Mark Rylance has just stepped offstage after nearly 90 minutes—at least 30 of them spent disgorging a torrential, nonstop monologue about, well, nothing. (In rhymed verse, no less.) And despite spewing—in addition to words—belches, flatulence, and half-chewed bits of melon, the star of Broadway’s glittery Molière pastiche La Bête looks impossibly composed. To play the diabolically guileless (or is that guilelessly diabolical?) seventeenth-century street clown Valere—tormentor of fastidious court playwright Elomire (David Hyde Pierce)—Rylance crams a rotten-looking dental prosthesis in his puss, dons a rancid wig that resembles something Indiana Jones might’ve stabbed to death with a stalagmite, and decks himself in putrefied mock-chevalier garb that makes Johnny Depp’s pirate drag look Brooks Brothers sober by comparison. He also spends a good five minutes locked in a trunk.
The monologue is one of the more remarkable feats of theatrical chutzpah you’re likely to witness this or any other year. And it’s even more remarkable given its mutability. Rylance couldn’t tell you how long it is: The length varies from night to night, audience to audience. And if anyone asks him the ubiquitous question, the one thing every civilian asks every actor—How do you remember all those lines?—Rylance has an intriguing response. He doesn’t.
At least, not in the traditional fashion. Memorization is the actor’s last priority. “What I try to learn by the first day, before I go in, is not the words per se,” he says in his feather-soft London lilt. “I don’t want to learn them separate from what’s being received or offered by the other actors. Even in final dress rehearsals, I won’t know everything correctly—I won’t know it correctly before I need to know it.” He grins from ear to ear—a sweet yet vulpine smile with a hint of Valere in it. “The danger of it is, I learn a lot of things incorrectly.”
But then, Rylance feeds on spontaneity. It’s at the core of his approach to Shakespeare. (He was artistic director of the Globe for ten years.) Indeed, he hopes “a lot of things will go wrong, for something unexpected to happen.” Even in performance, he’s still improvising—not with David Hirson’s lapidary verse, of course, but with his intonations, blocking, timing, and … other things. “Like having a shit and carrying on talking,” he says, referring to the memorable mid-monologue moment when Valere, still yammering, drops a load in Elomire’s library alcove, then tidies up with pages from his host’s books. Rylance and director Matthew Warchus found “the shit” via improv. “And we put it in different places. In fact, my burp comes in different places. I just drink a lot of fizzy water right before I go on. It comes up randomly. Which is really nice for all of us.”
“I originally wanted the fart to come in different places, too,” he adds. “But Matthew eventually decided it needed to be fixed. We tried it randomly and kept missing. Because you can’t have it too loud or it’s not real.” He shakes his head, mourning the loss of this supremely organic moment: “The difficulty with the fart is, it’s run by technicians.”