Simon Russell Beale: it’s fine to take liberties with Shakespeare

Acclaimed actor says we shouldn’t be purists about the text – as long as it still makes coherent, emotional sense

Many regard him as the greatest classical actor of his generation, with King Lear and Hamlet among his acclaimed Shakespearean roles. But, despite his reverence for the Bard, Simon Russell Beale argues against a puritanical approach to his texts, suggesting that they should be seen as blueprints. Shakespeare is “big enough” to withstand having scenes cut and lines transposed or obsolete words changed for the sake of clarity, he said.

“You can do what you like with it – as long as you make coherent, emotional sense,” said Russell Beale. “I see absolutely no problem in throwing Shakespeare around. The texts will, hopefully, always be there.”

Russell Beale is the son, brother and uncle of doctors and he considered a medical career too before catching the acting bug at Cambridge. He has been showered with accolades and awards for performances with the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre, among others. The Observer once wrote: “In parts as different as Iago and Hamlet, Konstantin in The Seagull and Richard III, Russell Beale can wring emotion from an audience.” Other critics have applauded his magnetism, power and pathos.

He spoke to the Observer last week, as he took up his post as the University of Oxford’s Cameron Mackintosh visiting professor of contemporary theatre. Previous incumbents include the playwright Arthur Miller and director Sir Richard Eyre. He will stage student workshops and indulge his “obsessive interest” in Shakespeare’s plays, including their performance and editing: “Charting changes in the way Shakespeare is done is a fairly good barometer of how we read naturalism and realism on stage and on film.”

He says that the requirements made of actors nowadays for performing verse drama are very different from the past. Shakespeare performance has gone in cycles over the last 400 years, he observed. “Heroic acting with a full-bodied approach to the verse” has long been out of fashion.

But he was struck by the “amazing soundscape” achieved by the late John Wood, “a very great Shakespearean actor”, reciting one of Prospero’s speeches in an old recording: “It was brilliant. You wouldn’t really be allowed to do that now because the audience’s ear would find it too rhetorical.” Yet he senses “a new type of heroic acting” after seeing Tom Hiddleston’s recent Coriolanus, at the Donmar Warehouse. With his students, he will explore how “to make these great literary dramas real and contemporary”.

“I don’t mean about when it’s set. You can do it in Elizabethan costume or … whatever. But it’s about the way you speak and the way you think.” Language evolves, he said, singling out now obscure words such as “lazar”, which crops up in Henry V and Troilus and Cressida, and means leper. “So you might as well replace it with leper. There are quite a few examples of that … ‘Want’ as in ‘lack’. If you ‘want something’ and you mean ‘you lack something’, say ‘lack’.”

However, he acknowledged that care must be taken with words chosen for poetry or sound. “Lazar and leper is quite good as a fit, but want and lack isn’t. It is a problem. You mess around at your peril, but he’s more adaptable than you think.”

In 2012, Russell Beale drew rave reviews for Timon of Athens, directed by Nicholas Hytner at the National Theatre. He said: “Timon is a very odd one because it’s an unfinished play. In fact, we added lines from other plays, Coriolanus and As You Like It.” The critics apparently did not comment, but actor Ralph Fiennes noticed, Russell Beale said. If the intention is clarity, he argued, such changes are justified.

“I’m not as puritanical as others about some of the verse, which is very complicated, especially in the late and middle period plays, like Measure for Measure. The idea is that that in itself expresses the characters’ tormented thought process. If all you get out of that is ‘tormented thought process’, but not the thought itself, then, frankly, I prefer the thought.”

When, for example, Sir Peter Hall directed Hamlet at the National Theatre in 1975, his diary lamented that, despite advances in our understanding of Shakespeare, “we still cut the text like barbarians”.

In the 1980s, when Deborah Warner directed Titus Andronicus and King John she did not cut anything, but today she takes a different view. She said: “Do whatever you want … with the texts … You must cut to create new work.”

Professor Stanley Wells, honorary president of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, observed that while Hamlet, for example, is regularly cut by hundreds of lines, uncut Shakespeare is also fascinating: “There’s room for both.”

Russell Beale will next be seen at the Donmar Warehouse in May, in Steve Waters’s new play, Temple, inspired by the 2011 Occupy London anti-austerity protest outside St Paul’s Cathedral. He will play the dean, who resigned after the backlash against his chapter’s decision to evict the protesters. He describes the play as “very shrewd”, raising debate on a range of issues such as what the church means in 21st-century Britain.


Dalya Alberge

The GuardianTramp

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