Simon Russell Beale is happy. Lounging on the sofa of the National Theatre’s interview cubby, the Thames ambling past over his right shoulder, he is entirely at home, writes Matthew Amer.
The actor is so at home, in fact, that the tiny room even has his picture on the wall. It must be odd being interviewed while looking at black and white images of yourself playing Hamlet, but though Beale is easily distracted by all manner of topics – the nature of interviewing, rings, and wrappers lurking behind filing cabinets – he is not vain enough to be bothered by photos of a former triumph.
The role he is currently playing at the South Bank venue could not be more removed from Hamlet. Sir Harcourt Courtly in Dion Boucicault’s comedy London Assurance is, Beale assures me, “the stupidest man in history and the least perceptive, because he’s so wrapped up in himself”. There is no simmering internal turmoil, no existential angst, no desperately trying circumstance.
He was performing as part of Sam Mendes’s international Bridge Project when the idea of staging London Assurance was put to him, playing both the jealous King Leontes in The Winter’s Tale and a desperately lovelorn and eager to please Lopakhin in The Cherry Orchard. “I thought just to do something that has absolutely no weight or depth or relevance would be fantastic,” he smiles.
The relevance question is often asked of play revivals. Why bring them back now? What can a modern audience learn from the play? How will it illuminate the world’s current predicament? Beale is very clear about this. It won’t educate, illuminate or lend a greater understanding of the meaning of life. It is just a fabulously frivolous and fun comedy, though it is not only the audience who are laughing. The cast, which also includes Richard Briers, Fiona Shaw, Paul Ready, Michelle Terry and Mark Addy, are having a giggle as well, not least because of Mark Thompson’s unique set design which sees a country house filling the Olivier theatre’s stage.
The “beautiful, absolutely ravishing set,” however, is “terribly, terribly impractical” as it stretches across the performance space leaving the actors no way out. Instead, they are forced to hide in isolated corners and crannies when they are absent from scenes, resorting to a trap door for any quick changes. “I know in a month’s time, the giggles behind the set will be terrible,” Beale chortles, “because it’s just so ludicrous. The only place you can hide on the set where you can’t be seen at all is a little section which can only be as wide as a bookshelf and sometimes six people are sitting or standing in there waiting to go on. I’m a big man and I’m twice the size I am normally, and there’s Fiona Shaw with this huge dress, stuck in a little cubby. Well… it’s fun.”
“Sam [Mendes] snaps his fingers and I go”
“People think I live here,” Beale smirks as we talk about the National Theatre, where he has worked extensively over the past 15 years. His relationship with the venue, in which he has been employed by three different Artistic Directors – Richard Eyre, Trevor Nunn and now Nicholas Hytner – has seen him win two Laurence Olivier Awards, for Volpone in 1996 and Candide in 2000, collect Evening Standard and Critics’ Circle Awards for Hamlet and perform in productions including Humble Boy, Jumpers, Much Ado About Nothing and Major Barbara. But amid his work on the South Bank, he has made forays elsewhere, “I did two years with Spamalot and a year and a half with the Bridge Project,” he protests.
The brainchild of Sam Mendes, the Bridge Project is a three year initiative which brings together a transatlantic company of actors to work together on two shows and perform them at the BAM in New York, the Old Vic in London and on tour. Beale starred in the project’s first year alongside Rebecca Hall, Sinead Cusack and Ethan Hawke. “Sam snaps his fingers and I go,” Beale smiles and tells me how lucky he is to have “lovely relationships” with a collection of influential directors.
Emotionally it was tough. While The Winter’s Tale allowed him the release of the final scene, which he describes as “one of the great magic scenes in theatre”, The Cherry Orchard, “ a very cold, cold play; it has ice shards in its heart”, did not. But it was the physical rigour of touring that really took its toll, the packed schedules that would see him crawl into bed after a party in the company’s honour at 01:00 and have to be up again to get to the airport at 05:00. He relishes telling a story about stopping off for lunch in Chile during the flight from Auckland to Madrid, but being so worn down and jet-lagged that he had “the kind of tiredness where your motor functions don’t work properly; your arms go funny and your head lolls”.
Really, Beale should be used to long haul flights; he grew up having to make them just to see his parents. His father was Surgeon General in the army and lived in Singapore while the young Simon was a pupil at St Paul’s Cathedral school and a chorister in the cathedral itself. Being that far away from family at the age of eight strikes me as a scary and lonely experience, but Beale puts me right: “It was very glamorous. Glamour is the wrong word. Sheer excitement. I used to do Christmas services in St Paul’s and then travel by myself to Singapore. You can’t get better than that. You can’t. In those days you used to stop six times on the flight to Singapore and have a couple of hours in each stop off point. Arriving at Singapore, you’d get off the plane and you’d get that fantastic wall of heat and then Mum and Dad would be over in the arrivals lounge. It was just great.”
In fact, he attributes his nomadic military upbringing for his choice of career. “Actors are unclassed, aren’t they?” he half asks, half states, “and you’re sort of unclassed if you’re [travelling] all the time, even if your father’s an army officer. You’re never really part of the world you’re growing up in. It’s a rootlessness.”
“It’s outrageous what I’m doing; awful, awful, awful, contortions on my face”
He laughs as he tells another story about his father who, when Beale was going through what sounds like a New Romantic phase – “I used to wear huge great peacock feathers and a fake fur coat” – took him to a party and introduced him as “My son Simon… he wears an earring.”
“I’ve never had any style and that was just proof of it,” he says referring to his extravagant choice of accessories. When I suggest peacock feathers might have been distinctly of the time, he has none of it. “No,” he corrects me, “It was recognised at the time as being a fashion disaster.”
This self-deprecation is quite typical of Beale who, for someone who is probably in every current working theatre director’s dream cast, has a remarkable lack of conviction in his own ability.
He can’t cast himself, he tells me. He does not have the ability directors and casting agents have to see himself in more challenging roles. He would not have thought of playing Ariel in the Tempest or Lopahkin in The Cherry Orchard if Mendes had not suggested it, nor would audiences at the National Theatre have seen him play Major Barbara’s Undershaft had Nicholas Hytner not encouraged him.
Of the recent production shots taken for London Assurance he says: “It’s outrageous what I’m doing; awful, awful, awful, contortions on my face”, and though he sang in St Paul’s Cathedral choir and was accepted by the Guildhall School of Music and Drama as a singer, he says: “Singing was always fretful. I wasn’t very good, that’s the problem. It just never sat easy. Terrible technique.”
He is similarly timid about his upcoming return to television. While he is one of theatre’s most prized possessions, he has not worked as extensively on screen, though one of his few screen outings, A Dance To The Music Of Time, saw him win Royal Television Society and BAFTA awards. He will be seen in the new series of BBC spy series Spooks, which he admits to being “a bit scared about, to be honest. All the bits of paper that they sent; scheduling and cars…” Fellow London Assurance cast member Mark Addy is going to lend him a hand in preparation.
“I’d love to find a play that’s written for an overweight 50-year-old, but they’re not that common”
The reason he has not done more screen work, he says, is simple. “When you start out as an actor, you tend to get cast as who you are, really. So say there’s a [screen] part of a gay, 24-year-old Oxbridge educated white man or [stage] Richard III. There isn’t really a choice. And I passionately believe in the theatre and passionately believe in live performance. I passionately believe that this increase in audience attendance is not unconnected with the technological age. I think it’s absolutely part and parcel of people’s need to have live performance, see the flesh and the blood, smell the sweat.”
It is no great surprise, then, to find out that the ‘greatest actor of his generation’ label, which is so often attached to him, is not one with which he is at ease. The eye rolling when I mention it begins even before I have finished framing the question. “No. No. No, no, no. No. It’s crap. I’m not. I can give you at least two names of people exactly my age who I rate. Mark Rylance and Stephen Dillane. They’re great actors. It’s fantastically flattering, but it’s just not true. If you started believing,” he takes a breath, “my God you’d be in trouble.”
So he doesn’t. Instead he marvels about how Rory Kinnear and Ben Miles perform in the Almeida theatre production of Measure For Measure. He wonders at the late Paul Scofield’s performance in John Gabriel Borkman at the National Theatre and Vanessa Redgrave performing Constance from King John at a benefit. He remembers the performances that excite him and make him wonder as a performer rather than taking a moment to look at his own achievements. For all he has achieved, and for all he is in demand, it seems there is always an urge to look for the next project, not least because, financially, “If I haven’t got anything booked, I’m f**ked.”
“I would love to do some new plays,” he tells me. “Unfortunately you can’t really snap your fingers and find them. I’d love to find a play that’s written for an overweight 50-year-old, but they’re not that common. I also think that I need to do something in a small space fairly soon, because otherwise acting will be synonymous with shouting… and that would be a bad thing.”
I doubt that Beale, with his seemingly natural ability for unspoken emotional nuance, need ever worry about losing technique, yet, for all the plaudits, accolades and awards he has received, he suffers, he says, “the same neuroses as every other actor. I look at contemporaries of mine and think ‘I don’t know how you do that.’” I suspect there are many more that look at him and think exactly the same.