Masterly portraits in pain

Starting with a childhood role as Desdemona, followed by a detour through academia, thence to the stage and television success, the decidedly non-matinee-idol Simon Russell Beale is now one of Britain's most remarkable actors. James Rampton grabbed an hour of his time

The wall of the Royal National Theatre office where I'm interviewing Simon Russell Beale is plastered with posters of past hit productions. At the top are bills advertising Nigel Hawthorne in The Madness of George III and Michael Gambon's Volpone. Just below is a poster of Russell Beale himself in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. He does not look in the least bit out of place in such exalted company.

With almost tedious regularity, Russell Beale is being hailed as just about the most compelling thing to be found on a British stage right now. Like Robbie Coltrane or Charles Laughton (to whom he has often been compared), the fact that he is not conventionally handsome only adds to his fascination for audiences; his differentness makes him stand out.

Talking to me in the hallowed psych-up period before going on stage at the National, he is evidently intelligent (and he has a First in English from Cambridge to prove it). He once said he was learning ancient Greek "in an attempt to regulate my reading". Yet he wears his learning lightly.

After Russell Beale's recent performances as Widmerpool in Channel 4's epic adaptation of A Dance to the Music of Time, as Iago in Sam Mendes' acclaimed interpretation of Othello at the National, and as Pierre Bezuhov in Radio 4's version of War and Peace, critics have been drooling. One newspaper raved that "his performances make compulsive viewing," while another dubbed him "the actor who is perennially voted by critics as one of the finest of his generation". All he needs now is for some bright spark to call him "the new Olivier".

Reviewers will no doubt be further salivating into their notebooks tomorrow night when Russell Beale stars in the title role of The Double Life of Franz Schubert on Channel 4. Like The Singing Detective, the piece revolves around an artistic man reflecting on his life from a hospital bed. Featuring the best soundtrack this side of Amadeus, this tightly packed film spans the composer's life from the moment he chucked in the teaching job at the disciplinarian school run by his father (Freddie Jones) and gave his passionate side its head in the debauched company of his wastrel friend Schober (Jason Flemyng). According to the film, Schubert's decadent lifestyle led to him catching the dose of syphilis that helped finish him off at 31.

Russell Beale can say more with one look than lesser actors can convey in pages of dialogue. When Schubert realises he has syphilis and will have to leave the employ of his beloved Karoline von Esterhazy (Emilia Fox), he expresses his despair through an almost imperceptible quivering of his nostrils and lips. Most actors would not have the confidence to underplay it in this manner, but this performance is all the stronger for it. Nicolas Kent, who wrote and produced The Double Life of Franz Schubert, concurs. "Those moments where it's not scripted and he's just reacting blow me away," he enthuses. "To play a leading man who's merely reacting to what's going on and doesn't have the ammunition to do anything about it is a challenge that most actors wouldn't be up to." He praises the exactness of Russell Beale's acting. "In a very short space of time, Simon is covering quite a spectrum of intense emotions. The power with which he expresses Schubert's psychological state is remarkable. He intuitively understands the complexity of the character and is able to express that with great precision." Russell Beale's Iago is a similarly economical performance. "The part can't sustain grand gestures," the actor reflects. "A lot of it is down to tiny details. He's not like Richard III, wearing a hump the size of this room."

Schubert and Iago are the latest to join Russell Beale's formidable gallery of portraits in pain. He seems attracted to characters in the grip of dark forces or whose most heartfelt desires have been thwarted - Konstantin in The Seagull, Thersites in Troilus and Cressida, Richard III. "We all know the terrible pain of someone like Konstantin," he observes. "One of the most powerful emotions is the sense of failure. With Iago, for instance, you're playing someone who, every time he looks at his wife, is reminded of the failure of his marriage and every time he looks at Othello is reminded of the failure of his career. That's a fascinating area to explore as an actor."

Widmerpool, Russell Beale reckons, is "the ultimate failure. He's fascinating because his sense of failure is so deeply buried that it can only come out at the end. For the rest of the time, he seems supremely self-confident. When you're asked to play someone like that, you have to go back to the source and link into his sense of failure."

For all his acclaimed screen work, Russell Beale's first love remains the stage. "There are all sorts of thrills about stage acting," he declares, "like that bit at the end of Othello where Iago says, `What you know, you know,' and you can feel the audience's disgust and incomprehension. The greatest feeling ever is that point which comes very late in a run when you're so economical that you could do anything in character, and it wouldn't break the bubble."

He talks in awe-struck tones of "my heroes, Alan Howard and John Wood. They're not huge telly stars, but they're massive in the theatre. They would grace any stage. My first fan letter was to Ian McKellen about his Iago. I was in my mid-20s." Long before that, though, Russell Beale was steeped in theatre. I recall seeing him give a dazzling Bottom in Midsummer Night's Dream in a student production at Cambridge.

Before I leave to let him prepare for Othello, he gigglingly shows me a photo of himself in an even earlier production. As a demure 14-year- old, he made rather a fetching Desdemona in the school play. Who would discount the possibility of this most versatile actor recreating the role - and making a howling success of it?

`The Double Life of Franz Schubert' is on tomorrow at 11.15pm on Channel 4

News
peopleFrankie Boyle responds to referendum result in characteristically offensive style
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
tvSeries celebrates 20th anniversary
Sport
Yaya Touré (left) and Bayern Munich’s Spanish defender Juan Bernat
football
Life and Style
Jack Cooksey goes for the grand unveiling - moments before dropping his new iPhone 6 on the floor
iphone launch
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Life and Style
Life and Style
Customers look at the new iPhones on display at the launch of the new Apple iPhone 6 and iphone 6 plus at the Apple IFC store in Hong Kong
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't
tv

Liam Neeson's Downton dreams

Sport
Wembley Stadium
footballNews follows deal with Germany
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Voices
voicesApple continually kill off smaller app developers, and that's no good for anyone
Sport
A 'Sir Alex Feguson' tattoo
football

Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear
tv

Thriller is set in the secret world of British espionage

Life and Style
life

News
ScienceGallery: Otherwise known as 'the best damn photos of space you'll see till 2015'
Life and Style
fashion

Bomber jacket worn by Mary Berry sells out within an hour

Sport
Andros Townsend is challenged by Vladimir Volkov
football
Arts and Entertainment
Rapper Jay Z performs on the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury in 2008
musicSinger sued over use of the single-syllable sample in 'Run This Town'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Nursery assistants required across Cambridgeshire

    £21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Nursery assistants re...

    SEN 1:1 Teacher

    £120 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Are you a qualified teache...

    SEN Teachers and Support Staff

    £50 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Are you an SEN Teacher or L...

    English and Media Teacher

    £100 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: English & Media Teacher - ...

    Day In a Page

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week