chapter  1
14 Pages

Simon Russell Beale: Carol Chillington Rutter


I enlist two of the finest theatre critics in the business to help me frame an account of one of the finest Shakespearean actors in the business, and I’ll have in mind the terms of their critique as I proceed. But I begin with ‘the one undisputed service’ that I, a theatre viewer (and re-viewer), can offer, a performance memory, a spectator’s 25-year-old memory (so a no doubt flawed memory): describing a place in the past where an actor – an ‘ambassador’ – delivered a message that was charged with something more than the playwright’s dispatch, something all his own. The theatrical conceit was conventional enough. A cry of players in doublet and

hose led by an Edward Alleyn-esque strutter and bellower had arrived at a tavern where the cannikin clinkers didn’t want any of that high falutin’ ‘O for a muse of fire’ metropolitan stuff, but something with local colour. How about ‘Bess Bridges’, the ‘girl worth gold’? The players groaned – but gave in. So the company bookholder – a swottish-looking, bungling sort of neurotic flop-haired youth, tubby, in big breeches and spectacles, flapping silently in the background – began passing out the players’ parts. Not, you’d imagine, life-threatening work. Except that his every move made it just that. Crossing the stage, he might have been negotiating a minefield. His panic was palpable, and registered as both endearing and deeply silly. A stage manager – with stage fright! He retreated to invisibility, to prompt corner, to a stool set well back from the action where he huddled over his promptbook, a lump of apprehensiveness, making turning the pages look like handling gelignite.

Every time he noticed the audience, his goggle eyes bulged – risking head-on collision with his wire-rims. But worse was to come. Much worse: the awful moment in this actor-hungry adventure story when the players realised there simply weren’t enough of them to fill all the parts. They froze. Where to find an extra? The penny dropped. They turned on their hapless bookholder – and frog-marched him into the play. My memory is of the 25-year-old Simon Russell Beale playing Fawcett in Thomas

Heywood’s The Fair Maid of the West in 1986, his debut season with the Royal Shakespeare Company, when he also played Ed Kno’well in Jonson’s Every Man in His Humour and – his first professional Shakespeare role – a gloriously idiotic, wonder-full Young Shepherd in Terry Hands’s The Winter’s Tale (by a wonderful symmetry, 23 years later, his latest Shakespeare role would be Leontes, of which more, anon). These first parts were epitomes, and promissory notes on a career playing Shakespeare that would take Beale from prompt corner to centre stage, from the RSC to the National, the Almeida, the Old Vic, playing Thersites, Navarre, Richard III, Ariel, Edgar, Iago, Hamlet, Macbeth, Cassius, Malvolio, Benedick, by way of Chekhov, Ibsen, Marlowe, Middleton, Farquhar, Pinter, Stoppard, Brecht: a list stretching from the gormless, dopey and ineffectual to the consummately Machiavellian, the traumatically broken, and the terrifyingly, yet gleefully, psychopathological to demonstrate the critic’s observation that Beale is ‘typecast to defy expectations’ (Independent, 28 June 1993). But Fawcett, Ed and Young Shepherd gave audiences the first measure of this actor, drafted his performance signature: the ability to embody contradiction, to play both the cornered soul and the klutzy clown, to break spectators’ hearts while he has them doubled over with laughter. If, as John Peter writes, performance is a role ‘seen through a temperament’, it’s also seen through a body, and it’s the body of this actor I’ll look at first, observing how he uses the physical to address Shakespeare.