron, both a waster and a hero, a symbol of ancient England being culled. There was something genial, yes, but also wild and uncontrollable about Byron — something that frustrated the council bodies out to convict him and suggested that the actor behind him shared those traits.
Off stage, it’s even stranger. Here is a man who is described by one critic as “nutty as a fruitcake”; who has used kabbalah, and other world philosophies, to prepare his Shakespearian roles; who has, in fact, specialised in the Bard’s works, but believes that William (“the Stratford man”) didn’t even write them. When he accepted a Tony award last year, for his star turn in the farce Boeing-Boeing, he simply quoted an obscure prose poem at Broadway’s glitterati — something about wearing a uniform and going into the woods. So, sure enough, when he walks in wearing a large, velvety dressing gown, a beaded hat, slippers and quite a conspicuous hair-dye job, the picture seems complete. And when, three minutes in, he says how “even this morning, we’re putting a new bathtub in the house, and I thought, ‘I wonder if, in two or three years, if the oceans do rise so much, we’ll have to take in refugees, and not from other countries, but from London!’ ” — well, it’s surprising, but it isn’t.
The clothes are Rylance’s costume for his latest role, in Samuel Beckett’s Endgame. He plays Hamm, the blind, chair-bound tyrant of sorts, who literally dominates the stage, seated at the centre at his insistence, placed there by the ever-obliging Clov (Simon McBurney, who also co-directs). The bathtub and the refugees, meanwhile, are because the actor is worried about our era — about our environment and our government and the way we live — and all this, for him, is there in Hamm. And to think it was originally going to be played by Richard Briers.
As we talk in a dingy foyer at the Duchess Theatre, in Covent Garden, it’s soon clear that if you give Rylance an imaginative inch, he will take a full, fantastical mile. You can see his mind working as he pauses politely to consider and answer a question; pauses that can last ages, but are never discomfiting — just long, and rather rare in conversation these days, in the “speeded-up” society he bemoans. It’s as if he is taking a running jump: eventually lifting off to say something interesting or unusual or positively mystical. You train your eyebrows not to rise. From the question of Shakespearian authorship and radiation poisoning in the Middle East through to Cliff Richard’s television interview with Piers Morgan, he has a distinct take on it, and disagreement is possible everywhere. (He is fascinated by Sir Cliff’s Indian heritage, since you ask — “the nodding-head positiveness, the discretion, but not business-minded”.) But hearing him say it — perhaps it’s an actor’s skill — it sounds thought-out, sincere.
It also helps that he’s pleasant. This need not be the case; he can afford a big ego. For those who follow the theatre, he is possibly the best actor of his generation. Jerusalem, which transfers to the West End in January, and now Endgame, with the acclaimed theatre group Complicite, both confirm his form. For 10 years, he was artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe, often its star performer, and his earlier Hamlet is one of the best in living memory. Still, after he says it’s a shame Beckett isn’t here to “play” with McBurney over Endgame (he’s big on “play” — it is presumably more fun than “work”), and I answer that it’s a shame he couldn’t meet Beckett, too, he immediately shoots back, “I don’t think I would bring anything more than other actors would” — not wanting to address the point and pursuing his own course.
For the first part of our conversation, Rylance’s soft voice and slow deliberations are entirely at odds with the drastic vision he paints of our future; a vision that, it turns out, is behind both Johnny Byron’s anarchic energy and Hamm’s static bite. As he outlines that “both plays are about the end of something, and the beginning of something else”, the usual suspects are reeled out — a business-dominated state, corporate pharmaceuticals, ineffective politicians and pointless wars. He is both entirely amiable and utterly alarming. He soon tells me that “unless things change, there’s violent revolution coming — there’s got to be”. In a cruel twist of fate, a press officer brings him a Pret A Manger lunch as he tells me this; a crayfish salad gets a really good mauling as he outlines the dangers of globalisation. Still, he has to eat. Then, with his eyes twinkling away, he also insists that “this great bleakness can be a real wall to push off”, onto “a wonderful sense of hope”. One clear thing is that he has an outsider’s sensibility, able to reconcile one thing and its opposite. Both Byron and Hamm — “fallen kings, corrupted kings” — are, in his hands, equally suspect and sympathetic. The roots of this otherness aren’t hard to find. England’s greatest modern stage actor was, in fact, formed in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. And his time there seems to have formed his mindset for good.
“I lived in a cul-de-sac, but with some woods and fields just beyond the suburban development. Our house was literally on the edge of it. There was a farmhouse I could see out of my back window, and fields, and a huge complex of fox farms from the 1940s, in a wood all overgrown, with the train coming down from Minneapolis. But we were living among Coca-Cola executives. It was a great pressure cooker for the imagination.” Still, Rylance was born in England, to English parents (they emigrated when he was two years old), so the long, cold winters in Milwaukee were countered by “fantastic, dreamlike returns, for English summers with my grandparents in Kent, whole summers playing with great friends who are still my friends now”. Later trips to Stonehenge, or to the West End and the RSC, created a “nirvana” for him. When he was 18, he came over to study at Rada — a decision part financial, part romantic. Now approaching 50, he has been here ever since.
Jerusalem, then, a paean to a dying England, seems like fate. The boisterous, show-stealing Byron was a dream role for Rylance — quite literally so, dreamt up for him by Butterworth, who worked for years on the mix of modern comedy and mystical fantasy that made the play such a hit. Perhaps it’s also a paean to the 30 years Rylance spent in England “taking on being an English actor”, as he puts it, trying to integrate into the country he came from. When he came to study at Rada in 1978, he left that American side behind; only recent work back there has reconciled him to it, as an actor, at least. Funnily enough, he’s not tempted to be an artistic director again (the Globe clearly lost its playful edge), but there are a couple of stories he is writing and working on. He won’t divulge their content, but it turns out that they are set in America.
Hollywood, however, does not beckon: he knows what he likes and what he doesn’t. “The measure of jobs for me now is not really the type of part, but the quality of play — whether it’s a playful environment. It isn’t really very playful, film. It’s technical. I love watching it, but the process of making it is not for me.” It’s something he has flitted in and out of, most recently in The Other Boleyn Girl, a 2008 Scarlett Johansson vehicle. (“Really boring to make — boring to watch, too.”) “I’ve only just realised I’m not cut out for it. I just do love the liveness of theatre. I can see that there’s a cultural pressure for actors to get into film, but it’s been a happy thing to let go of it and say, ‘No, I don’t want to do it any more.’
“What’s curious is that film actors give you so much more respect than you deserve, just because you’re a theatre actor. The other day, we had the girl, Sam Mendes’s wife, the one who was in Titanic…” — Kate Winslet? — “She came to see Jerusalem, and she said this was real acting and what she did was rubbish. It’s ridiculous. She’s brilliant. But there’s this image that theatre acting is ‘real’.”
However modest and philosophical he might be — and he truly is philosophical, quoting bits of Sufism to me as we discuss bleak old Beckett — it is clear that theatre acting is something very “real” for Rylance. He often comes back to the importance of being outside something to see it clearly — as a director, as a writer, as an audience — but even he knows that he is deeply immersed in his own gift. “I’m too much of a player to stay out of the field,” he says eventually. There it is: that word “play”, again.
Endgame is at the Duchess, WC2, until Dec 5; Jerusalem transfers to the Apollo, W1, on Jan 28, 2010
Mark Rylance announced his presence as Johnny Byron, the gypsy lord of misrule in Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem at the Royal Court, by first doing a headstand in a brimming horse-trough then downing a pint of milk laced with vodka and a raw egg.
We were thereafter kept spellbound for three hours by a character Rylance describes as “dangerous, destructive and also creative, reckless yet perceptive about the corporate culture that is sweeping through the countryside and the English psyche, both drunk and sober”.
The transfer of Jerusalem to the Apollo theatre in January confirms the British-born, American-raised 49-year-old’s unlikely rebirth as a West End star.
Long regarded as one of our finest classical actors, Rylance started his career with the RSC and National Theatre — his 1988 Hamlet is still on my list of top five performances — then opened and ran Shakespeare’s Globe for 10 intriguing years.
Even as a stalwart of our theatrical institutions, he was always an oddball. There was the time he formed his own company, Phoebus’ Cart, to tour The Tempest to “sacred sites” where ley lines intersected. He also questioned the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays while running the Globe. Yet this Puckish figure has now been embraced by commercial producers.
The transfer of Jerusalem follows his bravura turn as a fey, mournful fool in the 1961 farce Boeing Boeing, which took him to Broadway and a Tony Award last year. And before resuscitating Johnny Byron, he’s appearing in Samuel Beckett’s existential masterpiece Endgame for Complicite’s Simon McBurney, which opens officially at the Duchess Theatre tomorrow.
Rylance’s casting came about when Richard Briers and Adrian Scarborough withdrew simultaneously from the roles of the immobile Hamm and his servant Clov: they felt, in Rylance’s Beckettian phrase, “that they could not go on”. McBurney stepped in himself as Clov, and asked Rylance to essay Hamm one night after a performance of Jerusalem. Rylance immediately said yes.
He is enamoured of the play, likening it to a river at low tide when the polished rocks beneath the surface are revealed. But he also seems to believe his casting was kismet, or fate.
“It came about through such weird circumstance, with Simon and I having wanted to work together for years, and me having asked him several times to come to the Globe,” says Rylance, as slight and vulnerable yet magnetic in person as he is on stage. “I’ve never done Beckett, although I’d always been keen to put him on at the Globe, because his plays are basically just language and very clean, simple gesture, which I think would work well there. I had just never got round to it. But more and more it seems to me that established forms and plans are breaking up and the way to keep afloat in these times is to embrace new things that come through in an unprepared, unplanned way.”
The accidental casting throws up intriguing resonances. “Simon and I are of the same generation, and around the age Beckett was when he wrote the piece, so we are both aspects of the writer,” he says. “Beckett’s older brother had died just before he wrote it, so the play has a toxic mental weight, a closeness to death. And I think I realised that my late forties were a time when you had to start living again or start dying.”
Hamm is usually played by an older, weightier actor, Clov by a youngster, but here the relationship is less a father-son conflict, more a “combative” struggle between equals. “And I feel I have been jealous and competitive with Simon as an artist in the past,” Rylance smiles. “I have felt him throw down the gauntlet with some of his work.”
The play comes at an intriguing time for both men. McBurney started out devising visual, physical work with Complicite but has moved towards textual exploration; Rylance was all about the classics but is now more interested in “making new things”, like the collaborative Jerusalem, where he and director Ian Rickson contributed to the constantly changing script. “It feels like we are crossing over at this time in our careers.”
He is bemused but delighted to be where he is now. “It seems that the big institutions [the RSC and the National] that were very much a part of my early life are not coming to me at the moment,” he says. “But I had a wonderful time in the West End and on Broadway last year, and to be able to make my living doing Beckett in the West End is a fantastic thing.”
He says he misses the community of Shakespeare’s Globe but not the paperwork, or the responsibility for directing plays — “I got bored with my own ideas.” He also has no interest in film or TV at the moment, despite having scored successes in Peter Kosminsky’s Bafta-winning The Government Inspector (in which he played Dr David Kelly) and Patrice Chereau’s Intimacy: “It’s so tedious compared to live theatre, and it’s paying less and less these days, so you don’t even have the attraction that it supports your theatre work.”
Indeed, he thinks the success of Lucy Prebble’s hit Enron, now at the Royal Court, and Jerusalem, and the renewed popularity of Beckett in the West End, signals a re-engagement by audiences with live experience. This leads him to a dense discourse embracing the renewed popularity of festivals and gigs, the decline of recorded music, and the poetry of football matches.
He takes a sideswipe at playwright Ronald Harwood, who complained recently that audiences weren’t sufficiently quiet and attentive. “That makes me so angry! If audiences are shouting and having fights and making love, great. Great! Fantastic!” He segues into the rise of stand-up comedy and the positive impact of comedians in theatre, from Lenny Henry’s Othello to his own co‑star, Mackenzie Crook, in Jerusalem.
Since we’ve circled back to Butterworth’s play, I ask Rylance why he signed on to incarnate Johnny Byron after seeing an early draft in 2003, a full six years before it came to fruition.
This prompts another lengthy discourse about how the script chimed with things he’d been reading about the St George myth, his thoughts on how to take pride in being English without reverting to racism or memories of Empire, the growing resentment of the way supermarkets and big business commodify and regularise everything. “Also,” he grins, “it was a f***ing great part. I thought, I’ll have some of that.”
His reservations about film don’t necessarily extend to the planned screen adaptation of Jerusalem. “I’d find it hard to see someone else play it,” he admits.
Although he still has the same magpie mind and mercurial talent, there seems to be something more settled and secure about Rylance, compared with the man I first met 20 years ago. Having been born in Kent but raised in Connecticut and Wisconsin, where his father ran a school, he used to say he felt alien in both Britain and America. Now, he says, he feels at home in both.
He and his wife, composer Claire van Kampen, will have been married 20 years in December. One of his stepdaughters, Juliet, is now an actress, who will join the cast of Sam Mendes’s next Bridge Project plays; the other, Natasha, graduated recently from the London Film School.
He hopes to act again at the Globe soon — indeed, he says he can’t imagine playing Shakespeare anywhere else. “It wouldn’t interest me to do Shakespeare in a divided space, with the audience in darkness and me lit. I don’t want to speak to or for or at an audience. I want to speak with them, I want to play with them.”
Rylance is often described as eccentric — “nutty as a fruitcake” one critic called him — but he seems eminently sane and thoughtful to me. Has he been misrepresented, I ask? He says he never reads anything written about him but he doesn’t mind if people think he’s eccentric. “I read odd books and I do odd things like go and stand in crop circles. I do have a love of mystery and a love of questions. And inevitably, if you come back from a trip to the Antarctic and tell people who have never been there what it’s like, you sound as if you are lying, or you’re odd. When I get fascinated by something, I do like to talk about it. So that is eccentric. It’s not normal in our society to be curious about those things.”
Somewhere in the distance, I’m sure I hear Johnny Byron applauding.
Endgame is at the Duchess Theatre (0844 579 1973, www.endgamecomplicite.com) until
5 December. Jerusalem is at the Apollo Theatre (0844 579 1971, http://www.nimaxtheatres.com)
28 January-24 April 2010
Two months ago, Mark Rylance was playing a freewheeling social outcast in Jez Butterworth’s hit play Jerusalem at the Royal Court, when he received an unexpected phone call. Simon McBurney, director of Complicite theatre company, was two weeks into rehearsals for his West End production of Beckett’s Endgame, and both his lead actors – Richard Briers and Adrian Scarborough – had pulled out. Would Rylance step in and play opposite McBurney?
By rights, alarm bells should have rung. Rylance recalls that another actor once described the typical Complicite rehearsal process to him as follows: “It led to a day when, to a person, every actor was convinced that this was the first Complicite show that was going to be absolute shit. And it wasn’t until Simon had fished out the last bit of hope that any of them might have had, and squashed it into a rich compost of all their ambitions, rotting there at the end of the garden, that something original could grow.” Sitting beside him, McBurney laughs drily. Rylance continues: “Hearing this, I felt I had come to understand something about Simon. He has more capacity to deal with chaos, a wider love of randomness and impulse, than the rest of us.”
Rylance wasn’t put off, which is why the two men are now in a bar at the Duchess theatre in London, where they are preparing to play Beckett’s tragicomic double act – Hamm and Clov, with Rylance as the imperious, despondent Hamm, and McBurney as his impatient servant. They make an intriguing double act themselves: McBurney, widely revered as a theatre visionary, fidgets with a piece of paper, while Rylance, a former director of the Globe theatre with a reputation for eccentricity, meticulously arranges his packed lunch of tinned salmon, lentils and mustard dressing on the table in front of him. Both speak softly – Rylance in sumptuous metaphors, McBurney with a probing intellect. There is a thrumming quality to McBurney, as though he were plugged into an electric current; his hair flies statically upwards from his head.
What outsiders don’t appreciate about the theatre, McBurney says, is that it works in chaos. Even the greatest success can be a happy accident – like Boeing-Boeing, which won Rylance a Tony award for best actor when it transferred to Broadway last year. The production only came about because its director, Matthew Warchus, had a few weeks to spare and said to Rylance that he wanted to do “something silly”. “Increasingly, I quite like things coming surprisingly,” says Rylance. “Having spent 10 years at the Globe, being responsible for the fates of 100 or more people, it’s very nice not to have to live a year in the future.”
Admiration and envy
Rylance admits to being apprehensive about tackling Beckett for the first time. He emailed Beckett veteran Fiona Shaw for advice when he took the job (she said an actor needs to find a way of making the play as shocking as it first was), and is reading a biography for background. But the chief attraction of this production was the opportunity to work with McBurney. It’s a first, but only by accident rather than design. The pair are close contemporaries – McBurney is 52, Rylance is 49 – and have followed each other’s careers with interest.
McBurney says he first noticed Rylance when he was performing at the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow, in the early 1980s. “He was fascinating to me, because he seemed to be swimming somewhere in the mainstream of things. He was invited to work at the Royal Shakespeare Company, and he played Hamlet – all the things that I never imagined would come my way.” Rylance regarded McBurney with the same mixture of admiration and envy. The first time they were in a room together, he thinks, was in 1987. McBurney had come to see The Wandering Jew at the National, in which Rylance was performing, and “hadn’t thought very much of it”, Rylance recalls. “My impression was that Simon was very strident, quite frightening. I would go along to Complicite shows and think they were wonderful, and wanted to be part of that crowd, instead of being institutionalised.”
He did try. In the early 1980s, Rylance and six friends set up their own experimental group, the London Theatre of Imagination. “We didn’t have anywhere near the same success as Complicite,” he says now. “I was very unhappy about that. I still hanker to make pieces – but I don’t long any more to have a company. The Globe has kicked a lot of that out of my system.”
Knowing McBurney now, Rylance wonders whether he has come to regard Complicite as a burden, in that he is always expected to do something groundbreaking. He sympathises with McBurney’s desire not to have his theatre labelled. “I think it was one of the first things that got me into being an actor: I used to do many different, crazy things in my life to try and make people not sure what I was. That was particularly satisfied by acting different parts on stage.”
McBurney doesn’t contradict him, and adds: “As an actor, it’s much easier for me to get work in the movies because nobody knows who I am, except for the work that I’ve done in another movie. I really enjoy that.” (He has recently had roles in The Duchess and a forthcoming Harry Potter.) While he accepts that there are “consistencies and continuities” in his theatre work, he becomes twitchy at any suggestion that there is a Complicite style he might bring to Endgame.
This isn’t such an outlandish proposal: Complicite productions are celebrated for their all-encompassing theatricality, and McBurney grows animated as he describes how Endgame is ripe for reinvention. “It’s like an extraordinary installation of words – you could put it up in Tate Modern.I sometimes feel I would like to do crazy things with Endgame, where someone says something, but the words, instead of being spoken, are written words projected out of their mouth.”
What infuriates him is the expectation that he will always take a radical approach. “In Germany, when you’re asked to direct something, one of the first things they say is: ‘What is your conzept?’ To which I answer: ‘I do not have a conzept.’” He emanates scorn. He says he is more interested in understanding Beckett’s mindset. “He is extremely careful about his choice of words and actions,” McBurney says – particularly when it comes to his precise but sometimes baffling stage directions. “Just as you speak a line of text and say, ‘I don’t know what that means’, you do an action and say, ‘I don’t know what that’s doing.’” The Beckett estate has a low tolerance for directorial interventions but Rylance predicts it will have no complaints: “I haven’t been this faithful to a text, ever.”
A compulsive curiosity
The struggle for understanding, says McBurney, has been at the root of every theatre piece he has ever worked on, whether it is understanding memory (1999’s Mnemonic), mathematics (2007’s A Disappearing Number), or the Japanese language (2008’s Shun-kin). He puts this down to a compulsive curiosity: “I constantly want to know, what is a table, or what is a cat?”
This is a production he has been working towards ever since the earliest Complicite shows, mime pieces which he describes as “very Beckettian in spirit”. His chief worry now is that: “People will see it and think that it’s the finished thing. I know Mark and I will go on finding and finding, because we can. I can’t think of any two rehearsals in which our interpretation has remained the same. Everything is a search.”