I’ve seen Mark Rylance playing a genuinely moving Cleopatra and a hilarious Olivia. I’ve also seen him playing men, most remarkably the muscular and foul-mouthed Johnny (Rooster) Byron in Jerusalem. And if one of the marks of a great actor is the ability to transform themselves physically as well as in every other way then Rylance is the epitome of the great actor.
His Cleopatra was winsome and coquettish but boy was she heartbroken when her beloved Antony died. His/her Olivia was sweetly controlled and image-conscious, gliding around the stage as if on casters except when her infatuation for Cesario got the better of her. These were examples of Rylance’s ‘thin’ acting. Johnny in Jerusalem was not thin. I don’t know if Rylance spent weeks in the gym developing those muscles – I suspect he did – but the man who played Johnny was unrecognisable from anything I’d seen him do before.
Then last night he was back doing his thin acting, this time as a man and on television, as Thomas Cromwell in the six part adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. Not just thin but delicately underplayed, which is not something you’d normally associate with Rylance’s style of performing. The camera made sure he was the centre of focus however, even if he was in the shadows saying nothing, but observing closely. A masterly performance in a brilliant production.