A theatrical giant and the Great Dane

Simon Russell Beale, one of Britain's most thrilling and intense classical actors, is now taking on the role he was born to play.
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The Independent Online

We've known for 10 years that this had to happen. But there have been times - what with delaying back injuries and the burgeoning movie career of the projected director - when it looked as though we'd be seeing Simon Russell Beale's Lear before his much-anticipated Hamlet. And Hamlet, despite the actor's endearingly rotund physique and unromantic mien, is a role he was born to play. He's tantalised us repeatedly, not only performing all the great dry-runs for Shakespeare's hero in Chekhov and Ibsen, but also mischievously coming so-near-and-yet-so-far as one of the leads in a major revival of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. He even popped up as the second gravedigger in the dreadful Kenneth Branagh movie version. On Tuesday evening, though, Beale finally accepts his date with destiny when, in John Caird's RNT production, he takes to the Lyttelton stage as the Black Prince himself.

We've known for 10 years that this had to happen. But there have been times - what with delaying back injuries and the burgeoning movie career of the projected director - when it looked as though we'd be seeing Simon Russell Beale's Lear before his much-anticipated Hamlet. And Hamlet, despite the actor's endearingly rotund physique and unromantic mien, is a role he was born to play. He's tantalised us repeatedly, not only performing all the great dry-runs for Shakespeare's hero in Chekhov and Ibsen, but also mischievously coming so-near-and-yet-so-far as one of the leads in a major revival of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. He even popped up as the second gravedigger in the dreadful Kenneth Branagh movie version. On Tuesday evening, though, Beale finally accepts his date with destiny when, in John Caird's RNT production, he takes to the Lyttelton stage as the Black Prince himself.

The too, too solid flesh of the most interesting classical actor of his generation is looking very tanned and vibrant when he bounds into the office at the National where we talk. He's just returned from Denmark, where this Hamlet was performed (coals to Newcastle fashion) in the blustery castle courtyard at Elsinore. "The audience can't possibly have heard a thing," he laughs, "it was like doing it on an oil rig. And by the end, all you could see out there were duvets." He is, he says, looking forward to actually talking to the other characters again back indoors.

We first met a decade ago, just after his brilliant RSC performance as Konstantin, the frustrated Hamlet manqué of the Russian provinces in Chekhov's The Sea-gull. Beale has always excelled at portraying young men who - torn between prickly self-disgust and a desperate yearning for affection - snatch their hand away first to pre-empt rejection. Ideal casting, then, for the Oedipally-tortured Konstantin, who is supplanted in his mother's affections by a second-rate but gallingly more successful author. What convinced you, though, that Beale had the emotional range for Hamlet proper was his extraordinary take on Konstantin's suicide. Most actors present this as the result of bitter pique. But before he went off to shoot himself, Beale's hero spent a heartbreaking two minutes methodically tearing up and binning his stories, as if he wished to unlitter the world of his presence. Rather than the spiteful action of a tunnel-visioned failure, this spell-binding sequence felt like a calm and suddenly mature piece of spiritual stocktaking. As Beale remarked at the time, a "fat Hamlet" was on the cards.

I wondered, though, whether it felt odd to be achieving his ambition with a different director from the one so often associated with the project. Sam Mendes, with whom this actor has had a highly fruitful professional relationship, was slated to direct Hamlet, but then a little film called American Beauty and the Oscars circus got in the way. Beale appears to be level-headed and generous-spirited about this alteration to his plans. When I say that, with Mendes at the helm, his Hamlet would have had the world's media on the doorstep, his response is teasing self-deprecation: "What, the LA Times? Perhaps Nicole [Kidman, who bared all for Mendes in The Blue Room] could have done Ophelia."

He does concede that the Hamlet he has evolved with John Caird (who last year directed him in Candide and Money for NT ensemble) is not at all like the one he would have created with Mendes. It illustrates, he says, how differently the two directors must perceive him. "All the Shakespeare roles I've played for Sam have been pretty nasty creatures." Deformity and a boiling sense of exclusion have been recurrent features of this Mendes-mentored gallery, which includes an oozingly diseased Thersites, a Richard III whom this critic described as looking like "the unhappy result of a one-night stand between Pÿre Ubu and Gertrude Stein", and a dauntingly glacial Ariel, whose parting present to Prospero was to gob full in his face. ("I had more letters over that than over anything," Beale recalls. "I loved the debates about 'Do spirits spit?' I mean, are spirits 14 stone?")

By contrast, John Caird cast him as the "love interest" in Money and years ago, at the RSC, he was the one non-grotesque in Caird's production of Every Man In His Humour. So those who go to the new Hamlet expecting a twisted, rankling Prince from Beale are in for a bit of a shock. "It's completely unbitter," he confides with a laugh. "John is not a cynic and, through him, I became aware that so much of this play is about love that has been abused or destroyed." In this version, then, trying to get back to the emotional status quo ante is a priority for the hero. He refers to a moment in the usually violent closet scene with Gertrude when his Hamlet manages to touch the Ghost and "just for a split second, he's completely happy", because there's the illusion that the primal family unit for which he pines has been restored.

That moment must hit Beale hard, because his own very close military family suffered the loss of his mother, after a long battle with cancer, just as he started rehearsals. "She wanted to see my Hamlet. She never will," he says and then, in what sounds at first like a non sequitur, adds "so she is always there really and she will be there for the run." Grieving for an actual parent while playing the grief-crazed Hamlet is a precarious business. If it resulted in the extraordinary intensity of Jonathan Pryce's portrayal (which drew on his father's brutal murder by a skinhead), it unbalanced Daniel Day-Lewis to the point of his having to abandon the role at the National in the mid-Eighties. But while the "unpredictable muggings" administered by grief have helped Beale to understand the rush of emotion in Hamlet's soliloquies, it's the play's more philosophical reflections on death ("the readiness is all" etc ) that bring his mother to mind each night.

What of the future? The rumour that Sam Mendes has plans to shoot a Chicago gangster movie with Tom Hanks has rather dashed - for the moment, at any rate - whatever widescreen hopes he may be harbouring. There's another rumour, though, that Tom Stoppard might turn up trumps with a custom-built new play. That would be a very happy creative marriage, because Beale has the same kind of passionate intellect and musical grasp of pyrotechnical argument that John Wood displayed in the various roles Stoppard created for him. Meanwhile, he feels that Shakespeare should be given "a rest from me tampering with him". But Beale is a very youthful-seeming 40, and Sarah Bernhardt played the part in her mid-fifties. So now that he has broken his duck, what's to stop him giving us a second Hamlet?

'Hamlet' opens tomorrow night at NT Lyttelton, London SE1, 020-7452 3000

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