He has enchanted audiences and critics alike, but for Simon Russell Beale the dark souls of his subjects leave a lasting impression. By Peter Craven.

From stage to screen for Simon Russell Beale’s King Lear

Simon Russell Beale stars with Anna Maxwell Martin in King Lear.

A small unlovely man, acting with maximum brutality and ugliness as he brings down the terrors of the earth on himself and those around him: that’s the dominant image of Simon Russell Beale as King Lear in Sam Mendes’s new dynamically filmic production for Britain’s National Theatre, which has its first Australian broadcasts today.

It must have been in 1991 that I first saw Beale on stage in London. He was playing the king, with a silky expertness and understatement I only remotely remember because I didn’t know his name, in a Royal Shakespeare Company production of Love’s Labour’s Lost in which the lead, Berowne, was played by another newcomer, Ralph Fiennes. Years later, the two would appear in a production of Julius Caesar – with Fiennes as Mark Antony and Beale as Cassius – which made one critic remark of the sometimes portly actor that henceforth Cassius’s “lean and hungry look” would have to be understood in a purely metaphorical sense.

But Beale is tricky like this. I remember him as the pudgiest and most toad-like King Arthur in Spamalot – a tiptoeing horror of apprehension and timorousness – and I remember him, too, as an utterly mild, credible academic who ends up destroying everyone in his vicinity in Christopher Hampton’s The Philanthropist. But he has also played some of the grandest roles around. He was a Hamlet alive to the thousand colours, including kindness and radiance and calm, that the Prince can evoke. He was a Macbeth who unleashed his imagination and saw it grow murderous as a kind of leap into the dark that was also – so weirdly – a gift to his wife. He has played Brecht’s Galileo, one of the heroic roles of the modern theatre. He has essayed Iago (in Adelaide, among other places, in 1998, with David Harewood as his Othello). And he has played the crisp ingenious villains of Ben Jonson. 

The most obvious thing about Beale is he’s a born character actor. After all, he became internationally prominent as Anthony Powell’s incredible, grotesque bore Widmerpool in the 1997 TV dramatisation of A Dance to the Music of Time. He’s never done much in film despite a performance of icy mildness for Terence Davies as the husband in The Deep Blue Sea. But Simon Russell Beale is a character actor in the mode of Alec Guinness or Ralph Richardson or Charles Laughton. No one would cast him for the rugged grandeur of his face or because he looks good in tights or an Italian suit. But he breaks the mould he seems so much to fit. He has not only played Shakespeare’s greatest comic character, Falstaff, in Richard Eyres’ 2012 BBC version of Henry IV but he’s been playing King Lear, far and away the most difficult role in the Shakespearean canon, and one that tends to be played by the starriest actors around.

 One of the odd qualities of Beale is that, although he is manifestly an actor of the first rank – at 53 arguably the actor of his generation with the highest reputation in his profession and among theatregoers – he seems unusually unimpressed by the glamour (or even the sympathetic halo) of the great roles he performs.

He is sitting in his dressing room at the National Theatre when I ring him and his voice on the phone is that very precise tenor voice – almost clerical, crisp but modest, and yet like a strip of silver silk at the same time. We’re talking because his Lear is to be broadcast in Australian cinemas, but the conversation shifts back to his TV Falstaff. I suggest that he was dark and mean in the role that obsessed Orson Welles and in which Ralph Richardson was said to always hear the drums of death behind each joke. 

“He’s rather a dark character,” Beale says, though he would like to play Falstaff on stage. “If there was an audience, it might lighten things up.” He says he can’t quite see why Falstaff is so marvellous. But Falstaff loves Prince Hal, doesn’t he, the hero-to-be who will break his heart when he becomes Henry V?

“Yes, he loves Hal,” Beale says, “but basically he loves the pub. He can’t wait to get back to the pub.” He says he’s saying this as a man who loves the pub himself and learns all his lines there. “And he is also a petty criminal.” He is dubious of any real depth of love in Falstaff and sceptical of the “sentimentalisation” of Falstaff. 

Beale is, admittedly, a bit inclined to be hard on the characters he plays. I suspect it’s because he is interested in nothing but the truth about them and the extent to which he identifies with a character depends on the depth of moral responsibility he thinks the character bears, the lack of good that is in them, the fact they have not done what they ought to have done. 

How, I wonder, will Beale talk about Hamlet, the role in which actors famously tend to play themselves? Well, he does confess to like Hamlet, but not before he says this about him. “He’s horrible about women and ignorant of sex and kills Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.” But then he talks about that extraordinary late scene where Hamlet muses to Horatio, “If it be not now, yet it will come – the readiness is all.” This is the scene where Hamlet talks about the special providence in the fall of a sparrow. He’s a different character from the man who went to England, Beale thinks. “He’s about as simple as you can get. He tries to be direct. I think he’s lovely. That’s where I arrived at.”

You don’t feel with Beale that this sense of Hamlet, alone of Shakespeare’s tragic heroes, as a man who’s found some of the answers has anything to do with his own self-portraiture. 

Inhabiting the king

And so to Beale’s Lear, on which the whole world is likely to have an opinion, given the cinema exposure. Does he agree with Orwell that Lear learns nothing? 

He gasps. “I don’t think he learns that much.” 

He loathes what Lear does at the beginning of the play, dividing up his kingdom. “In the first scene, Kent calls it ‘evil’,” Beale says, “It’s simply inexcusable. He knows that he’s just started a civil war.” He talks with scathing coolness about Lear declaring himself to be more sinned against than sinning. “He’s completely deluded.”

And then there is the reunion of Lear and Cordelia, the great “wheel of fire” scene. Beale has his own take on that. “I was very keen that it shouldn’t be a reconciliation.” He thinks Shakespeare was preoccupied with the idea of forgiveness but it shouldn’t come too easily at this point in the play. “He wants to redefine himself as a good father,” he says. 

He talks out of what sounds like an enduring sense of shock at Lear’s terrible curse against Goneril: “Into her womb convey sterility.” 

“It’s just so awful,” Beale says. “And we never see Lear at his best. We see Othello at his best. With the Scottish tragedy – forgive me, I’m in the theatre so I don’t want to say the name – we don’t see him as a necessarily bad man. With Lear the parameters are more limited.” 

Beale emphasises the tyrannical Lear and the way he becomes physically reduced. His Lear stands next to a great Lenin-style statue. “You know how people when they get old just get smaller, where they lose what looks like a foot in height.”

 Does it sound, on the face of it, like a somewhat reductionist Lear? Beale’s way into Lear’s madness is via the modern curse of dementia and Alzheimer’s.

“He doesn’t know where to go,” he says. “I wanted to get a sense of the indignity of old age; you know the hospital ‘gown of shame’, as they call it, that doesn’t tie up fully at the back. I wanted to capture what was genuinely undignified and humiliating in his situation. There’s sexual inappropriateness where he’s pulling himself.” 

 You know talking to Beale that all of this is part of the intricate preparation for something that will go deeper. “Lear talks about crying. It’s as if for the first time in his life he’s become aware of crying.” 

And, of course, King Lear is not only the play where the protagonist says that when we are born we smell the air and wawl and cry “that we are come. To this great stage of fools”. It is also the play that culminates in the tremendous “howl” of Lear over the body of his daughter Cordelia. It is the play that seems more than any other in any of the rare branches of tragedy – Greek or French or Elizabethan/Jacobean – to give the most overpowering example of what we mean by catharsis. 

And Beale is conscious that this has to qualify his sense of the naturalism that he’s carefully built up. 

“He cannot always be demented because it would be wrong for him to be unconscious of her being dead or his love for her.” 

So there’s a sense in which this very mild, very intellectually able actor qualifies everything that’s gone before in the conversation. It’s peculiar, in fact, to talk to an actor – given that they seem so often to be the medium for, rather than the conscious purveyor of, a dramatic vision – on whom there seem to be so few flies when it comes to intelligence and moral scrutiny.

Changing tack

Simon Russell Beale’s father was a working-class Essex boy who rose to become a high-ranking medical superintendent in the British Army. Simon read English at Cambridge and went to Gonville and Caius College on a choral scholarship. “I was at university with people like Stephen Fry and Emma Thompson and Tilda Swinton but in fact I did less drama than I might have because I had to sing in chapel every day.” 

He became enthralled with mediaeval literature in the course of his English degree and with the shadow of Christianity that so dominates it. Is he religious?

“I’m very interested in Christianity but I’m borderline religious. You know with religion you have to jump, and I’ve never been able to quite jump.”

He says that if he did, it would be to broad church Anglicanism rather than towards Catholicism or Anglo-Catholicism. “Oddly enough, for an actor, I’m not a smells and bells man. Though I did have to read T.  S. Eliot’s Four Quartets aloud on the eve of the millennium in Salisbury Cathedral. They played Messiaen’s ‘Quartet for the End of Time’. And there I was.”

Music and drama – and a heightened sense of literature – all go to make up Simon Russell Beale. At Cambridge he was obsessed by Tennyson and Browning and decided he had better write a dissertation on someone modern, so he chose the American poet Wallace Stevens. He thinks it must have been marked by that distinguished critic Frank Kermode whom he only got to know in the last couple of years of his life. 

Beale had actually accepted a place to do a doctorate at University College London on images of death in Victorian poetry – concentrating on things such as “In Memoriam” and “The Bishop Orders His Tomb ...” – when he decided to go to the Guildhall School of Music & Drama and instead be trained as an opera singer. But again he changed tack.

“It’s one of the few places that does acting as well as music and at some point I realised I wanted to be an actor. I rang up my father and said, ‘I’ve decided to be an actor’, and my father said, ‘Thank God. Everyone knew you should.’” There was no holding Beale back. He did Ben Jonson’s Every Man in His Humour – a play in which Shakespeare himself acted – with a famous master of verse, Tony Church. “They have such absolute clockwork plots, Jonson’s plays. They’re absolute masterpieces of technical writing. I think playing Jonson is a bit like playing Shaw. John Wood [the British actor] said to me, ‘With Shaw, if you observe the punctuation, you’ll get the laughs.’ ”

With Beale, you can always hear this odd, cool, critical intelligence. Always a step ahead or behind the actor’s instinct but supporting it, complicating it. 

He takes a dim view of the most evil character in Shakespeare, Iago, and has far more time for Richard III as a human being. He says that Iago is just a “submarine” playing with everyone’s murky depths. Then he thinks of the great speech when Iago finally conquers Othello, “Not poppy, nor mandragora/ Nor all the drowsy syrups of the world/ Shall ever medicine thee to that sweet sleep/ Which thou owedst yesterday.” 

“He’s speaking like him,” Beale says. “He’s speaking like Othello. The language is completely uncharacteristic of Iago and it’s gorgeous because he’s taken on Othello’s identity.”

You could talk to this man about how he loves to devour the broadsheets every Sunday, or how he loves roast beef and crosswords, or how the revelation that he was gay caused barely a ripple in his family. Somehow, though, the fact that this son of an eminent army doctor can talk with such clinical perception about the flaws in the glass of the heroes and villains he presents with such pitiless clarity seems even more revealing.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 21, 2014 as "Primal Lear". Subscribe here.

Peter Craven
is a literary and culture critic.