Simon Russell Beale talks to Jane Watkins about his life in acting, and his passion for music
Walking into Simon Russell Beale’s dressing room at the Haymarket Theatre, the first thing I notice is the piano, piled with scores and pieces of music. ‘That’s become a sort of thing now,’ explains the affable actor, ushering me to a sofa. ‘I used to have a keyboard in my dressing room at the National and then I went to the Old Vic for The Winter’s Tale and The Cherry Orchard and one day this piano arrived, sent by the National. I was very touched.’ Music is a central part of his life. ‘I absolutely love it and it’s my great anchor psychologically. Although singing is what I was originally going to do, it’s not been a love in the way that playing the piano is. If I had a fantasy, I would play the Albert Hall. I watch my teacher play at recitals with complete and utter envy.
‘Ever since I was I child, I’ve never had confidence performing in public and I said to my teacher “I want you to make me play a piece all the way through without swearing. I don’t care what—it can be a Bach two-part invention, it can be the simplest thing in the world—just make me do it”.
‘She arranges a thing at Christmas where she gets her pupils to play a concert at Kings Place. Ed Balls did it, when he’d just had a series of tough interviews on the TV and he’d got his Grade 2 (he was tracking his children’s level). He played the last piece, technically very difficult but emotionally very profound, a quiet, simple piece. It ends with a soft chord that fades off into the distance, but, instead, he went crash. He was just pleased to get to the end of the thing and said it was the most terrifying thing he’d done, with the spotlight on you and those keys look like teeth.’
Although he’s best known for his theatre work, Simon is one of our most versatile actors, garnering plaudits for roles in plays as varied as King Lear, Hamlet, London Assurance, Deathtrap and Privates on Parade and was the winner of a BAFTA Best Actor award for A Dance to the Music of Time. He even performed with the Royal Ballet as the Duchess in Christopher Wheeldon’s Alice in Wonderland. ‘I had to do a solo bow—you just have to go on and acknowledge the royal box, acknowledge the audience, take time, all that stuff they do at the ballet and the opera. The applause can die completely and then you go back on and get the clapping going again. That would be unheard of in the theatre.’
Now, he’s thrilling audiences in Mr Foote’s Other Leg, a riotous play by Ian Kelly about the one-legged, 18th-century dramatist Samuel Foote, who once staged Othello as a comedy. ‘It’s based on the notes of this character called Hunter who founded the Royal College of Surgeons. He wrote about Sam Foote’s mental deterioration and it’s all about self-consciousness and acknowledging the way your brain works.’
Bringing the world of the theatre to blazing life, ‘it also touches on the subject of learning lines—the untouchable subject isn’t it? There’s a whole sequence about Sam Foote doing a little test on actors as they had to do such a huge turnover he gave them nonsense to learn and they had to do it in a minute. But you can do it. In fact, weirdly, when I was learning the little piece I’d been given (as Ian was rewriting the piece the whole time), I did learn it in an hour. You can make connections even though there’s no sense.’
When I ask if an actor’s personality feeds into the characters they play and vice versa, the answer comes quickly. ‘Weirdly, a lot of people this part’s very like me, but I would dispute that. What else can you use really, but what’s interesting is that roles do feed into one other. I remember when I was at the RSC and I was doing Edward II, Konstantin in The Seagull and Edgar in Lear and they became all facets of the same argument about self-doubt and self-hatred, which was a particularly powerful thing. I suppose you could put any three parts together and it becomes part of the same debate.’
But how do you keep things fresh? ‘Usually, by the time you’re in the thick of it and the story’s beginning to bite, it’s always rather enjoyable. The odd thing about my job is there’s no choice. There are very few jobs where absolutely to the minute you have to start. Even a bus driver can say “let me finish this coffee”. It actually has happened to me that it occurs to you that you could go on and say “I’m sorry, I just can’t do this tonight”. Once you admit that it’s optional, it’s all over!
‘I’m much much, much more loose now. I used to be rigid about liking it a certain way and trying to reproduce that every night. Now, I just throw it all over the place. Which has the benefit of keeping it fresh, as long as the other actors you’re working with are fine with it. Sometimes, it goes a bit wrong and you put the other actor in the wrong place.
The only downside is sometimes you end up with so many options on a particular sequence, because you respond to the other person as well, that you have to try and remember what the original was as it’s getting a bit inaccurate emotionally. I wouldn’t have anticipated 30 years ago that I would be so much looser. Even if it’s a bad choice, usually, you can do something with it.’
A number of close collaborations over the years with Sir Nick Hytner and Sam Mendes have surely contributed to this increased confidence, I suggest. ‘They’re two of the sharpest minds I know. Sam is an acute enough observer to recognise the things I do and it’s also useful as it means he can challenge it as well. He says “I can see your eyes glow and you take the idea away and tuck it in your cheek for a bit, then out it comes”.
‘What was amazing about Sam’s running of the Donmar—founding, really—was an absolute feeling about the zeitgeist. He knew what would be, to put it crudely, fashionable and what people would find interesting at the time. Nick also has that ability of going “hang on, I think the public would like this now”.
‘Doing Timon [of Athens at the National Theatre in 2012], for instance. I remember we had lunch and he asked if I’d ever thought about doing Bottom funnily enough, it’s not a part that I’ve been desperate to do, which he saw on my face. About a week later, he said have you ever read Timon? I thought, that’s weird and interesting. When I next saw him, he said “There’s no way we can’t not do this in contemporary London. It was written for it”. Nick is brilliant at that and he has a wonderfully pragmatic approach to the text. The last line in our version was from As You Like It and nobody noticed. We did do one line from Coriolanus and Ralph [Fiennes] was the only one who said anything—he’d just directed it.’
Although, at school, we’re often taught that Shakespeare is ‘sacrosanct’, Simon feels strongly that the texts can survive being changed. ‘They’re absolutely buzzing with different options. Shakespeare is tougher than we sometimes allow him to be.’
To that end, for the past year, Simon has been the Cameron Mackintosh Visiting Professor of Contemporary Theatre at St Catherine’s College Oxford. ‘I haven’t been able to do a lot—I’ve done a workshop a term and enjoyed it enormously. I’m fascinated by the fact that there are multiple options on these great Shakespeare plays. A performer has to decide which to choose and that’s part of the fun, part of the game. Also about the fact that those choices all have some interpretative effect. You have to think it through carefully.
‘One of the workshops I did at Oxford was about how Lear ends with ‘look there, look there’ over Cordelia’s body as he dies. I’d always seen it as a vision and that he’s going off somewhere. When I did it in 2014, quite late on in the run, I suddenly thought perhaps he’s saying “look at that corpse—that’s what the meaning of life is”, almost accusatory. It became much more proactive and, I found, much more upsetting than something more visionary or more gentle, which I’d also done.’
And how the Bard is performed has changed a lot in the actor’s lifetime. ‘At memorial services now, you very often have a recording of the actor. I went to John Wood’s and to Alan Howard’s, both of whom I’d worked with and both of them had recordings and they were amazing. But you can’t act like that any more. John’s from The Tempest was just a man saying “I have a voice that can go anywhere, do anything, the full orchestra is here” and it’s just astonishing. If you had the courage, you could do it now and it would be thrilling, but nobody would believe it any more and they’d find it a bit odd.’
And what’s next? Although he acknowledges that he will be involved with the RSC’s celebrations for Shakespeare’s 400th anniversary, he is unable to say exactly how before the launch. ‘I’d like another try at the Scottish king and I would like to do Falstaff on stage. And there’s two others in the Shakespeare lot and that’s Angelo—I’d love to do Angelo—and Shylock—well, that just worries me for obvious reasons. When this finishes, my next booked theatre job is at the end of year so I’ve got six months off. I want to do some more music on television —a series on virtuosi perhaps? I could do more on symphonic music. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to do it on particular instruments?’ Time to return to the piano for more practice.