Simon as Timon

Article excerpt

IF SIMON RUSSELL BEALE WERE AN AMERICAN ACTOR, he would be waiting on tables at some Manhattan restaurant, dreaming of the Big Break that would never come. Short, pudgy, unhandsome, sexually ambiguous, he would have no place in American theatre or film except as a comic, which he decidedly is not. On the British stage, however, especially with the Royal Shakespeare Company or the Royal National Theatre, he plays leads, gradually emerging over the past twenty-five years as a great classical actor, not only for his time but for all time.

I first encountered Beale in the summer of 1989 at the Royal Shakespeare Company's Barbican Theatre in London, performing in Richard Nelson's play Some Americans Abroad, a satire of American academics. He played a pathetic young American scholar desperately trying to get his contract renewed as a professor, but finally ending up as (gulp!) a high school teacher. Beale, whose American accent was perfect, seemed like merely a good journeyman actor, satisfactory but nothing exceptional. Interestingly enough now, however, twenty-three years later, his is the only performance I can remember from the large cast.

In the 1990s at the RSC, Beale played such roles as Konstantin in Chekhov's The Seagull, Ariel in The Tempest, and Oswald in Ibsen's Ghosts, before moving on to the Royal National Theatre, which has become his base. For the RNT, he has played dozens of major roles, including Guildenstern in Stoppard 's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Edgar in King Lear, and the title characters in Hamlet, Chekhov's Uncle Vanya, and Brecht's Galileo. Note that these are all serious roles from the dramatic canon; the only comic parts I can find in his stage career are Face in Jonson's The Alchemist and Malvolio in Twelfth Night, not buffoons but notoriously dark, ambiguous figures. Of course like any great actor Beale knows how to bring out the humorous elements in a tragic role, but make no mistake, he is primarily a tragedian, not a clown.

Beale is not well known in the United States because he has done very little film or television work; England is still a country where it is possible to have a major career on the stage with only occasional excursions into the electronic media, rather than vice versa, as with us. His most notable role for the camera was as the mutable Kenneth Widmerpool in the 1997 TV adaptation of Anthony Powell's novel A Dance to the Music of Time. The role is vintage Beale, blunt yet sly and intense, taking the character from gawky youth to Machiavellian schemer to pathetic has-been. Less typical is his performance as the second gravedigger in Kenneth Branagh's 1996 film of Hamlet, where Beale is unusually oafish, with no hint of intelligent depths. This is a very small role, however - he would probably have been better as the first gravedigger, but Branagh, in a bit of inspired casting, gave that role to the brilliant American comedian Billy Crystal. (Again, Beale is no comic.)

Last fall, Beale starred in a production of Timon of Athens at the RNT, directed by Nicholas Hytner, which was transmitted around the world as part of the ongoing National Theatre Live series, in which actual unedited theatre performances with live audiences are projected in high definition on movie screens, with equally high quality sound. The movie audience sees what the theatre audience sees - only better! - at the same time, although there are brief delays to allow for time zone differences to distant countries, including the U.S. The result is like a well-produced TV presentation of a sporting event, with all the technical gadgetry except instant replay; it is not really as good as being there, but it has become the next best thing, much better than traditional films or video recordings of live stage performances.

The initial Shakespearean productions of National Theatre Live were of major tragedies - Hamlet, King Lear - but this year they have begun to branch out. Timon is an obscure play, perhaps the least well known of the entire canon, although the basic story line is simple and affecting: A wealthy man throws huge parties for his friends and showers them with gifts. …