King of Stage and Screen: An Interview with Simon Russell Beale
Simon Russell Beale is one of the UK’s most significant stage actors. Managing to balance genuine gravitas with feather-light sensitivity, he’s worked his way through many of the major roles in Shakespeare’s canon, while also putting his stamp on modern work, most recently in Sam Mendes’s critically acclaimed production of The Lehman Trilogy. He’s also managed to bring his talents to the big screen. Beale can be relied on to bring clout whatever the scale of the role, whether that’s the blood-curdling efficiency of spymaster Beria in The Death of Stalin or the conciliatory husband of Rachel Weisz in Terence Davies’s The Deep Blue Sea.
He’s also one of the actors most frequently in event cinema productions, having appeared in The Tempest, Timon of Athens, London Assurance and King Lear. Richard II is his latest major role, currently sold out at London’s Almeida Theatre. The start of what is sometimes referred to as Shakespeare’s second Henriad (encompassing Richard II, Henry IV part I and II, Henry V), this is a complex role as a vacillating king who is slowly ousted. We sat down with Beale in his dressing room at the Almeida during the run of The Tragedy of King Richard II (coming to Curzon cinemas via National Theatre Live on 15 January) to talk about this neglected play, why it matters to modern audiences and how actors work with the event cinema experience.
The Henry Cycle is probably quite well known from the other plays in the cycle, like Richard III and Henry V, but Richard II starts it all and isn’t one most audiences will be familiar with. Could you tell us a little bit about it and why you think the play is relevant for a modern audience?
SRB: As always with the great Shakespeare plays, they always have a relevance. And it’s the start of the great cycle. It’s the beginning of the great civil wars – the War of the Roses – that wrecked Britain. The plays later in the cycle are a bit more complicated, but this is quite a simple story. It’s about an unloved king. He’s not a bad person, but he is a bad king and, as a result, someone wants to take over.
The reason why this production is interesting is because of the simplicity of the story. The director Joe Hill-Gibbins and Jeff James cut it down to an hour and half – it’s originally a very long play – which can only be a good thing. It’s a simple story of a leader being got rid of, being replaced by another leader, so you can see that it has a relevance now.
You played Falstaff in Sam Mendes’s The Hollow Crown, so you’ve covered the middle portion of the Henriad. What do you find compelling about the arc of this series of plays?
SRB: It’s not a play I knew very well. When I did Falstaff, I knew that better than I knew this play. Richard II is famous for the beauty of its language, for its lyricism. The central character has a great poetic imagination, it’s very often done with very beautiful costumes and set, and he’s an aesthete. I think he was the king who introduced the use of handkerchiefs.
The play is normally very restrained in its emotions, which are beautifully expressed. In our production it’s much more violent and much more basic. What I’ve found absolutely fascinating is watching the king develop into a human being. What’s extraordinary about his journey is that the more power he loses, the greater a human being he becomes. So, by the end, you feel he’s learned an enormous amount about what it is to be human.
As you say, this production is very different to how this play is usually produced, with a lot of pomp and finery. Instead, you’re in a door and windowless metal cube. What effect do you think that has?
SRB: I remember seeing the set for the first time and thinking, ‘Blimey!’ It feels like a prison. There’s a very famous speech at the end of the play – I think it’s one of Shakespeare’s longest soliloquies – and he compares his cell to the world.
I might be speaking out of turn here but I think Joe and the designer Ultz, they were thinking of that prison idea. Eight actors are locked and we can’t get out. We have this power struggle within this very confined space. It’s a bit like a playground or a prison yard. People aren’t very far away when they’re plotting, so the sense of oppression and paranoia and anger and repressed anger is quite severe. It’s made more concentrated by this oppressive set.
You’ve had a fantastic career as a theatre actor, but you’ve also had some amazing screen roles in recent years, including The Death of Stalin, Mary Queen of Scots and the upcoming Marie Curie biopic Radioactive. What kind of film roles make you sit up and take notice?
SRB: I’ll tell you the story for Mary Queen of Scots because this is unusual. Josie Rourke, the director, phoned me up and said ‘Do you want to play someone with the same surname as you?’ As it happens, the death sentence for Mary Queen of Scots was read out by a Beale, so I just thought, ‘Yeah, why not?’ I literally have five lines. Blink and you’ll miss me. To be involved with that project was amazing and to be involved with Josie’s first directorial attempts is fantastic, to watch someone learn new skills in front of you. I have to say I was only there for a day. I did it out of cheek really. Simon Russell Beale plays Beale.
As for Radioactive, I thought it was a fascinating story. With my job, you learn things all the time. I knew nothing about Marie Curie; the fact that she’d won two Nobel prizes and her daughter was a Nobel prize winner. I play a person who didn’t get on with her very well, but funnily enough was also a Nobel prize winner. We spent a week in Budapest doing that. So there are all sorts of reasons why film roles attract you.
We’re sitting in the Almeida, but just a five minute walk round the corner you can go and watch the same play in a cinema. As an actor, how do you feel about event cinema? What are the challenges of performing both for the people in the immediate audience and for people watching around the country?
SRB: It’s a fascinating process. I think I’ve done four or five of these and I remember the first one I ever did was a play called London Assurance. It’s an outrageous comedy and it was me and Fiona Shaw, and others, doing huge performances, big theatre performances. I remember Fiona and I sitting in our dressing room thinking, ‘What the hell do we do? Do we do it for the camera or do we do it for the audience?’ And we both agreed that if we did it for the camera the whole thing would collapse as it was so reliant on the big performances. It’s not a film, is it?
The production team are very careful to ensure that you’re showing the theatrical experience, which means that the actors can actually perform for the people in the house. The team introduce themselves at the beginning of the process and then you literally don’t see them. I’ve never been told to speak more quietly, to move in a particular way. They want you not to feel oppressed by the cameras. One of the plays we did was produced in the round, which is quite hard to film, so all the cameras were hidden like little bird watchers. And I completely lost any sense of the cameras. So I think what you get is this really interesting thing of watching a theatre performance at proper pitch.
The other exciting thing is that people are watching all around the country. You get emails from people saying I’m watching in Oxford and enjoying it. The first time that happened I found it absolutely thrilling. What you’ll get is what you would have got if you’d come to the Almeida.
NT Live: The Tragedy of King Richard II plays in Curzon cinemas aronud the country on 15 January