I Am What I Am: Simon Russell Beale's Macbeth Has Been Both Celebrated and Slammed. He Talks to Michael Coveney about This and Future Roles
Coveney, Michael, New Statesman (1996)
Alongside Macbeth himself, you can sup full with horrors in Islington these days, and I am not referring to the unpredictable restaurants or the company you might keep in them. The new production of Shakespeare's nightmarish tragedy is explicitly placed in the mind of its great interpreter, Simon Russell Beale, who has confounded expectation yet again in an unlikely role.
A podgy Macbeth? A far cry indeed from Edmund Kean's "great famished wolf", Nicol Williamson's bitter beanpole or, indeed, Ian McKellen's languid, sensual destroyer. But Russell Beale has also played a Hamlet who was for once, as the duel scene suggests, "fat and scant of breath". He simply binds the meaning to himself and spits it out anew.
I caught him in the bar after a performance and said I'd like to talk to him about a few things. Three days later, just after teatime, he welcomed me in north London's Almeida Theatre with a cup of coffee and we sat in the deserted auditorium.
"I love this theatre. It's perfect. I can see every face in the house. In Shakespeare, how you meet the audience is so important. As Iago, I'm going to do this, I said to myself, and I don't give a fairy's fart what you think. But Macbeth is never not frightened. And he really goes so far beyond the pale. So I'm always terrified of what the audience might do to me."
He leaps on to the stage and demonstrates the power points, the embrace, of this magical space. I comment on the atmosphere of John Caird's gripping production, its sounds and shrieks in the night, its interesting use of the witches and the children as both premonitions and victims of his campaign of reckless violence.
Russell Beale's conspicuous intelligence is part of his acting, but the genius of it resides in a rare ability to give perfect clarity to the complex processes of thought. In this respect, he is the new John Gielgud. "The more I do," he confides, "the more obsessed I am with the notion that the thought comes first. Emotion and verse-speaking can follow from that." And he demonstrates a simple decision to turn his hands outwards to the audience, not inwards to his own face. "That is a proactive way of making the question 'What hands are these?' transferable to the audience, shared with them," he says.
"I've never known a play so obsessed with the senses. Macbeth goes through life with his eyes shut. There are bird sounds, and knocking sounds, and strange visions." Most strikingly, and unprecedentedly in the history of the play's performance (I believe), he turns up at the murder of Lady Macduff and her children, deep in Act Four. "As a professional killer, he's fascinated to see the face of someone dying. Also, to see the reaction of a mother to the murder of her children." As the victims are dragged off, the poet-soldier turns to the audience with an utterly blank expression. No more words: the interval. It is a stunning moment. …