In the scheme of things: Simon Callow and the sonnets: a marriage made in heaven? Michael Arditti reports

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Although the British distrust epics, we love events; whether it be all night in Glasgow with Peter Brook or all day at the Aldwych with Nicholas Nickleby. Nickleby opened in June 1980; a month later, the Olivier put on an event of an equally ambitious, if less populous, nature, when Simon Callow recited all 154 of Shakespeare's sonnets. Now, 14 years on, he is repeating his performance on Radio 3.

When asked why he has returned to them now, he replies that the real question should be why it has taken him so long. 'I've brooded about them incessantly. I wanted to do them better justice. I was a terribly inexperienced Shakespearian actor . . . I still am. I haven't worked much in verse, which, for me, is seriously bad news. The sonnets are my opportunity to do so without being cast as Macbeth or Lear. It's my chance to play the 48 Preludes and Fugues.'

In fact, he has only ever acted in Shakespeare twice: Orlando in As You Like It, and the title role in Titus Andronicus, 'directed by the infant Adrian Noble'. The sonnet sequence came about when Michael Kustow at the National rang him with news of a theory about their genesis by a classicist-turned-psychotherapist, John Padel, and an invitation to join a group of actors to work on some of them. 'Half an hour later, I rang back to say, 'Why some? Why not all of them?' Half an hour after that, I rang to say, 'Why the other actors; why not just me?' '

'Just me' it was; and Callow and Kustow found the process of exploration exhilarating. Padel's hypothesis necessitated a new shape to the sequence. 'We took off on it; we discovered things ourselves because of John's theory. We also found it absolutely true to both our lives - him being heterosexual and me homosexual. It wasn't arcane, but immediate.'

He recalls very little of the original performance, except for the exhaustion. 'It was the equivalent of doing Hamlet, Lear and Othello all at once.' He learnt all 154 poems by heart, which he now considers 'silly, because I made a number of blunders which were seized upon; although several of them were critical suggestions from John . . . but then one man's blunder is another man's relevant scholarship.'

During the final ovation at the Olivier, Sir Peter Hall is said to have remarked that 'this could turn a young actor's head'; Callow insists that he remained level-headed. What did affect him was the power of the language. 'Shakespeare was such a great composer; the words, melodies and actual phrases are of such extraordinary beauty. Because it was my first experience of it, I was quite overwhelmed. I sometimes could not get the lines out, I was so touched by phrases like the 'world without end hour'; I'm hyper-sensitive to words.'

He was also particularly receptive to the subject of the poems. 'I was in love myself and going through quite a lot of the same things - idolisation, extreme-projection. The emotional pattern is one of the poet's idealisation of a young man and abnegation of himself, which is one that I happen to recognise in myself.' And yet, at the same time, he is adamant that there is nothing in the sonnets to suggest that Shakespeare was gay.

A woman's face with nature's own hand painted

Hast thou the master mistress of my passion,

A woman's gentle heart but not acquainted

With shifting change as is false women's fashion . . .

But since she pricked thee out for women's pleasure,

Mine be thy love and thy love's use their treasure.

Callow himself has always been open about his sexuality and insists there is no hidden gay agenda behind this performance. This lack of bias puts him at odds with the academic gay establishment, personified by Joseph Pecquiney, whose book Such Is My Love is a partisan account of Shakespeare as a gay man. 'He sees the sonnets as an autobiographical expression of the love between two men. I wish it were true; I'd like to think that there were 154 sonnets about gay men in the language. But, alas, I fear that it is not.'

Callow feels that the poems about the young man are not about consummation, whereas those concerned with the woman are about sex, depicting 'what Auden described as 'a sexual bond with someone you don't like'.'

My love is as a fever longing still,

For that which longer nurseth the disease,

Feeding on that which doth pre serve the ill,

Th'uncertain sickly appetite to please.

But in the literary lottery that constitutes so much Shakesperian criticism, one man's WH is another man's HW. Padel and Callow opt not for Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, as 'only begetter' of the sonnets, but rather William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke. 'John's view is that the whole extraordinary arch of the sonnets is the product of Shakespeare's identification with Mary Herbert (Pembroke's mother), a poet herself. Shakespeare had just lost his son Hamnet at the same time as Mary Herbert was in anguish about her son's lack of interest in sex. They hit it off perfectly as both parents and poets and she got Shakespeare to write the sonnets, which she thought the best way to persuade her son to marry.'

Thou art thy mother's glass and she in thee

Calls back the lovely April of her prime,

So thou through windows of thine age shalt see,

Despite of wrinkles this thy golden time.

But if thou live remembered not to be,

Die single and thine image dies with thee.

The significance to Callow of Padel's argument (which can be found in his book, New Poems by Shakespeare) is that it presents the sequence as a dramatic argument. 'The whole thing is a projection for Shakespeare. Like all his work, it is based in character; he invents characters for the boy and for himself, just as he did in the plays. We know for sure that Shakespeare didn't strangle his wife, but he manages to find the vein of jealousy in himself and let rip. It's the same with the sonnets.'

The theory has both its devoted adherents and its determined detractors. As Callow admits, 'I am not in a position to say whether John's reconstruction is totally plausible, but it is a fascinating picture of poetry used in a social sense: not just something that you get a slim vol of and sit down to read, but that you could actually persuade a young man to marry through it.'

In Padel's view, the sonnets were written to be recited: 'John's theory is that Shakespeare just turned up at Wilton House with the poems stuffed down his cod-piece and proceeded to read.' It is a tradition that Callow is particularly pleased to be reviving on the radio. The pattern will be of 16 sonnets per programme - 'We run at about 50 seconds a sonnet' - and what is lost in broad sweep will be gained in intimacy. 'Radio is a medium I'm passionate about. And there's nothing quite like being able to utter a poem to people sitting at home.'

When Callow performed the sequence at the National, James Fenton, then the Sunday Times drama critic, took him to task. 'He said that vanity in an actor was a good thing, but this was going too far. 'Within his range, which is tiny, Mr Callow is a master; outside it, he's ridiculous'.'

Since then, though, Callow has extended his range immeasurably, not so much on stage, but as a writer, director and film actor. And yet he admits that 'although I've worked very hard at learning how to direct and I've worked very hard at learning how to write, I suspect that acting is what God intended me to do. Soon, I'll have to give up all the other activities.' His return to Shakespeare may well herald a new start for this latterday Renaissance man.

'Shakespeare's Sonnets' begins tonight, 9.35pm, on Radio 3

(Photograph omitted)