It is the part of the theatre programme where the cast usually list their biggest roles, awards and assorted appearances on The Bill and Casualty. But in the programme for the new West End run of the hit play Jerusalem, Mark Rylance has also used his actor biography to criticise cuts to arts education.
“If, in modern day England, an institution like Eton deems drama important enough to have two theatres, why are we allowing our government to cut arts education from the life of the rest of our young people and our hard-pressed teachers,” he writes, in a biography that points up his schoolteacher parents’ devotion to amateur dramatics and his grandfather’s experience of acting in a prisoner of war camp.
Twenty British prime ministers (from a total of 55) were educated at Eton college, where fees are £14,698 per term. Privately educated ministers have dominated Boris Johnson’s cabinets. The PM attended Eton, as did Jacob Rees-Mogg, minister of state for Brexit opportunities and government efficiency.
About 20 productions are staged in a typical year at Eton, which has three theatre spaces and its own resident designer, theatre director and film-maker. Eton’s alumni include the actors Eddie Redmayne, Damian Lewis, Dominic West and Tom Hiddleston.
Last year, leading figures in the arts criticised the funding cuts made to creative arts subjects at universities and Labour warned that schools in England faced a “creativity crisis”.
In the Jerusalem programme, Rylance also takes the opportunity to hail a teacher who encouraged him, at the age of 12, to get involved in school plays. This meant that by the time Rylance auditioned for Rada in 1978 he had “already designed and built sets and lighting, and acted, danced and sung in 18 productions” including plays by Shakespeare, Greek tragedies and musicals.
Rylance is returning to the role of Johnny “Rooster” Byron in Jez Butterworth’s play, which was a sensation when it was first staged at the Royal Court in 2009 and transferred to the West End and Broadway. Several members of the original cast, including Mackenzie Crook, have reunited for the current 16-week run at the Apollo theatre in London. Rylance adds, in his biog, that the producer Sonia Friedman, whose company is presenting the revival, “became his angel” after he left his post as artistic director at Shakespeare’s Globe. Friedman’s company and associates have supported Rylance in seven productions.