Showing the Audience Themselves

Simon Russell Beale is a master of technique. A sequence of photographs of his performances in The Seagull, Richard III, Othello, The Man of Mode, The Duchess of Malfi, Ghosts and Volpone might occasion disbelief that they could all be the same person. But Russell Beale is a deep actor and his chameleon quality serves a rich and bitter purpose. One critic said that he was "savage in his portrayal of the truth in people", and certainly there is no actor more psychologically probing than he. Russell Beale's technique is dedicated to showing the audience to themselves. Hence he is an uncomfortable actor, a man whose performances leave you worried.

On the final page of The Seagull before Konstantin commits suicide offstage, the tormented young man is alone. Russell Beale showed us, without a word of script, what was going on in his mind as he contemplated the unthinkable, and he drew both fear and compassion from the audience, because he did what we would have done.

He went round the stage tidying up his affairs, arranging papers, tearing up his manuscripts, putting things in their proper place and his life in order, and dropping his pen, which he would no longer need, into the wastepaper basket. He even arranged his paperclips in meticulous fashion. It was heart-rending to behold, because it really did seem final, and psychologically all too plausible. Earlier in the play we had sympathised with his frustrated, strained, seethingly volcanic but suppressed enthusiasms, because he expressed them as we have done ourselves and would doubtless do again in his situation. He spoke not through clenched teeth but with acid on his tongue in meagre, ungenerous, self-pitying and painful short sentences, and a critic noticed that even his long sentences were broken up into short ones. All this was technical magic.

Hissworthy Villainy

Russell Beale played Richard III as a bald, repulsive ogre, like a slithering toad, as somebody said. The moment when his nephew, the little Duke of York, in the lovely innocence of childhood asks the deformed Richard to give him a piggy-back, Russell Beale again acted without script, before the lines Shakespeare had given him. There was silent wicked fury in his face and body, fuelled by hatred of the young and a passion for revenge, all conveyed in a hesitation. It was quite chilling.

But it was Russell Beale's portrayal of Iago in 1997 which particularly made me shiver. Constructed from dozens of tiny observations and clues, he made the man utterly heartless, so that by the end the audience despised him. (I swear I heard somebody about to hiss, not the actor, who had evaporated, but the vicious Iago who had taken his place, as children will hiss the villain in pantomime.)

Some examples: the four words "I hate the Moor" are not themselves of gigantic importance. Iago's animus towards Othello is already obvious, and has been stated. The four monosyllables come unheralded at the end of a line and begin a new sentence which stretches into the next two lines of verse. Russell Beale gives them the strength of hammer blows at the end of a Mahler symphony. First, he pauses in a brooding silence which is not in the text, his back shudders, he hurls a glass across the stage with such force you would think he were about to have a fit, and then shouts the words with equal emphasis on all four; we are in no doubt he means it, and I should not have wished to be anywhere near him at that point.

Getting to the Point

"Point" is indeed the word, for at such moments one may see another aspect of actors gone by in the performances of Simon Russell Beale, namely their attraction to "points" which underlined the moral of the story and could be engraved by popular artists. Russell Beale does not "freeze" at his points, nor does the audience burst into applause and beg him to hold it longer, but he has the residue of this tradition in his style. His hesitation at the piggy-back request in Richard III was another "point".

As Iago declares his love for Cassio, there is a shifty glance and malice in the eyes. On the famous line, "Look to your wife", he lowers his voice to a silken, furtive insinuating stiletto which is thoroughly nasty. He starts the "By the way" speech to Othello with a cunning nonchalance - the sort we have all been guilty of when about to tell a lie. He arranges playing cards to illustrate his thoughts and plans as they hatch in his mind, a telling piece of "business" which is typical of the Machiavellian villain, for whom the game of victory is more important than the reason for it (indeed, Iago offers no reason). There are moments when another character goes to touch him, and Russell Beale flinches in fear at the threatened closeness; this is standard behaviour from the semi-autistic or psychopathic person, for whom individuals are mere furniture and human tactility is loathsome. This is creative acting at its highest, the actor's insights adding to the text.

Most of all, perhaps, the drunken scene in which Iago works up the soldiers into a dangerous mob was truly frightening. Russell Beale was the epitome of the pub-crawl thug, vicious, cruel, mindless, and orgasmically fierce. He shouted and excited the men, fists clenched, mouth slobbering, face torn to a sneer, and he had me physically trembling.

Simon Russell Beale is a short, squat man, unquestionably unimpressive. But he has the ability to transform himself physically and spiritually on stage, by virtue of that valuable forgetfulness-of-self. Russell Beale himself appears to be swallowed and dissolved by the character he has become. This quality, when allied to technical flourish, makes for the really creative actor, the actor who transcends his material and adds to it, or deepens it in some immediately accessible way so that the audience experiences something fresh. They never take anything for granted, but dismantle a role and reconstruct it from scratch.

Extracted from Thunder in the Air: Great Actors in Great Roles by Brian Masters (Oberon Books, 2000, priced £19.99).

  • Humble Boy – in which Russell Beale co-stars with Felicity Kendal, Denis Quilley and Marcia Warren – is playing at the West End’s Gielgud Theatre.