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Mark Rylance is one of Our Greatest Living Actors

Which might sound weird to say, if you haven’t seen him onstage.

Mark Rylance in Broadway’s Farinelli and the King
(L-R) Iestyn Davies, Mark Rylance, Huss Garbiya, Melody Grove in Farinelli and the King.
Joan Marcus/Shakespeare’s Globe

Mark Rylance,” I said to a friend, “is probably one of Our Greatest Living Actors.”

I added the emphasis of capital letters to be ironic about it because it’s such a grandiose thing to say, but I also thought that it was probably true. Rylance was just nominated for his fourth Tony for Farinelli and the King, but the first time I ever saw him, starring in La Bête in New York in 2010, he delivered an uninterrupted 20-minute monologue and held the audience’s attention the whole time through sheer force of magnetism. Ever since then, whenever I think of him I picture him capering across the stage, swishing his long wig and prattling with unceasing glee.

My friend looked blank. “The Bridge of Spies guy?” she said. “He seems boring. Everything I’ve ever seen him in he just looks old and sad.”

Mark Rylance is an interesting actor because there is such a split between his screen work and his stage work. Onscreen, in properties like Wolf Hall and Bridge of Spies, for which he won an Oscar, he is a paragon of restraint; his performances tend to lean, as my friend said, toward old and sad. (The major exception here would be The BFG, in which he is downright theatrical in his exuberance.) But onstage, he is so wildly over the top, so delightedly ebullient, that it is impossible to look away from him, even for a moment.

Because of that split, audiences who know Rylance first and best as a screen actor might not quite see why his work would be memorable enough for him to be more than a character actor who does nice enough work: skilled enough to win an Oscar, but not so exceptional that you’d remember him from year to year.

Currently, Rylance is wrapping up his run as the lead in Broadway’s Farinelli and the King, which closes on March 25; a few days later, he’ll hit movie screens with Ready Player One, in which he has a supporting role. Before the transition from stage to screen is complete, here’s a quick look at what makes Rylance so astonishing to watch onstage.

Rylance knows how to play with the construction of gender

One of Rylance’s most celebrated performances is as Olivia in his all-male production of Twelfth Night. (He premiered it in London in 2002 at the Globe Theatre, where he was artistic director, then reprised it in 2012 and brought it to New York in 2014.) It’s a performance that begins before the play itself: As the audience members make their way to their seats, the actors are onstage getting ready. Rylance comes out in white pancake makeup and skullcap and methodically transforms himself into Olivia. He laces himself into a corset and elaborate skirt, puts on his wig, adds crown and rings.

And then he adjusts his posture, twitches his skirts straight, and in a gesture that looks remarkably like a ship catching the wind in its sails, he brings himself up into Olivia’s walk: tiny rapid steps on the tips of his toes, which under his voluminous skirts give the effect of skating across the stage on roller blades. He’ll walk like that for the rest of the night, until Olivia is so undone by love that her careful posture comes tumbling down.

It’s a performance of femininity that’s exaggerated without being mocking, equal parts affected and affectionate. (“I liked her enormously,” Rylance has said of Olivia.) And its playfulness is characteristic of Rylance’s work. His characters all perform their gender ostentatiously — Rooster, the hypermasculine barrel-chested hero of Jerusalem, is as much a burlesque as Olivia is — and Rylance, in his turn, performs his character’s performance with a loving, empathetic distance. The effect is to pull the audience into a cheerful complicity: All of life is a performance, and isn’t that wonderful?

Rylance’s characters oscillate between vulnerability and brutality

Rylance’s secret weapon in any medium is the earnest, open vulnerability on his face: It’s what makes his BFG, for instance, so immensely likable, and why you instinctively feel that his Soviet secret agent in Bridge of Spies is worthy of defense from someone as fundamentally decent as Tom Hanks. But what elevates Rylance’s stage performances is the way he swings between vulnerability and brutality.

As Richard III, he uses that oscillation to overrule the audience’s better judgment. Richard III has been around for several hundred years now, and it’s hardly a secret that the titular Richard is a villain. But Rylance’s Richard is so sweetly pathetic as the play opens that it is impossible to imagine him as a threat: Whenever he manipulates, he does it so clumsily that he appears almost embarrassed, and your heart goes out to him.

“Bid me kill myself, and I will do it,” he tells one target.

“I have already!” she cries.

“Tush,” he stammers, transparently groping for a justification, “that — that was in thy rage,” and the audience laughs affectionately. That Richard, what a scamp.

But as he takes more and more power, his vulnerability is replaced by a deeply disturbing sadism, and the audience’s laughter slowly fades away. Once he’s finally crowned king, he mauls his stone-faced queen and revels in her pain. And when he’s alone onstage again, he does one of the pathetically gleeful capers that got enormous laughter at the beginning of the play — but now he does it into dead silence.

Of course, the audience logically knew that the turn would come — Richard, after all, is a villain — but it still feels like a betrayal. How could he fool us like that? When I saw his Richard III in New York in 2014, after he mauled the queen, one member of the audience started to hiss at him. Rylance, without missing a beat, hissed right back at her.

In Farinelli and the King, that mercurial shift between vulnerability and brutality is fundamental to the narrative tension. Rylance’s King Philip is tender-hearted enough to weep over the possibility of his pet goldfish’s death and to be transported into throes of ecstasy by music; you love him immediately. But he is also mentally ill, and in the depths of his madness he lashes out violently, hitting his servants and biting his wife’s face. Watching him, you’re never sure at any given moment whether to adore or fear him, and so you’re trapped in the same dilemma faced by his closest friends.

I took my Rylance-skeptical friend to see Farinelli and the King, and showed great restraint by refraining from nudging her every time the audience laughed or sighed. At the intermission, I asked her what she thought.

“He’s funny,” she said, sounding vaguely outraged. “No one ever told me.”

“See, that’s what makes him one of Our Greatest Living Actors,” I said, and when she looked thoughtful rather than dubious, I counted it a victory.