I hope you’re enjoying watching Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall on Masterpiece as much as I am. The scene in episode one where Cromwell discovers his wife and daughters have died was heartbreaking. The pain in Rylance’s face and the stoic way in which he carried himself after learning of their deaths was entirely believable. It was almost as though he wasn’t acting, which he may not have been. The actor playing the bereft Cromwell had himself suffered a similar tragic unexpected loss almost 3 years ago when his step-daughter 28-year-old Natasha van Kampen died suddenly of a brain hemorrhage while traveling by plane from New York to London.
At the time of Natasha’s death, Rylance was performing the role of Olivia in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night at The Globe Theatre in London. He was also scheduled to perform an excerpt from Shakespeare’s play The Tempest at the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics. His grief was such that he cancelled the Olympic opening ceremony appearance and the piece was read instead by Kenneth Branagh. Rylance did, however, continue with his Globe Theatre commitment and his performance of Olivia - a character also in mourning - would later garner him a Tony Award when it transferred to Broadway. During his acceptance speech, Rylance spoke of the American actor Sam Wanamaker, who spent the last 25 years of his life committed to rebuilding Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre and who sadly died before its completion.
As a good friend of Wanamaker and as one of Britain’s foremost Shakespearean actors, it seemed only befitting that Rylance be the natural choice to head up the theatre when it opened for business in 1995. His first inclination though when asked to be Artistic Director was to turn the offer down. Eventually he "did it for Sam" and spent the next decade performing on its stage as well as running things administratively. His tenure at The Globe was for many questionable as Rylance is fiercely convinced that the man from Stratford-upon-Avon did not pen the plays.
Rylance’s thoughts on the Shakespeare authorship issue are just one example of where his ideas don’t necessarily follow the "norm". His eccentricity is renowned. According to one nameless critic, Rylance is “nutty as a fruitcake”. It’s a reputation that Rylance does not discourage. He bends the ear of every interviewer with esoteric stories and seems to have never met a crop circle he’s not wanted to stand in. Or perform in, as was the case when he left the Royal Shakespeare Company and mortgaged his home to put on a production of The Tempest - in a crop circle. It rained almost every day and the cast often outnumbered the audience.
Even Rylance’s preparation for the role of Cromwell seems more than a little odd. Not for him the reading of great tomes on Cromwell, instead he watched comedy great Kenneth Williams’ version of Cromwell in the 1971 classic comedy Carry On Henry. “It was very good,” Rylance said in an interview with London’s Evening Standard, where he also claimed that he only took the role of the 16th century lawyer because his wife liked the author.
Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall on Masterpiece airs Sunday nights at 10pm on MPT through May 10.
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Address: Afternoon Tea
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