With two stage roles, including the rarely performed Timon of Athens, Simon Russell Beale is putting his stamp on London theatre this summer. He tells Natalie Woolman of the thrill of live performance
Simon Russell Beale is telling me about his first fan letter. Not the first one the Olivier award-winner received, you understand – the first one he wrote.
“My very first fan letter was written to Ian McKellen after I saw him do Iago at The Other Place [in Stratford-upon-Avon]. I remember that the only paper I could find was flowery notepaper, but I was in such a rush to write it.
“He must have thought it was a weird letter, with its flowery envelope, [but] I thought he was absolutely magnificent, absolutely brilliant,” says Beale.
The fact that Beale was not a student or punter when he wrote the letter but a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company alongside McKellen makes the anecdote even more telling. Speaking to him, it is clear he is thrilled by live performance – the prospect, the process and the watching. He wants me to know how “technically brilliant” his Collaborators co-star Alex Jennings is on stage, how he still gets first-night nerves performing at the Olivier Theatre and he can even remember the position of a prop in a production he was in 14 years ago. Our conversation is a tutorial in stagecraft, but also in the joy of the theatre.
“Theatre has been ‘dying’ since 1594 but it has managed to survive since then,” Beale says. “I don’t say that in a smug way. I just think everyone is always saying ‘theatre is dying’ or ‘theatre is in trouble’. We have more theatre in this city than you can shake a stick at, and attended theatre too, so we have got to be positive.”
Beale is doing more than his share for the London theatre scene this summer. At the National, not only is he is reprising his role as Joseph Stalin in John Hodge’s aforementioned play until the end of this month, but in July he also takes the title role in Timon of Athens, directed by Nicholas Hytner. Both plays are at the Olivier, one of the knottiest venues for performers to master in the capital.
“Moving to the Olivier is a little bit frightening for me every time,” he reveals. “It’s weird, because I have played that theatre a lot. So the first performance was not good actually. But it is relaxing into it.”
However, he says the venue is “less problematic than people might imagine”. He explains: “You can speak quietly on that stage. You just need to have created the space around your words to get the audience’s attention concentrated before you can say a quiet line.”
Beale’s preparations to play Stalin started last summer when he was in New York. He did more reading than he usually does for roles, but says he “had to stop after a while because I thought, ‘This is just too grim’”.
I wonder whether Stalin got under his skin as happened when he played Iago in Sam Mendes’ production in the late 90s, which he describes as an “absolutely horrible” experience.
“Stalin [in Collaborators] is slightly different because he is a theatrical construct. We never really see the real Stalin throughout the whole play because he is playing a game – he is a charming, funny man, a cuddly Uncle Joe-type character.
“Iago went to a very black area. A man absolutely without love. Doesn’t know what it means, has never experienced it,” he says.
Timon of Athens will be Beale’s next Shakespearean part. It is one of the least well-known characters and also one of the most problematic. Speaking at the beginning of the rehearsal period, Beale said he did not know what his “moral bearings” on the character were yet, because “fundamentally, he’s such a twit”.
“The challenge is to make it an emotional journey that the audience can respond to because it is like a fable, a black fairy story.
“At the moment, I am thinking that Timon subliminally knows [everyone is] going to let him down. It is a sort of – and this is a very Shakespearean thing – suicide mission. Iago does it, Hamlet does it.”
Beale points out that Shakespearean scholars don’t believe Timon of Athens made the original cut of the first folio, but that, due to an issue with the text of Troilus and Cressida, it was added at the last minute. Then Troilus and Cressida came back on the table so, as Beale describes, they “squashed Timon in”.
The play raises the question of authorship. It is generally accepted that Timon was written by Shakespeare and Thomas Middleton, with linguistic experts pretty much confirming who wrote what within it. But does Beale buy into the bigger conspiracy theories? Not at all, he insists.
“I remember Nick [Hytner] making a joke that by the time we are dead, we will discover that most of the plays are co-written,” he says. “It is a fascinating process whereby all these playwrights co-wrote. It doesn’t diminish Shakespeare’s genius at all – the solo-written plays are some of the greatest masterpieces ever written. As for Stratford versus any other potential authors, logically I can’t plump for any of the others. It is a shame we don’t know any more about him. But we don’t know much about many of them,” he says.
A couple of years ago, Hytner mentioned that Beale was to star in a production of King Lear to be directed by Sam Mendes. Beale assures me this is “still there” as a future plan but no definite dates are in the diary. Surely there is no rush, I ask – Beale only played Hamlet a little over a decade ago, and only just passed 50.
Beale explains, chuckling: “The reason it came up – it makes me laugh – is that I was doing Galileo, and Sam came and saw it. Galileo ages, so I was playing an old Galileo at the end of the play. That’s probably why it crossed his mind. We were having a drink afterwards, and he said, ‘I really think we should do King Lear before it is too late’. I said, ‘I am 44′.”
With Lear already on the slate and so many classical roles chalked up already, it would be easy to think Beale has some kind of canonical checklist he is working through. He insists that a career playing the most iconic characters in English literature has come about “completely by chance”. He adds, “Everyone thinks I don’t do new work, but I love doing new work”. My suggestion that his next big challenge might be running a venue is met with a groan.
“Good God, no,” he says. “It crossed my mind about five years ago when the Royal Shakespeare Theatre came up. Isn’t it weird? If you had asked me ten years ago, before I knew any artistic directors very well, I would have said, ‘It’s a nice idea’. Now I know people like Richard Eyre, Nick Hytner and Sam Mendes much better, oh no. I don’t know how they do it,” he asserts.
Even without the strains of a directorship, Beale describes himself as a “workaholic”. I wonder how he relaxes. His answer surprises me more than anything else he has revealed in our hour together.
“I am a great beach holiday slob,” he says. “To be brutally honest, I am essentially lazy – like I think a lot of workaholics are – given half a chance and a vodka and tonic on a Greek beach. I could do that for weeks.”
* Collaborators runs until June 23 at the National Theatre, London. Timon of Athens runs at the same venue from July 10 and is part of the theatre’s Travelex £12 season