Sunday, January 11, 2015

Wolf Hall' actor Mark Rylance: 'My wife said the books were good, so I said yes'

Published: 00:01, Sun, January 11, 2015

TV, BBC, drama, period, Mark Rylance, David Stephenson

We love our period drama. A glimpse of the schedules, particularly during autumn and winter, reveals a surfeit of costume delights, from Downton Abbey to Call The Midwife, from The Musketeers to Channel 4’s soon-to-be-seen Indian Summers.

However, the quality can vary wildly and so can the attention to detail, with the viewers often wondering, given the modern language used in dialogue, whether they are actually watching a drama set, for instance, two centuries ago.

Worry ye not, viewer, about the quality on offer later this month in BBC2’s Wolf Hall. Adapted from the best-selling historical novels of Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, this six-part series about the political chicanery of the Tudor court raises the bar for its costume rivals.

It has one of the performances of the year from Mark Rylance, in the lead role of Thomas Cromwell. He is ably assisted by Damian Lewis, pictured, as Henry VIII, and Jonathan Pryce as Cardinal Wolsey. Not a regular TV face, Rylance is known for his striking performances in the theatre, and is a two-time Olivier Awards winner.

As the author Mantel herself points out, “Mark Rylance gives a mesmeric performance as Cromwell, its effect building through the series.”As lawyer to Wolsey, Mantel describes him as both “hero, and anti-hero”, which indeed he is, although by the close of episode one you will be rooting for Rylance’s Cromwell all the way.

Unlike many authors, who are often indifferent about TV adaptations, Mantel is inspired. She says: “It’s a privilege. It’s illuminating, exciting. It’s not, as people sometimes think, in any way odd or jarring. It seems to continue a natural process that goes on in the writer’s head. “As you write, you see and hear. To have the images transferred to the outside world, to hear the voices externally, is a kind of magic, but it’s also a logical step.”

The choice of director is inspired, too. To enhance the political intrigue of a Tudor royal household, Peter Kosminsky, whose work mostly includes factual dramas, has given the production an authentic, contemporary feel.

But where do you begin with two 500-page novels? “I guess it starts with Peter Straughan’s script,” says the director. “Many people have done incredible work on this show.

Many on it acknowledge that these are some of the best scripts they have ever read. They are the best I’ve read. I knew the books, but to turn that into six hours of TV is an extraordinary feat.”

The stories are about “revenge”, says Straughan. “It’s also there in the novels, but that’s the theme I decided to run with. Thomas sets out for revenge for the fall of Wolsey, and the drama is about the consequences that flow from that.”

Rylance hasn’t done a major TV lead since 2005’s excellent The Government Inspector, about tragic whistleblower Dr David Kelly, which was also directed by Kosminsky. Why return to TV? Rylance is breathtakingly honest. “My wife said the books were very good! And I liked working with Peter, and it was obviously a wonderful part.”

But what was it specifically about the role that drew him to it? “There can be few characters in literature that keep most of their judgments and thoughts to themselves. He doesn’t reveal it, or show very much. I expect a lot of people who have read the books will watch the show, so to manifest him in a way that wouldn’t limit their imaginations of what he was like, was quite a challenge. I also wanted him to be a real person.”


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