Simon Russell Beale: A performer at his peak

Simon Russell Beale can justifiably be called the best actor of his generation. Now he is tackling Shakespeare's trickiest tragic hero - Macbeth. He talks to Paul Taylor
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In a lunch break during rehearsals for John Caird's production of Macbeth at the Almeida Theatre, in Islington, north London, Simon Russell Beale gives me the low-down on delivering Shakespearean soliloquies. "You have to adopt a persona when you're doing a soliloquy and you have to give the audience a role, too," he declares.

In a lunch break during rehearsals for John Caird's production of Macbeth at the Almeida Theatre, in Islington, north London, Simon Russell Beale gives me the low-down on delivering Shakespearean soliloquies. "You have to adopt a persona when you're doing a soliloquy and you have to give the audience a role, too," he declares.

Russell Beale, who is by common consent the most intelligent actor of his generation, has enviably deep experience to draw on. Riffling through the various roles he has played so brilliantly, he itemises the different relationships the Bard's soliloquising characters forge with the paying public. "With Richard III, it's 'I'm the Leader of the Gang.' With Iago, it's 'I couldn't care what you think, actually. I'm going to spin you some sort of bullshit and you can take it or leave, but I don't care.' With Hamlet, it's 'We're best friends - we're the only friends we have.'" And with Macbeth? Ay, there's the rub - to quote another tragedy. "It's funny, you know, but I've never had that question in my head with Macbeth. I'm thinking now of the number of times in the rehearsal room that I've performed his soliloquies with my eyes shut."

Russell Beale, who has strong claims to be considered our greatest stage actor, is finally matched, in this production, with the part that many of our leading thespians have bitter cause to regard as the trickiest hero-role in the canon. It has certainly landed an extraordinary number of them with the nastiest notices of their careers - not just Peter O'Toole in the infamous Macbeth that was damned as "the worst production ever seen". Imagine being Alec Guinness waking up the next morning to read that "it must have taken a great deal of work to persuade Alec Guinness to give a performance so totally colourless as his Macbeth". Or Ralph Richardson, regaled at breakfast with the news that his impersonation of the regicidal thane showed that he had become "the glass eye in the forehead of English acting". Or Mark Rylance, whose portrayal of Macbeth as a murderous member of a Hare Krishna sect was declared to inhabit a "small terrain of tremulous, monotonic gloom". Rylance was at that point artistic director designate of the not-yet-opened Shakespeare's Globe. His production of Macbeth led one critic "to look forward to a fiasco of monumental proportions" on the South Bank.

The difficulties of the role are partly to do with its paradoxes. Macbeth is a mass murderer with a poetic sensibility. In awkward contrast to many tragic heroes, who graduate from insensitivity to a belated and excruciating capacity to feel, this character coarsens from being a troubled introvert whose every thought is about fear to a killing machine who announces that he has "almost forgot the taste" of it. Paradox, though, is precisely the territory in which Simon Russell Beale thrives. You could say that he is the very incarnation of paradox.

With his portly physique and his teddy-bear demeanour, Russell Beale may not be everybody's idea of a ruthless general who could kill an adversary by unseaming him "from the nave to the chops". But he's an actor who is interestingly positioned to bring out the tension in Macbeth between the poetically refined and the viciously unrarefied because there is, within him, a complementary contradiction. When he played Uncle Vanya in America, the critic of the New York Observer raised his voice in philistine protest: "Give me a thin Vanya!" he exclaimed. "You cannot take a man seriously who looks as if he's pining for a sticky bun." This almost sublimely misses the point about Russell Beale. He's a walking, built-in drama, precisely because the flesh seems to have played a spiteful practical joke on the fastidious intellect that is trapped inside it. The resulting discrepancy has helped him to project a matchless sense of prickly alienation and exclusion.

One of his supreme gifts, though, is the power to include an audience in that highly personal-seeming experience of excludedness. I can think of no other actor who has a comparable capacity to make people identify with him. And so his Macbeth is a very intriguing proposition indeed. Here's a character who winds up in a state of almost total self-alienation ("To know my deed, 'twere best not know myself") as, fatally tempted by the witches' prophecies, he wades deeper and deeper in blood.

"He's a man who tries to survive and preserve his sanity by cutting off all human contact," says Russell Beale. The test, which on previous form the actor seems likely to pass with flying (tartan) colours, is whether he can make us feel what it is like to feel no more, to admit us into Macbeth's terrifying existential exclusion zone.

The only actor who operates on the same plane of achievement as Russell Beale is Mark Rylance. The contrast between them reminds me of the distinction that Dr Johnson made between Milton and Shakespeare. Rylance is the Prince of the Protean. He's like Shakespeare who, chameleon-like, disappears into his characters. His shaven-headed, American-accented Hare Krishna Macbeth was a feat of transformation, a fascinating study of the kind of brain-washed devout who might turn nasty in a Waco-like cult. Simon Russell Beale, by contrast, is more like Milton, who turns everything into the struggle of being Milton. From his piercingly damaged Konstantin in Terry Hands's production of The Seagull to his klutzily wounded Felix in Charlotte Jones's Humble Boy, from the deadpan, outraged hauteur of his barefoot, Mao-suited Ariel in Sam Mendes' version of The Tempest to the profound spirituality of his Hamlet at the National, part of the joy of watching this actor is the sense that you are getting the latest instalment in the ongoing drama of being Simon Russell Beale.

And this, again, excites avid speculation about how he will perform Macbeth. In one of the best academic essays on the play, Barbara Everett reflects on the question of why, although there have been a handful of highly notable performances - she cites Laurence Olivier and Michael Redgrave, to which one would add Ian McKellen and Antony Sher - no great actor since Garrick has made the part his own. "Great roles," she writes, "are those which a great actor can use to articulate himself through - those which leave room for his own energies and his own charisma." The part of Macbeth, she argues, leaves no such latitude. His soliloquies "light up in moments of still focus; everything between is in shadow". How, one wonders, will these apparent constraints affect an actor whose most trenchant triumphs have come across as an oblique form of autobiography?

Russell Beale was waiting on the steps of the Almeida offices, fiddling, in an endearingly non-expert manner, with his mobile phone. I've met him several times over the years and I don't think (hard as I've tried) that I have ever managed to arrive before him. The son of the surgeon general to the British army, whose family lived abroad on military postings, he's a very well brought-up boy. Like much else (including his strong sense of discipline and professional pride), this pathological punctuality is a product of his years as a boarder at St Paul's Cathedral choir school. An aunt who lived in London would take him out for a treat on his days off, but there were sanctions if you got back late and he developed an obsession with returning in good time.

Our first encounter was in 1991, when he chalked up one of his less recognised victories in helping me to break the ban on thespians being interviewed on the arts pages of this newspaper. Along with a refusal to print stories about the Royal family, The Independent declined, in those days, to run actor interviews. I was convinced, though, that Russell Beale - with his Cambridge First in English and his view that acting is "three-dimensional literary criticism" - would win over even the most hardened luvvie-loather and blaze a trail for other actors. And so it turned out. Russell Beale was working for the Royal Shakespeare Company, which had tended to cast him as either screaming queens (he played a string of outrageous fops in their Restoration season) or apologetic failures. The artistic director Terry Hands then had the inspired idea that these apparently contrasting types were, in fact, inside-out versions of each other, and that Russell Beale could create a stunning synthesis if he turned the exhibitionist rage inwards on himself. The results - a charged and dangerous vulnerability in his performances - were remarkable, and my piece celebrated this development. The trouble, though, was that the article unwittingly outed him as gay to his parents. And I elicited a quote from him - "I hate my body. I hate it. I hate my looks. I hate my voice. So much of what I do on stage * * is really saying 'Love me, despite the fact that I'm ugly'" - that continues to dog him journalistically, even now when he's long past caring about such things. He comes from a clan of perfectionists: in addition to the day job, he's a highly accomplished pianist and is said to be a dab hand at embroidery in the dressing room. He's at once a loner and a dedicated team player. Currently freelance, it's thought that he wouldn't mind running one of our national companies in tandem with a director.

The voice that he is alleged to hate is, in fact, one of his glories. His enunciation is matchless. He can pounce on a phrase with a plump, voluptuous relish, and comically switch to recoiling, fastidious distaste in a twinkling. He'll run up to a word and "goose" it (so to speak), and then dart away with goggle-eyed mock innocence. No one can inflect a passage of verse with such haunting insight or such subtle variations of pace and dynamics. His delivery offstage is a different matter. Russell Beale is chronically modest and self-deprecating. As David Leveaux, who directed his wonderful performance as the maritally challenged professor of moral philosophy in Tom Stoppard's Jumpers, once told me, this actor "has a profound suspicion of the perfectly completed sentence". So his statements, when talking to an interviewer, tend to veer off into a barely audible gabble of donnish diffidence.

This time, though, we're joined at lunch by Emma Fielding, the radiantly intelligent actress who is playing Lady Macbeth. In the company of a fellow professional whom, it's clear, he deeply respects, Russell Beale is a different man. His sentences are miraculously complete and energized. Her presence sparks him off and the ideas fizz forth. Russell Beale is very witty as he identifies the Macbeths as being "really rather suburban. They're socially inept and don't fit into courtly circles. There is," he announces with a grin, "something of Margaret Thatcher curtseying too low before the Queen about them - a tendency to overplay the courtliness." He reveals (which I must not, before opening night) the mischievous ways in which the grotesque farce of the ghost-interrupted dinner party will be heightened in this version.

Freud saw Macbeth as a tragedy of childlessness, the couple's ambition in some sense a psychological compensation for their lack of issue. But plunging them straight into their bloody plot, the play has no time to suggest in any detail what has brought the pair to this point. "You have extraordinary freedom to fill in the gaps," says Fielding, while Russell Beale points out that "Macbeth only has four lines in their first scene together." That's one of the reasons why this tragedy is so difficult to bring off, and why so many leading actors have come a cropper with it. The central couple "are in a hermetically sealed relationship", he argues. "There's no safety valve and part of the problem is that they do it [the murder that wins them the crown] for each other, and that's very dangerous." Their "co-dependency" creates a situation where "each misreads the other's mind and then afterwards, it's the blame game of asking who started it. It suddenly occurred to me about a week ago that when he says 'this is a sorry sight' and waves the bloody daggers at her, he's not referring to the blood, but to the consequences. It's his way of saying of 'Do you realise what I have done for you? Do you realise what will happen to us now?'"

Listening to him rise to the challenge of finding and decoding the clues in this "elusive" text, you're reminded that Russell Beale is a great actor in part because he's so acutely intelligent. He's a man who can casually toss into a conversation the brilliant insight that "Iago is Hamlet's malign stepbrother" (both characters are on what are essentially suicide missions; there's a mystery at the heart of both their stories; and silence is the terminus for both these garrulous soliloquisers). But his penetrating imagination is allied to a sound sense of practicalities. Actors have often foundered in the role of Macbeth because after the banqueting scene, the hero has long periods offstage. Our impression of his dreadful decline is frustratingly fragmentary. James Agate, writing in The Sunday Times about John Gielgud's 1930 performance, argued that "whether the play stands or falls depends upon the power of the [leading] actor to suggest the ravages of mind, soul and even body endured since we saw him last".

Russell Beale's solution to this daunting problem is a measure of his genius. "I'm going to sit centre stage for the whole of the fifth act, waiting for the world to come to me. I was very keen that there should be minimal fighting, because the last bit of the play is linguistically and spiritually very interesting. For example, when Macduff arrives, I want to be able to explore what it's like for Macbeth finally to meet the father of the children he has had murdered ('Of all men else I have avoided thee'). So I had this idea of being absolutely stationary, and an image of Stalin trapped in his paranoid little room." Russell Beale's varied acting CV includes one out-and-out psychopath. His bulging, bull-necked Iago for Sam Mendes at the National was a transfixing study of terminally warped evil. There was a superb moment when, after having reduced Othello to a twitching heap, he indulged in a creepy laugh of gloating satisfaction that then suddenly became the unsettling retching sound of someone who has literally made himself sick with nervous excitement and disgust.

Macbeth, by contrast, is not a natural born killer: rather, he's a man who becomes uncoupled not only from his wife and partner in crime, but from his original humanity. I begin to realise, talking to him, that it takes an actor as profoundly humane as Russell Beale to plumb the weird existential puzzle of that dehumanised state. With rueful wit, he once asked a director: "Is it that I always play failures, or do they become failures because it's me playing them?" He has made an incomparable success of enriching our imaginative understanding of failure. Accordingly, he possesses just the right gifts for uncovering new layers in Macbeth, the hero who violently snatches success and from some deep personal inadequacy, turns it into appalling failure. "Our version ends up in Beckett Endgame territory," he laughs. The supreme acting test fittingly awaits our supreme actor. Unlike so many of his forerunners in the role and against all the received wisdom, he really does look set to prove that "there is nothing like a thane".

'Macbeth', Almeida Theatre, London N1 (020-7359 4404) to 5 March

CONTENDERS FOR THE CROWN

ALEX JENNINGS

Jennings (in The Relapse) is an actor of stylish sophistication, penetrating intellect and urbanity, and he has a wider range than some have suspected. His portrayal of George Bush in David Hare's Stuff Happens was a clever study of a wily political operator who gets his own way by posing as a Texan dimwit. He's one of Nick Hytner's favourite actors, and his Leontes in Hytner's The Winter's Tale emphasised how this jealous hero is arrested in a dangerous nostalgia for boyhood. With Hytner now at the helm of the National, we can expect to see a lot more of Jennings's talent for incisive interpretation.

ADRIAN LESTER

Who would have thought a 6ft black male actor could create not just a convincing, but an utterly captivating Rosalind? Lester pulled off this improbable feat in Declan Donnellan's men-only As You Like It. That performance helped to win him the title role in Peter Brook's recent Hamlet. It was a production that drew on Lester's radiant stage presence and his wonderful capacity for spiritual openness, though some felt the directorial interpretation hemmed him in. It's frustrating that he has not done more. Let's hope that his Iraq War Henry V at the National heralds a renewed commitment to the stage.

MARK RYLANCE

Mercurial, touched with genius, slightly mad, Rylance can take an audience's breath away. Witness his hilarious Olivia, gliding around like a geisha on castors, in the all-male Twelfth Night at Shakespeare's Globe. It has been rightly claimed that no other actor could have made this theatre work as he has - you've only got to look at the supple, intimate rapport with the groundlings to see why. Detractors argue that at the Globe he has not pitted himself against performers of the same weight. It will be fascinating to see what direction his career takes when he leaves the Globe in 2006.

MICHAEL SHEEN

Welsh and extraordinarily winning, Sheen has proved that he can carry a huge production all by himself, as was the case with his flamboyant Peer Gynt in Yukio Ninagawa's otherwise misbegotten international extravaganza. He recently won several awards for the deranged, unnerving charisma and existential loneliness of his Caligula in Michael Grandage's Donmar production. He has bravura to burn and a compelling physicality. Given such abundant talent, why does he waste his time making daft vampire movies? And when is someone going to force him to do Hamlet before he's too old?

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