French Farce Enjoys a Revival
SCOTT SIMON, host:
"Boeing Boeing" is a tri-fold, a 1960 French farce with slamming doors, multiple fiancées, boys being boys and pert airline stewardesses prowling the Earth as targets of opportunity. So who better to star in the play's revival, first in the West End, now on Broadway than a classically trained actor who's played Henry the V and was artistic director of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre. In fact, Mark Rylance has just been nominated for a Toni for his betrayal of the man who comes to call on an old friend in Paris hijinx ensue. Mr. Rylance co-stars with Bradley Whitford as the old friend who has carefully scheduled fiancées of different nationalities zooming in and out of his apartment, Gina Gershon, Mary McCormack, and Kathryn Hahn play the stewardesses in lollypop colored uniforms. Christine Baranski plays the French maid with an accent that's as broad as the Champs-Elysees. Mark Rylance joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.
Mr. MARK RYLANCE (Actor): What a great introduction.
SIMON: Thank you.
Mr. RYLANCE: Hijinx ensue, that's a phrase I haven't heard for a while.
SIMON: You know, I'd like to think that the most performed French play of time was something by Moliere, but it's actually "Boeing Boeing," isn't it?
Mr. RYLANCE: Is that true? I know it ran for 19 years in Paris. I mean it's pretty clever to make a farce that last, you know, over an hour each half. It's pretty impressive to spin something out like that.
SIMON: Yeah, you play a man who jets in from Wisconsin.
Mr. RYLANCE: That's right.
SIMON: And rings up his old friend. And I was going to kid you a bit about your utterly authentic Wisconsin accent, but then I read in fact you lived in Milwaukee for a few years as an adolescent.
Mr. RYLANCE: For sure.
SIMON: How did that come about?
Mr. RYLANCE: My father was an English teacher who liked the American school system, the private system, and got a job in Milwaukee in '69 and so we lived in Milwaukee by the Great Lake there from '69 to '78 when I returned to London to go to drama school. But this is the first time to my great delight that I can come onto the stage and within I think a minute, say that I'm from Wisconsin.
SIMON: How many syllables would it take you to say the work snow?
Mr. RYLANCE: Snow, it's one flat, long syllable, which makes people think I'm Scottish in England. Isn't that curious? The northern dialects in England have the same Os and As and flats that the northern American dialects have. And if you go south to the southern states of American, you get the same diphthongs and double vowels and things that the southern dialects in England have.
SIMON: This play, "Boeing Boeing," does it work despite being as we noted affectionately, dated, or because it's so dated?
Mr. RYLANCE: I think it works because Mister Camoletti studied the Greek roots of farce. Of course, the characters are mostly in a state of panic and panic has that lovely pan word in it, nature, and indeed it's weather patterns and other things that mess up this beautifully, architecturally perfect plan for multiple love affairs that one character has, the architect has. But as in the classics and as in Shakespeare, the nature of the panic in the situation actually sorts out the characters towards the objects of their true love. So there's a beautiful, classical sense of nature appearing to be at odds with us, or our enemy, but actually being a great guide and teacher and leading us away from our man made plans towards something that's maybe more true for us.
SIMON: What do you have to know about timing to play farce?
Mr. RYLANCE: I don't know, you know, I don't know how you'd describe what it is. I guess you have to have a good ear or a sense of how long it takes the audience to get the necessary piece of information for you to then deliver the next piece of information. You have to have a sense of how fast their imagination is moving as an audience in the story, because if they get ahead of you then it really dies, and if they lost behind you, then they get lost.
SIMON: The national stereotypes for the stewardesses are pretty - and the maid are pretty broad. The French maid, the Italian stewardess is hot tempered, the American is kind of a materialistic cheerleader, and the German, the German commands you, right? She makes your character produce his identification papers out of a wallet, flabbergasting scene.
Mr. RYLANCE: There is some humor along that line, I guess, that's right. I think Shakespeare does this to some degree too. He'll take a particular strength of character, wit or compassion or I don't know, mindfulness, generosity, and fearfulness, and he will embody that. So you're not really aware so much of that, but I think he's often exploring a principle in a character, much like earlier before Shakespeare's time you'd have faith, hope, and charity walk on and have a conversation. Oh, hello, Hope, how are you doing? I'm feeling quite helpful, and you'd have some conversation. But he buried it more in people's nature.
But in this one I think the three girls really ought to do - the German girl really is interested in passion. This is what she needs in her life. The American girl is actually quite interested in sex, in physical sensation and intimate physical contact. And the Italian girl is more - she wants more of - she's really love. I think she really wants some - a closeness and she wants to stay and she's the one that eventually marries Bernard. So I think they have principle needs, what (unintelligible) super objectives that are there. And then I think probably we're the ones who have injected a little bit more of the kind of completely non-PC, you know, jokes at the expense of a whole nation of people who are very different.
SIMON: I've asked this question of a number of actresses, I'm quite certain I've never asked it of an actor. What's it like to play Cleopatra? Should we explain that?
Mr. RYLANCE: Why?
SIMON: Yeah, why, you're right.
Mr. RYLANCE: No, I did play Cleopatra at the Globe Theatre in '99 when I was 39, which is how old she was when she died. But that was because, of course, as you know, in Shakespeare day, all the parts were played by men, women didn't act on the stage. So occasionally at the Globe, we would do the Japanese thing, the kabuki thing and have men play women. What was it like?
It was - I think it's Walt Whitman who remarks that during the Civil War that in a way it's alright for the men, they die and it's over for them, it's the women and the children who have to live with the suffering after a war like this, of a war here in America, and boy, that - I really heard that lesson playing Cleopatra. I mean I've played a lot of Shakespearean tragic heroes, MacBeth and Hamlet and you find that lots of these different characters that go through extreme things, but none of it was extreme as playing Cleopatra and having to be in love with this character Antony who was just so self-destructive and - so you could see his death coming for a whole - for acts, you know, you could see that it was going to be a disaster.
And then he dies in your arms and you have a whole other act of grief. And it was a bit like coming on being a woman in front of a lot of women, it was a bit like dancing in front of a dragon's cave and I thought, they're just going to hate me unless I do one thing, which is that I love Antony as much as I possibly can. If I really play that as truthfully as I possibly can, then they'll forgive me the rest, they'll forgive me that, you know, that I don't look particularly good, or all the other stupid things I did.
SIMON: Would you like to do - I don't know, it just occurs to me, like a Ricky Gervais kind of comedy now?
Mr. RYLANCE: Oh, he's brilliant, isn't he?
Mr. RYLANCE: The Office, what an incredible - incredibly funny thing.
SIMON: And Extras, I think is just...
Mr. RYLANCE: And Extras, yeah.
Mr. RYLANCE: The other night I had the delight, Scott, of John Cleese coming to "Boeing Boeing" and saying how much he'd laughed and enjoyed it. What a thrill, because he's made me laugh so much and I thought, oh boy, if someone were able to write Fawlty Towers, I'd love to be in something like that. But you see, I wanted - I don't know if John filmed something like that in front of an audience, you see. He may never have had the kind of thrill I get of hearing a thousand people roar with laughter so that you can't go on with the play for 30 seconds 'cause they're just - so you try and do something else so you're not just standing there. You pick up a cup or something and then they all roar again. I mean, a lot of the times when people laugh in comedies I don't know what they're laughing at. I really don't. And I get frightened if I do know, it'll ruin it.
SIMON: Well, Mark, it's been a pleasure talking to you.
Mr. RYLANCE: You too Scott, thank you for the lovely questions.
SIMON: Mark Rylance, just been nominated for a Tony for his role in the acclaimed revival of "Boeing Boeing" at the Longacre Theatre in New York.
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SIMON: And you can hear Mark Rylance's thoughts on whether William Shakespeare actually wrote everything Shakespearean at our website, npr.org.