In Rory Bremner... Who Else? the opening credits used to feature a chameleon scampering around. If there were ever a series of Mark Rylance ... Who Else?, the producers could do a lot worse than phone the chameleon's agent and ask him if his client is available to repeat the performance.
Time and again, critics have commented on Rylance's amazing ability to blend in with his surrroundings. Unremarkable off-screen, he bursts into life on it. Whether playing a battered vagrant in The Grass Arena on television or a demented pyjama-clad Hamlet, or a Victorian entomologist in the film Angels and Insects, the 36-year-old actor has an uncanny ability to inhabit the character. The Independent's theatre critic Paul Taylor has written that "Mark Rylance is not just an actor of genius, but a brilliantly various one to boot".
His latest incarnation is as Raunce, an apparently accomplished, silver- service butler, in reality seething with pent-up desire for a bubbly young housemaid (Georgina Cates), in a BBC Screen Two adaptation of Henry Green's novel, Loving. Rylance plays Raunce like a swan gliding across a pond: the outward appearance is smooth, but a lot of frantic activity is going on beneath the surface. According to Louis Marks, the film's producer, "with Mark, you're getting glimpses of internal things, rather than external, showy gestures. He's completely devoid of mannerisms."
In Loving, Rylance injects the most innocent-sounding lines with lascivious danger - "I'll have to slap it on a silver salver and take it up to her some time," he says of his mistress's missing glove. The whole film is fuelled by fully-leaded UST (Unresolved Sexual Tension).
Marks is Rylance's number-one fan. "For Raunce, he went to butler school," the producer reveals. He did it not in order to learn how to lay out knives and forks correctly, but in order to become Raunce. He's so into a part that it can grow and become more than what's on the page. He seems to acquire the imagination of the part he's playing. What comes out at the end is totally fresh."
It would be wrong, however, to assume that Rylance's style is to everyone's taste. His shaven-headed cultist Macbeth, for instance, did not go down well with the critics. Diarmuid Lawrence, the director of Loving, elucidates. "Mark does things that are special to him, which means that quite a few people don't like his way of acting. I've heard people criticise him for being quirky. But I remember him doing Benedick in Much Ado as an Ulsterman. Nobody else would have thought of that and followed it through. Mark also has an extraordinary capacity to keep the audience's sympathy. Raunce is a weak shit, but your sympathies never quite leave him."
Rylance remains appealingly unmoved by all the attention. Since January, when he took on the job of artistic director of the Globe Theatre in London, he has become so busy that the only time he can guarantee me his undivided concentration is in the back of a taxi between meetings.
Despite a gentle, lilting voice, his excitement about his work burns through; you can see why he is a good choice to lead a company. In his softly-spoken way, he enthuses about the attractions of playing such a complex part as Raunce. "I like characters where there's a friction between what they're trying to be and what they are. There's something of Malvolio in Raunce. I even wore garters for the part," he laughs. "Shakespeare is a great balancer of black and white and of male and female. Virgil wrote about mixing the hot with the cold. Raunce has the whole spectrum from duke to dog, and the dog is overwhelming him."
Rylance is a maverick, elusive character, which is pretty useful as an actor. "I'm not good at being one thing constantly," he reflects. "One of my strengths is my desire to be someone else. I wasn't able to be understood till I was seven. I don't have a particular home. If I play a character, I tend to move to that character. I don't have so much to hold onto. That should mean I can pour more into the characters."
He cultivates his sense of otherness with quasi-mystical statements. He once said that performing Hamlet was "an Orphic descent into the underworld, followed by a return to consciousness". In 1991, he undertook a tour of The Tempest visiting sites where ley lines meet. The tour was described as "an acupuncture needle for Britain", mending the country's fractured lines of energy.
This is not crankiness, so much as a thirst to explore every possible interpretive avenue. He is certainly intense, given to fixing you with his piercing, brown eyes. Actors talk of him sitting in the corner and meditating during rehearsals.
"People may think that he's fussy and difficult, but it isn't that," Lawrence contends. "He's just particular about getting the work right. I loathe people who are difficult because of ego. But if people are difficult because that's how they achieve good work, then that's fine. Mark has none of the pampered ego about him."
Rylance's outsider status is key to his talent. It marks him out and catches eyes. As Thelma Holt, who produced Rylance in Much Ado, says of him: "This is no battery hen; he's free-range."
'Loving' is on tonight 9.30pm BBC2
1960: Born in Kent, but as a child moved to Wisconsin. Came back to Britain to go to Rada.
1980s: Romeo and Peter Pan at the RSC.
1989: An acclaimed Hamlet, also performed at Broadmoor, where an inmate told him: "You really were mad. Take it from me. I should know, I'm a loony".
1991: The rain-drenched "ley lines" tour of The Tempest with his own company, Pheobus Cart.
1993: Well-received performances in two BBC dramas: The Grass Arena and Love Lies Bleeding.
1995: Toured Macbeth to mixed reviews in the notorious "Hari Krishna" production where Jane Horrocks urinated on stage. Appointed artistic director of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre.
1996: Starred in three films: Angels and Insects, Institute Benjamenta and Loving. The Prologue Season at the Globe opened with Two Gentlemen of Verona featuring a well-reviewed Rylance as Proteus.
FIVE OF HIS BEST
1. Much Ado About Nothing
The Independent called his performance "joyous", and he scooped the 1994 Olivier Award for Best Actor. 2. Hamlet
Dressed in pyjamas, he gave what one critic described as "the most searching and spiritually luminous Hamlet I've ever seen". 3. The Grass Arena
His powerful portrayal of a down and out won him the Radio Times Best Newcomer Award in 1993. 4. Peter Pan
His 1983 performance is still fondly remembered at the RSC. 5. Love Lies Bleeding
Rylance was utterly believable as a Republican lifer in this tough BBC screenplay.
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