A Life in Full: A Prince of Our Disorder ; by the Time Simon Russell Beale Finally Played His Long-Awaited Hamlet - Aged 40 - He Had Acted All the Hamlet-Like Roles in the Repertoire and Served What Must Surely Be the Most Detailed Apprenticeship for the Part on Record. on the Way, Says PAUL TAYLOR, This Supremely Intelligent Actor Redefined Our Sense of What a Tragic Hero Should Be and Look Like
Taylor, Paul, The Independent on Sunday (London, England)
Simon Russell Beale divided the American critics when Sam Mendes' Donmar Warehouse productions of Uncle Vanya and Twelfth Night played at the Brooklyn Academy of Music earlier this year. Lauding his performances as Malvolio and Vanya, The New York Times described Beale as "perhaps the greatest stage actor of his generation". The New York Observer, by contrast, jeeringly exclaimed: "Give me a thin Vanya! You cannot take a man seriously who looks as if he's pining for a sticky bun."
The idea that only the slender can play heroes worthy of our attention is, it must be said, a touch ironic coming from the critics of the world's most corpulent nation. A reviewer of Beale's Hamlet, which had visited the States a couple of years earlier, had even called his solid build "blue collar", as though being that shape automatically put you on a level with Homer Simpson and Roseanne Barr and disqualified you from tragic centrality.
Over the past 15 years, since he started to make his mark with the Royal Shakespeare Company in the late 1980s, Beale has gradually and dexterously relieved English audiences of the philistine prejudice that a pronounced portliness, while acceptable in a character actor, is out of the question in a leading man. More than any performer of distinction, he has heightened our sense of the drama inherent in that kind of mind-body problem. "Perhaps I'm fooling myself," he once said, "but I think it must be very difficult for actors and actresses who are very beautiful to get people to see past that." Certainly, the naturally comely could never show, as he can, how a surge of intelligence or a flash of wit can have the effect of waving a magic wand over a body, rendering it suddenly radiant. Nor could they capitalise on what is, for him, the built-in conflict whereby, in some of his roles, it's as though the flesh has played a spiteful practical joke on the fastidious intellect, trapping it within a dumpy fat-boy physique. This discrepancy has helped him to project a matchless sense of prickly alienation and self-disgust. The spirit may aspire towards romance: the bulky, undignified body drags it down in the direction of farce.
The romantic flight of speculation versus the messy, sabotaging forces in the material world is one of the conflicts in Jumpers, the Tom Stoppard play first seen in 1972. A revival, directed by David Leveaux, is just about to open at the National Theatre, starring Beale in the central role of George, a moral philosopher attempting to compose a lecture about the existence (or otherwise) of God and about whether our moral sanctions are a God-given, intuitive absolute or simply the socially conditioned rules of the tribe. Wrestling with this convoluted discourse in his study, he fails to notice that, elsewhere in the apartment, his wife Dotty is having a nervous breakdown and attempting to dispose of a corpse.
One gag bound to get a bigger laugh than normal is George's unconscious, punning quotation from Hamlet. Brandishing a bow and arrow (for reasons too complicated to summarise), the Prof breathes the line "Now might I do it, pat" into the ear of a favourite tortoise who just happens to be called Pat. Though also hindered from action by thought, Shakespeare's hero is at least unencumbered by cosily named pets. It will be doubly an in-joke here for Beale's association with the Black Prince is protracted and intricate. Like Hamlet's revenge, his long-awaited date with the Dane kept being postponed, for reasons that ranged from back-trouble to American Beauty. By the time he finally embraced his destiny at the age of 40, he had played all the Hamlet-like roles in repertoire (Konstantin in The Seagull; Oswald in Ghosts et al) and had served what must surely be the most detailed apprenticeship for the part on record.
His shares in the character went on spiralling upwards, though, for he concurrently …
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Publication information: Article title: A Life in Full: A Prince of Our Disorder ; by the Time Simon Russell Beale Finally Played His Long-Awaited Hamlet - Aged 40 - He Had Acted All the Hamlet-Like Roles in the Repertoire and Served What Must Surely Be the Most Detailed Apprenticeship for the Part on Record. on the Way, Says PAUL TAYLOR, This Supremely Intelligent Actor Redefined Our Sense of What a Tragic Hero Should Be and Look Like. Contributors: Taylor, Paul - Author. Newspaper title: The Independent on Sunday (London, England). Publication date: June 15, 2003. Page number: 8,. © 2009 The Independent on Sunday. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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