Simon Russell Beale took up embroidery, he once told me, because everyone else at the RSC seemed to have a hobby and he thought he’d better get one too. It was a typical Russell Beale thing to do. A Clifton boy, he has a public school enthusiasm for joining in. But it also shows just how shrewd a man he is. Why choose a hobby like rowing, painting or bridge and disappear into the crowd, when you can sit in note sessions after rehearsals silently stitching your Kafe Fassett embroidery hoop being rather deliberately, yet also naively, rather eccentric?
There is no real calculation to Russell Beale yet he instinctively knows how to be a team player and at the same time stand out from the others. Underneath a kind of social unworldiness that suggests he’s never taken a bus or rung a plumber in his life, you sense the real determination to get the roles he wants. He is as internally driven, as he is externally schoolboyish and camp. People with no ambition don’t learn Ancient Greek as he put it once “in an attempt to regulate my reading”.
His rise through the ranks at the RSC between 1986 and 1992 started with the Young Shepherd in The Winter’s Tale, and moved through three garish and extravagant Restoration fops to a boil-encrusted, splutteringly funny and hilariously disgusting Thersites in Troilus and Cressida and an electrifying Edward II. His subsequent Richard III was described by one critic as looking like the “unhappy result of a one-night stand between Pere Ubu and Gertrude Stein”, his Konstantin in The Seagull had a dignity that reduced audiences to outbursts of maternal tears and, in a most unlikely piece of casting, he bleached his hair and played Ariel as cold, intelligent and distance, not as some silly little man on a trapeze. This Tempest was truly magical rather than meteorological.
His needlework also shows his extraordinary attention to detail. On stage this produces concentrated energy, every gesture and tic geared to the moment and to the meaning of the text. Off stage he is somehow rather dainty. Watch him approach his tea. He pours in the milk, gives it just one stir round the cup, replaces the spoon in the saucer and then drinks it like Miss Marple. He could be nothing other than English and far more Alistair Sim than Charles Laughton, to whom so many journalists have compared him when they have run out of ways of telling you that he is fat and apparently self-loathing.
Most of his work “has been genuinely dealing with great pieces of literature”. And he is embarking on two more this autumn. He is about to open at The National Theatre as Iago in Othello, directed by his frequent collaborator Sam Mendes, and he is finally due for his big telly break. He is centre screen in an adaptation of Anthony Powell’s vast 12-volume novel A Dance to the Music of Time, distilled for Channel Four into four two-hour films. His head once again raised above the rest of a highly talented ensemble, he plays the crass Kenneth Widmerpool, described by the narrator as “more of an adjective than a person” and whose rise to the top and final fall – a junior Labour Lord and then a slavish disciple in a cult commune – is the spinal chord of Powell’s trenchant commentary of the British social and sexual revolution of the Twentieth Century.
The two roles attract like opposites. “Widmerpool really just doesn’t understand human nature at all. Iago though has an enormous amount of self-knowledge. And he really is a nasty piece of work. He’s the most unpleasant man I’ve ever had to play. He makes Richard III look positively charming. With Widmerpool though I actually found myself growing rather fond of him. He’s not evil, he’s just a twit.” Just as Iago attempts to take control, Widmerpool makes the best of a bad job and is swept along by things. But Russell Beale’s Iago is no Machiavelli. In Mendes’ production, set in a restrictive and modern-feeling 1930’s, he is a mixture of pre-planning and improvisation. It’s as if his defining moments are those where he’s unaware what he’s going to do next, where his reaction is determined by a deep driving jealousy far beyond his hatred for the Moor. “Right at the base of Iago,” says Russell Beale, “is his wife. I didn’t realise this until last week but you can tie it all back to Emilia, to their marriage and the suspicion that she might have been unfaithful. Sam has this list of questions: ‘things I want to believe’, one of them is ‘I want to believe that Iago fancies Bianca, Cassio’s mistress’ which is a totally new one to me. I don’t know where he got that.” says Russell Beale camply, “But another of them was ‘I want to believe that Emilia wanted children’. It’s a barren marriage but she loves him. And the reason why in the end it is Emilia who exposes him to be the villain is because she is the root of the problem. It’s her. It really is her. Every time Iago looks at her she reminds him of his failure.” The guts of Russell Beale’s Iago are tied in knots by the experience of extreme jealousy himself. This is a highly passionate Iago not a cold and dispassionate one.
Russell Beale is a palpably clever actor, his intellect clearly informing his acting. As he says “there has to be a consistent argument. And discovering that idea about Emilia was a thrilling moment. Sounds pathetic, doesn’t it? But the big question about Iago is why he did it. There’s no satisfactory answer but the most satisfactory I’ve got is Emilia. And the thrill of that discovery was intellectual and emotional.”
Much has been written about Russell Beale’s attraction to the grotesque in characters, to their baseness, their self-disgust. He is not a thin man and there seemed a time, as his friend Juliet Stevenson once remarked, “you couldn’t go to a play he was in where he didn’t take off his clothes.” It’s not every Edward II who takes the scalding plunge of the lethal poker bending over, held down and totally naked. He has kept his clothes on for a while now. But if you stay the course right to the end of the tremendously entertaining Dance to The Music of Time, you will see him galumphing round a wood at midnight with only a flappy pair of Big Dad’s pants for modesty and his very ample stomach lurching in time to his abandoned dancing – his own stomach, no prosthetics. When I asked him how he felt about his body he said, “You know how I feel about it, I’m not immensely proud of it. When I saw that last sequence it’s kind of upsetting.” So why do things like that? Why subject himself to such humiliation? “I suppose I am interested in the bits of these characters that aren’t very nice”.
He is savage in his portrayal of truth in people. In his performances, there is rage at human beings, our failures, our pathetic insecurities, our potential for sheer unpleasantness, which he can make seeringly comic or, as with Iago, shudderingly vile. As you talk to him you sense contradictions. Apparently overweight and unfit he is nonetheless physically controlled and powerful. Socially he often plays the “little me with little granny specs”, as one friend described it, yet you feel that his natural state is melancholy and while he is charming company he is only playing at having fun. He is not what he seems. And you can’t help wondering what he dreams about, what sexual fantasies he has that enable him to summon up such extraordinary darkness and pour it directly onto the stage. He has, according to colleagues, a huge temper, but otherwise it would seem that all his demons are reserved for the stage. Why? I don’t know. I am not his therapist, just an audience member bewitched by the results and a lunch companion laughing heartily at his splendid self-mockery.