Shakespearean star Mark Rylance skates into the world of ice fishing in a play he wrote with Duluth poet Louis Jenkins.
What makes Mark Rylance a great actor?
This question assumes that two Tonys, two Oliviers, BAFTA and Critics’ Circle awards mean Rylance is, in fact, a great actor.
Rylance recalled Ruth Bly asking her husband, Minnesota poet Robert, that question at a social event.
“Robert looked up and said, ‘Because he doesn’t know who he is,’ ” Rylance said. “He was brilliant! He absolutely nailed it.”
Whoever he is, Rylance is back at the Guthrie Theater, acting in a new play that he helped write and direct. “Nice Fish,” written with Duluth poet Louis Jenkins, puts a man on a frozen lake — where ice meets sky and a man is left to create his own universe. It opens Friday.
“It is such a blessing that it is being born in the Midwest, its natural cradle,” Rylance said during a rehearsal break.
How this British Shakespearean actor came to such a genuine affection for the Midwest is an interesting story — and it says something about who Mark Rylance is.
“I have a sense that my psyche or soul encouraged me in odd directions, but which later made sense,” Rylance said.
Born in England 53 years ago, Rylance and his family moved to the United States when he was quite young, and Mark spent nearly 10 years of his youth in Milwaukee — a cheesehead who cheered the Green Bay Packers, played youth sports and vacationed in Door County. In an interview, he talked with great fondness about ice hockey tournaments (“bantam or peewee, I can’t remember”) that he played in at Duluth and Superior, Wis.
Perhaps this history explains why Rylance was so good — Tony Award good — playing a role he described as “a Midwestern Wisconsin’s farmer son” in the 2008 Broadway production of “Boeing Boeing.”
Alongside his youthful zest for athletics, Rylance plunged into high school theater in Milwaukee, and returned to England in 1978 to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts.
“It took me a while to get a proper British accent when I got back to England,” he said. “I still sound more Welsh or Irish. My O’s sound Midwestern.”
In 1995, Rylance became the first artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe in London. He renewed his relationship with the Midwest when the troupe visited the Guthrie in 2003 and 2005. Rylance returned to Minneapolis three years later to work on a new adaptation of “Peer Gynt” with a script by his friend Bly. A vast and sprawling farrago, the production was nonetheless driven by Rylance’s playfulness in the role of a naif who slides through life.
“He’s unbelievably inventive and theatrical,” said actor Sally Wingert, who worked with Rylance in “La Bête,” both in London and New York. “He has an astonishing sense of his physical self, and he doesn’t mind looking foolish.”
That fearlessness marked Rylance’s other Tony-winning performance, in 2011’s “Jerusalem.” New York Times critic Ben Brantley wrote that Rylance played the central character “as one of the last of the titans, a man who taps our lust for life lived large and excessively, without social restraints.”
Louis Jenkins remembers the e-mail from a friend. Rylance was reciting one of Jenkins’ poems during his acceptance speech at the 2008 Tony Awards. “I was totally caught off guard, and I had to look it up on YouTube,” said Jenkins, who has been writing for decades. (Rylance repeated the trick when he won for “Jerusalem.”)