“I don’t know exactly how The Tempest is going to work,” said Simon Russell Beale, “I must give the director a ring.” The actor, who so effortlessly commands the massive stage of the Olivier and holds enormous audiences rapt, was tucked into the very smallest corner table in his favourite hotel in Covent Garden, drawing on an e-cigarette and ignoring a plate of tiny pastries on the table.
He was talking about his role as Prospero this coming November, in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s final production of its Shakespeare 400 season, celebrating four centuries since the playwright’s death. You may have seen the posters of the actor’s face, luminous, staring out of a background of digital blue.
Gregory Doran is the director in question. Russell Beale is working with him on The Imaginarium and has already been to the performance capture studio in Ealing to have his face and body measured so they can ‘digitise’ the actor.
“Gregory rather cleverly sent me an email about trying to find the modern equivalent of the 17th century masque,” he says. “The idea is to recapture the concept but not the reality – we’ll never know exactly what form they took. ” The email was clever because it piqued Russell Beale’s interest during a year when he is more in demand than ever as a leading classical actor and one of our finest Shakespearians.
“Actually, I find The Tempest a very cold play,” he remarks. “I think it reflects Prospero as a control freak, high-handed to say the least. Shakespeare was dealing with old age, and assessing the end of life. ” But he knows that Doran’s production will be a digital and acting spectacle, an assault on the senses, and that does intrigue him. He also believes in a flexible approach to the Shakespearean canon; he doesn’t feel the plays should be set in stone.
Some time ago he found himself doing a season of plays for the former director of the Globe Theatre, Dominic Dromgoole. He realised he was speaking words he didn’t really understand. “The word ‘grece’, forexample, means ‘step’,” he explained. “Nobody knows that, and I thought, hang on, Shakespeare’s a genius, but he’s not God. So I changed it to ‘step’ and nobody noticed. I didn’t tell Dominic. He’s much stricter than I am. But many people only come to see a particular Shakespeare play once and my job is to communicate it clearly. Fortunately it’s a very malleable text.”
Simon Russell Beale was born in 1961 in the Federation of Malaya. Both his parents were doctors. His father was in the army and travelled widely with his wife and six children, so Russell Beale boarded at St Paul’s Choir School in London, as his father had before him. He also followed him to Clifton College in Bristol and to Gonville and Caius College at Cambridge. There their paths diverged: instead of becoming a medic, he went to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.
“I remember having to read the ‘Dogs of War’ speech from Julius Caesar at choir school,” he said, “I don’t think I was shy, but I wasn’t musically very competent. Suddenly, the headmaster gave me this speech and I remember thinking ‘wow, I like this, this fits very well.’” His first stage part was Hippolyta in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, wearing an ivory and gold dress made for him by his formidable grandmother, who would come to take him out from school every fortnight.
He played Desdemona in Othello at Clifton and his talent was noted by his English teacher. “Weirdly, he was always rather sneery about actors and he hated the RSC – though he thought Alec Guinness’s Macbeth was good and he loved Guys & Dolls. When my parents came after exams he said: ‘He must do English,’ and then, ‘I wonder if Simon has ever considered a career in the theatre?’”
In the end it was the RSC that transformed his career. First he captured audiences’ hearts in a series of often outrageously camp comic roles. Then, in the early 1990s, he received spectacular reviews for his performance as Konstantin in Chekov’s The Seagull and went on to work with the rising young director Sam Mendes, then based at the RSC, later founder of the Donmar Warehouse.
Since 1995, he has been a regular at the Royal National Theatre and has tackled an incredible range of roles in a variety of media. He made such a memorable Widmerpool in the Channel 4 film of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time that the Anthony Powell Society made him its president; he cantered the stage as King Arthur in the Monty Python spoof Spamalot; and nailed the role of George Smiley, John Le Carré’s anti-hero, in the radio series The Complete Smiley.
When did he know he was more than a jobbing actor? “I don’t know when I first realised that people were coming to see me,” he replied, “I think perhaps the stuff I did with Sam Mendes… there have been moments when things really changed – when I played Konstantin, or during the Season of Fops at the RSC. But I never feel safe. And that’s not actorly hyperbole.”
Meanwhile he has dabbled in Shakespearean tourism, dragging his personal trainer, who is a friend, on a walk around Shakespearean London and is fascinated by the Rose Theatre in Southwark. Though, to his embarrassment, he has never visited Anne Hathaway’s cottage in Stratford-upon-Avon. “Isn’t that terrible?” he said, rolling his eyes, “But I have been to the birthplace and the Visitor Centre, which is next door. I am a Shakespeare anorak, so I loved it.”
His anorakdom includes a fascination with the printing and production of the plays: “Why was Troilus & Cressida not available for the First Folio? Did they put in Timon of Athens instead? Why is the first quarter of Hamlet such a mess?” He is intrigued by David Garrick and the other great 18th and 19th century Shakespearean actors; he has made a documentary on the First Folio and is a governor of the Folger Library in Washington DC, the largest repository of Shakespeare material in the world. All of which reinforces his reputation as a formidably intelligent performer, who describes himself as ‘an academic manqué’. He is too modest to mention his First Class degree in English from Cambridge.
When I met Russell Beale, he was tired at the end of a successful run of Mr Foote’s Other Leg in the West End, ready for a few days off before a hectic year of Shakespearean events, including curating the BBC’s website for Shakespeare’s birthday on April 23 (though the material will be accessible until the end of the year.)
He was deciding between chilling down in London, which he has grown to love almost as much as his home county of Wiltshire, or escaping for a short break. Did it ever get to him, the relentless pace of theatre? “The thing is,” he said, “you can’t say ‘could you just give me five minutes? 7.30, that’s it, you’re on stage. I have occasionally thought ‘I could walk out’. But only occasionally.”
And taking another drag on his e-cigarette, he finally gives in to a tiny pastry.