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Artistic Director of Intermission Youth Darren Raymond is in conversation with Mark Rylance

Image: Mark Rylance (left) and Darren Raymond (right). Photo by Richard Jinman.

Having known each other for over 15 years, and also now with Mark as a trustee of Intermission Youth - an organisation that works with disadvantaged young people to create opportunities through Shakespeare - they catch up between rehearsals at The Chelsea Theatre for their show Juliet & Romeo. This is Intermission’s first production in two years and it runs from 10 Nov to 4 Dec. The play, written by Darren and performed by 22 young people who took part in this year’s 10 month drama programme, transposes the lines of the star-crossed lovers and also features a gender swap among all the main characters.

Darren Raymond: I’ll be honest, this was really hard to come up with some questions to ask you without repeating what everybody talks about in the arts when it comes to Shakespeare! But here’s my first one… If you were starting out now professionally, do you think you would have the same opportunities?

Mark Rylance: Absolutely not. Absolutely not

Darren: Why so definitely 'absolutely not'?

Mark: Because Shakespeare, as you were reminding me yesterday, gives clear instructions - we must hold the mirror up to nature - and so if you are running a Shakespeare theatre in society it has got to reflect society and when I started out in the 80s it was not diverse.

My friend Trevor Laird and different friends I had at the time, from the Caribbean and actors from the African diaspora did not have the same opportunities as me. When I came into the theatre it was still a relatively new thing that an actor even with a Yorkshire dialect could play Macbeth.

There was no ethnic diversity in my class of 22 people at RADA out of thousands who auditioned. But I wonder, even as you were saying the other day, how many ethnically diverse people even auditioned or imagined that RADA would welcome them? Now things have changed and now it would be harder for a Shakespeare company to give me the roles of Hamlet and Romeo. So no, it would be very different now and I wouldn’t get the same opportunities and that is much better. That’s good.

Darren: Growing up in Brixton, your American heritage and your love of reggae - does that inspire the work you do as an actor, as a person?

Mark: *Laughs*

Certainly, dancing around at home to reggae or hearing the beautiful spirituality in reggae and the loving response of someone like Bob Marley to injustice. The way that he can make a protest song, a song about intense injustice still ring with such love, resonance and spirit. I was brought up a Christian, although I got uncomfortable with the Christian Church for its oppression on some parts of society and it didn’t seem like a vision of God that completely fitted me. I did always hunt for that wider consciousness, and I found that in the Caribbean and African community. There’s a much more devout community in Brixton than in other areas of London where I lived, and I liked that. I liked seeing people on Sundays in incredible robes and going to meetings where they were certainly conscious of something wider than just economy and all the other pressures. Was that your question? Are you asking, did it affect my work?

Darren: Yeah, did it affect your work?

Mark: Oh yeah.

I remember Peter Gill’s production at The Riverside Theatre, it was a Jamaican Macbeth, and it was a knockout. The rhythm of speech and the use of the consonants and vowels really resonate in that culture, you know, that defiant use of sound. I remember just thinking WOAH… that’s more like the sound Shakespeare would have heard, not this Victorian-proper; this neutral way of speaking that was encouraged when I was being taught Shakespeare.

Darren: See I believe that ALOT as well! Do you think Shakespeare’s language actually really lends itself to that musical tone?

Mark: Oh, I think it lends itself to that musical tone, yeah.

Darren: And even regional accents in the UK?

Mark: Yeah, regional accents too. When I ran The Globe, if there was a Jamaican actor or a Celtic actor - or Irish, Scottish, or Welsh - I always knew we would never have any trouble with speech. Never have trouble hearing and never have trouble with the expression of what was going on.

Darren: So playing which characters, through your illustrious career, have you most discovered something new about yourself?

Mark: [long pause...]

I think when I’ve played women. When I played Cleopatra particularly and even playing Countess Olivia too. When you change gender like this, you encounter your mother or if you are a girl playing a boy you encounter your father… that part of you that has come from your mother or your father genetically, you encounter it more.

I mean, you can imagine all kinds of women you know. Women in films, girlfriends, sisters, but the deepest thing is that you start to come upon your own mother inside of you. The things that you do as a man that are like the things that your mother did, so it’s a very, very rich learning experience doing those kinds of things. It’s the same when you play kings, warriors or fools you eventually find those parts of yourself that are like that and in a way, you have got to like them at least to put them up in front of people and share them. You got to get their confidence to come out and play.

Darren: So, when you play those roles and you discovered that about yourself, is it something you take with you, or do you leave that with the character?

Mark: I don’t think you can help but take things away with you that you experience. Even if you don’t remember them consciously. I don’t’ think you can help it. Each experience leaves something, leaves a memory in you. Yes.

Darren, I was thinking about this today, you came into this work for Intermission Youth as an actor and you had this great experience of acting Othello and touring around the country. How do you feel now about being an enabler of others compared to acting yourself?

Darren: I feel that it’s a purpose of mine, I think it’s a calling. When I started off in acting, I knew nothing about the arts, that was my introduction into it, and I did fall in love with Shakespeare, and I did fall in love with particularly that play and that character. It opened up a lot of doors for me in many ways.

I grew up in East London in Hackney and went to school in Westminster and I saw those two different worlds, and that had a huge impact on me from as young as 12. I used to think why is that right? Going from deprivation from the area in Hackney where I lived then going to the city and seeing a completely different way of living but yet there was nobody reflecting me in terms of that way I was living. So, I guess there’s always been a fire in me to tackle injustice and to bring about more opportunities for young people. I think that’s always been there. And maybe I could have done it as an actor but for me, I felt that I’d probably be able to reach more people. And maybe it’s because subconsciously, what you were talking about in the 80s I wasn’t seeing a lot of Black actors or role models in that industry so maybe I thought I need to do something else. That was long winded! But did that answer your question?

Image: In rehearsals. Photo by Lidia Crisafulli.

Mark: Yeah, here’s another one. These are very vital young people you work with at Intermission, and they’ve not often had good examples of authority in their lives and so they are not naturally prone to respect authority blindly. Yet I see they really respect you. They turn up for rehearsals and they listen to what you say. How do you do that? What wins their respect?

Darren: That’s a really good question. I think it’s just being honest that wins the respect of young people. People in general really. I try to be myself and allow them to feel like they can be who they are in the space. And time as well. I think a lot of youth programmes out there put a timeframe on their work and those measures have to work by a certain time or the programme is deemed to be unsuccessful or successful. I think with Intermission Youth, one of the things that was really important was that there was no agenda, we didn’t have to get young people in and then churn them out a certain way by a certain period. That freedom to be in the space, to be non-judgemental and just allow young people to have a place where they can come and have someone listen to them, I think that’s what builds the honesty and trust. And I laugh with them A LOT! A lot of them see me as a joker and we spend most of the time in the space and in the workshops telling stories and laughing and not taking ourselves too seriously.

Image: In rehearsals. Photo by Lidia Crisafulli.

Mark: I noticed that…yeah.

Darren: There’s a lot of banter in Intermission and a lot of them tell their friends ‘If you want to come to Intermission you need to have a really thick skin’, because there is a lot of laughter and running gags. And I’m always there when they need me…when those moments come.

Mark: And that could be 24 hours of the day?

Darren: Yes, that could be 24 hours of the day, 7 days a week, yeah yeah. Being on the end of the line or being there in person to help a young person.

Image: In rehearsals. Photo by Lidia Crisafulli.

Mark: After all these years doing this, over 15 years, are there some problems that are the most difficult because you see them coming up again and again or are their problems that were difficult for a long time and now you have perceived a way to deal with that problem?  

Darren: The last 18 months have been extremely difficult in terms of supporting the young people in front of me, and that is because of what we’ve been through with the pandemic and the global racial movement. But I also think we are breeding a new generation of young people.

I was talking about this the other day. I think I found it particularly difficult this year because I don’t quite understand this new generation. I haven’t worked it out yet. Because they are the generation where their parents were born here, they have been raised here, whereas before and going back the previous 14 years it was the second-generation children right, their parents probably weren’t born here and they had a certain kind of upbringing, values and structure, but these young people that we are working with today I think are different.

Social media is their reality, they don’t know a world before it, and I think that has shifted the world completely in how they respond, how they are, how they behave, how they think, how they smell, taste, everything. And then added to this is what it is to be a person in this world today, male, female, non-binary, whoever you are, what does that mean?

It is a really difficult time and young people are working out who they are and trying to find their identity and it’s like a pot with just so many different ingredients in and people are trying to find the right taste and it’s so hard because there are so many different flavours.

Mark: That’s interesting... so very new, this thing about young people being completely different every five or ten years. You can’t learn one rule you have got to keep changing… a bit like being a coach of Arsenal playing Man Utd, it just doesn’t get easier.

*roars of laughter*

Darren: That’s a low blow Mark!


Catch Juliet & Romeo at The Chelsea Theatre from 10 November to 4 Dec.
For further information: chelseatheatre.org.uk

Image: In rehearsals. Photo by Lidia Crisafulli.

Image: In rehearsals. Photo by Lidia Crisafulli.

Image: In rehearsals. Photo by Lidia Crisafulli.

Image: In rehearsals. Photo by Lidia Crisafulli.

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