The most intriguing battle in this year's Tony Award season might have been in the Best Actor category: Mark Rylance's virtuoso star turn in La Bête was eligible to face off against the dazzling performance by the leading man in Jerusalem... who also happens to be Mark Rylance.
(Editor's note: This feature went to press for Playbill magazine prior to the May 3 Tony nomination announcement. The Tony gods, or at least the nominating committee, ended up nominating Rylance as Best Actor for Jerusalem, but not for La Bête.)
There have been several actors in the past few years who have appeared in two Broadway shows in one season. But it's a highly unusual (and daunting) task for someone to tackle two leading roles in one season, especially two larger-than-life, scenery-swallowing ones like these.
If there is an ideal candidate for the task, Rylance, 51, is it. Born in England but raised in America before returning to England to study acting, he is devoted to theatre. From 1995 to 2005 he was the artistic director of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, and he says, "I don't pursue films or television and don't have an agent for that." This dedication has paid off with five Olivier Award nominations (winning for Much Ado About Nothing and Jerusalem) and a Tony for his Broadway debut in Boeing-Boeing in 2008.
But the affable and soft-spoken Rylance isn't concerned about awards. "It is a liberation to just be acting and to be offered such great roles," he says. He finds roles like Valere in La Bête ("a baby") and Johnny "Rooster" Byron in Jez Butterworth's Jerusalem ("a kind of a king and a fool") to be refreshing.
|photo by Simon Annand|
Still, after winning the Tony, he says, several people, including his wife, thought he "was crazy to be going to the Royal Court on 400 pounds a week for a play. They said, 'You just had your first big success in American theatre, why don't you capitalize on that?' But this [Jerusalem] was the most exciting play."
Jerusalem is the saga of an anarchic rebel facing eviction from a trailer in the English woods from which he dispenses drugs, drink and a rough wisdom.
"We were aware in the rehearsal room that it is very, very explosive," says Rylance, who approaches the role from an intellectual vantage point but also met with the inspiration for the character to get a feel for him.
Besides attention-hungry protagonists, La Bête and Jerusalem have another bond that drew Rylance's attention. "I love working with writers who are really bold with their language," he says, which makes sense for a man so well versed in Shakespeare — and who insists on performing without amplification. "In Shakespeare's day, people said, 'Did you hear Macbeth?' not 'Did you see it?' The visual sense is so much more a flavor of culture now, but hearing, for me, is much more powerful."
That love of language has Rylance carving out some time to co-author, with poet Louis Jenkins, a play based on Jenkins' poems. Rylance famously used one of those poems in lieu of an acceptance speech at the Tony Awards. "They didn't know what was going on," laughs Rylance. "There's beauty in the mystery."
And while he says it is "hubristic" to think about awards this season, Rylance is clearly one to watch, both on stage and when the time comes for those speeches to roll around.