Tag Archives: Mark Rylance

Mark Rylance in Victorian England

Last week the fine actor Mark Rylance finished the Guthrie Theater run of his play Nice Fish, (co-written with the Duluth poet Louis Jenkins).  Minneapolis will miss him, but  I want to recommend his 1995 film Angels and Insects. I think I saw Mr. Rylance on stage years ago in England, but this excellent movie is the first time I remember seeing him.


The movie is based on A.S. Byatt’s novella Morpho Eugenia, and she participated in writing the screenplay.


Mark Rylance plays a penniless naturalist, William Adamson.  He is just back from years studying animals and insects along the Amazon.  Almost all his possessions were lost in a shipwreck on his way home to England, so he counts himself lucky to find a job helping a rich Victorian man catalog his own collections.  The Victorians were great ones for collections, of course.  Every respectable country home had shelves full of curiosities.

Patsy Kensit plays a somewhat dimwitted and seriously  messed-up daughter of the family.  Kristin Scott Thomas plays a razor-sharp governess.  William Adamson finds himself between them.  Of course, complications ensue.  Mr. Rylance, as William Adamson, steals every scene with his quiet dignity that clearly covers a passionate nature. He is the second-most intelligent person on the premises, and yet he falls into a trap that an outsider can see from a mile away.  As always, love is blind.

What I find fascinating about the movie is the depiction of social classes in a grand country house which is very similar to Downton Abbey.  Instead of the formal but friendly relations depicted in the TV series, the servants in Angels and Insects are supposed to either grovel or turn invisible.  When a housemaid encounters a family member in a corridor, the housemaid has to immediately turn and face the wall until the family member passes. And William Adamson has to rescue a maid from sexual abuse by a haughty family member. I have to wonder whether the TV series or the movie has the more accurate depiction of master/servant behavior.

Bedroom arrangements are interesting, too.  In Downton Abbey, Lady Mary teases her parents for sharing a bedroom. The penniless William Adamson has no such luck. When he marries the daughter of the house, he gets certain privileges, but he always knows his place. He is given a small bachelor-like room adjoining his heiress bride’s bedroom.  However, he is only allowed into her grand bedroom when she has her maid unlock the door in between.  If he is not welcome, he finds himself standing in his nightshirt before a silent locked door.

The movie was filmed at Arbury Hall in Nuneaton, Warwickshire.  The descendants of the founding families still occupy it.  It is not part of the National Trust, which in modern times means it has to be run as a money-making enterprise. Like many stately homes, it is now used for corporate events and weddings.  The neo-Gothic rooms shown on the estate’s website are grand indeed. Visiting hours are limited, but I’m putting it on my list for my next trip.

The 19th century writer George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans) was born on the estate. Her father worked as a manager there.  She wrote about the estate as “Cheverel Manor” in her book Scenes of Clerical Life.

For stellar acting and a fascinating look at Victorian life, check out the movie Angels and Insects. And join me next time for more explorations into the art and history of Europe–and the British Isles.

“Nice Fish” at Guthrie Theater

One of the best things about travel is making connections between things that seem unrelated.  For instance, last night I saw the play “Nice Fish” at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis and found myself thinking about Ludwig II of Bavaria. I’ll explain!

First, about the play: the wonderful actor Mark Rylance introduced large television audiences to the work of Duluth poet Louis Jenkins (who has been featured reading his prose poems on Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion, among other places). In 2008, while accepting his Tony award, Mr. Rylance did a hilarious deadpan recitation of a poem about the wearing of uniforms. You can watch the speech at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TU9iCgGDjRI.

Louis Jenkins emailed him, and soon the two men were collaborating on what eventually became the play “Nice Fish.”

NiceFishPosterIn the play, two men share an afternoon on a frozen Minnesota lake–a time-honored pastime in these parts.  The actors are Mark Rylance himself, on the right, and Jim Lichtscheidl on the left. Besides co-writing the play, Mr. Rylance also directed, along with his wife, Claire Van Kampen.

In the course of a long freezing afternoon, they encounter an insanely officious game warden. Then things turn surreal with the appearance of three figures from Germanic myth–sort of.   There’s an alluring young girl who pops out of a fishhouse in a bikini. She later changes into a festive prom-like party dress and teaches the lovestruck Ron to waltz.

Mark Rylance’s character can hardly believe his good fortune when she seems to fall in love with him, but she confides that Wayne, the owner of the fishhouse, is her sort-of boyfriend who’s gone off to fetch supplies.  When Wayne returns, roaring onto the ice on a vintage snowmobile, he summons his brother, Wainwright, who acts as his wingman.  Complications ensue.

Mr. Rylance writes in the play’s program that he got the idea of introducing these characters while watching the opera Das Rheingold, by Richard Wagner.  Probably none of us would be watching Wagner operas if Ludwig II of Bavaria had not decided to be Richard Wagner’s patron.  I’ve written about Ludwig’s awe-inspiring grotto at Linderhof Castle, constructed as his personal theater for private performances of Wagner’s operas.

Ludwig's Grotto

Ludwig’s Grotto

Having arrived just before curtain time, I watched the entire play without reading the program notes.  So I didn’t know that Flo was a stand-in for Freya, the Norse goddess of eternal youth.  I didn’t know that Wayne and Wainwright were stand-ins for the giants who kidnapped Freya. (The plot of Das Rheingold, involving a magical ring, also provided some of the inspiration for J. R. R.  Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings). I doubt most of the audience around me cared much about the underlying myths, either.  The show was laugh-out-loud funny and thought-provoking to those of us who thought we were just watching Midwest eccentrics on a frozen lake.  (Yes, the supposedly staid Midwest has plenty of eccentrics–we all have relatives, don’t we?)

The play ends with a hilarious yet touching enactment of aging, death and the afterlife. It has had mixed reviews, including complaints that it is too long.  Personally, I would cheerfully watch Mark Rylance read blizzard school closings for the entire state of Minnesota.  Seeing what he can do as playwright and director is well worth my time any day.  I just might go see the show again before it closes!

Join me next time for more explorations into the art and history of Europe–with connections to modern life.