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The Daily Need

Walking through walls with Mark Rylance

Mark Rylance as Johnny "Rooster" Byron in the play "Jerusalem." Photo: AP/Boneau/Bryan-Brown, Simon Annand

What was Mark Rylance talking about last night when he accepted his Best Actor award at the Tonys? Something about walls? Wires? It was a detailed treatise, in fact, on the fine art — and perhaps lonely, pitfall-prone occupation — of walking through walls. To quote:

Unlike flying or astral projection, walking through walls is a totally earth-related craft, but a lot more interesting than pot making or driftwood lamps. I got started at a picnic up in Bowstring in the northern part of the state. A fellow walked through a brick wall right there in the park. I said, “Say, I want to try that.” Stone walls are best, then brick and wood. Wooden walls with fiberglass insulation and steel doors aren’t so good. They won’t hurt you. If your wall walking is done properly, both you and the wall are left intact. It is just that they aren’t pleasant somehow. The worst things are wire fences, maybe it’s the molecular structure of the alloy or just the amount of give in a fence, I don’t know, but I’ve torn my jacket and lost my hat in a lot of fences. The best approach to a wall is, first, two hands placed flat against the surface; it’s a matter of concentration and just the right pressure. You will feel the dry, cool inner wall with your fingers, then there is a moment of total darkness before you step through on the other side.

If the audience seemed in on the joke, it’s because this was not Rylance’s first turn accepting the Tony for Best Actor — he won for his role in “Boeing-Boeing” in 2008 — nor his first acceptance speech as performance art. In the 2008 speech, he advised at length on how to dress like a human with a purpose — “When you’re in town, wearing some kind of uniform is helpful…” — and in the woods — “If you’re in the woods, the back country, someplace far from any human habitation, it is a good idea to wear orange…”

Both were prose poems by the Minnesota poet Louis Jenkins, with whom Rylance also worked in December 2008 to create a theater piece based on Jenkins’ poems entitled “Nice Fish!” (According to Theatermania, it ran for one night in New York and was free.)

Although I didn’t know this bit of trivia last night when I watched his speech, the words made an instant visceral sense. I had just seen “Jerusalem,” the play for which he won the award, last week. In it, Rylance plays a hard-partying, yarn-spinning squatter during the last days of — well, of something — who has lived for decades in a beatdown Airstream in the woods of rural England, serving as a kind of debauched Peter Pan to a rowdy gang of lost teenagers. Depending on how you see it, or who you ask, his character, Johnny “Rooster” Byron, is either an absentee father, drug dealer and possible pedophile or he’s the colorful ringmaster of a ragtag circus, providing a true (and really fun) home for wayward kids.

He is both. And the play teeters between these two truths, increasingly inhabiting both at once. Watching this balancing act for three tense (and hilarious) hours was, now that you mention it, very much like watching someone walk through walls. On one side, on the other side, and lost in the darkness between. It was miraculous, and yet must have cost the walker, through years of workmanship, quite a lot.

Enjoy his 2008 speech:

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