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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