Simon Russell Beale Really Wanted to Sing

10 Mar

simonrussellbeale1

The Actor Who Wanted to Sing

There are two things renowned British actor Simon Russell Beale wants to do when he comes to Singapore: eat a durian and have a few sticks of satay. He is no stranger to Singapore either. He was born in Penang and often came here as a child. But the 48-year-old bachelor, dubbed the greatest Shakespeare actor of his generation by Britain’s The Independent newspaper, never had a chance to taste the spiky king of fruit.

In a recent interview with Life! in New York, he adds: ‘Both me and my sister order satay whenever we see it in a restaurant. But we have never had satay like the satay in Singapore.’ He is coming to town to star in The Winter’s Tale, the high-profile Shakespearean play directed by Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes. It plays at the Esplanade Theatre from March 26 to 31. The play opens The Bridge Project, a three-year collaboration between American arts centre Brooklyn Academy of Music, London’s Old Vic and Neal Street Productions, a film and theatre production company owned by Mendes.

Beale is the British heavyweight in an Anglo-American cast which includes actors Rebecca Hall and Ethan Hawke. He plays jealous King Leontes, the king who accuses his wife Hermione (Hall) of adultery. The critics in New York have raved about his performance. Ben Brantley of The New York Times writes: ‘I can’t think of another actor of Russell Beale’s generation who could bring such transparency to the darkness of Leontes while still honouring the mystery that is so essential to The Winter’s Tale.’ Speaking to Life! at the Harvey Theater in Brooklyn, where the play opened, the warm and articulate actor reminisced fondly about his childhood.

He was sent to boarding school in Britain but would travel to visit his parents here, where his father worked as an army physician. Singapore of the 1960s remains vivid for him. Street names roll off his tongue easily. He remembers Orchard Road for shopping, a swimming pool in Dover Road and his parents’ apartment in Pasir Panjang Close. He says: ‘The most exciting bit was getting out of the plane, walking down the steps of the terminal, the hot air coming out like a great big wall. ‘And there was mum and dad, in the arrival hall, waving.’

He cringes when you bring up the ‘greatest actor of his generation’ accolade. ‘It’s a bit embarrassing but incredibly flattering of course. It doesn’t really mean anything. You could point to a hundred actors and say that.’ After a pause, he adds: ‘Perhaps I’m the only one who has specialised quite a lot on stage.’ Modesty aside, he has achieved excellence in his 25-year career and is something of a national treasure back home.

A mainstay in the British theatre scene, he has played several definitive roles, such as Konstantin in Terry Hands’ 1991 production of The Seagull for the Royal Shakespeare Company; a cynical Thersites in Mendes’ Troilus And Cressida and the title role in 2003’s Uncle Vanya, for which he won a Laurence Olivier Award for Best Actor. The award is the most prestigious in London theatre. But he had not always wanted to be an actor. He had initially wanted to be a chorister, going on a music scholarship to Cambridge University and later to the leading arts school, Guildhall School of Music and Drama. But he did not finish that course. ‘I wasn’t a particularly good singer. At Guildhall, I remember looking at the actors and thinking, ‘I’m better at that’,‘ he says. He adds with a laugh: ‘Even my singing teacher thought I should be an actor. I think that was fairly conclusive.’

On the perception that British actors do Shakespeare better than Americans, he says: ‘I know some American actors feel insecure, but I’ve seen nothing of it this time round.’ He finds similarities between doing Shakespeare and American theatre. ‘The Broadway language-based, quick-fire comedy; the great American plays by Eugene O’Neill; even the television sitcoms, they require some techniques of doing Shakespeare, which is language- based acting.’ He considers his character, Leontes, a sympathetic one, and thinks he is a man suffering a breach of his usual reasonable self. ‘What he does to Hermione is a terrible aberration,’ he says. ‘His explosive moment is perhaps his biggest emotion. You should feel that he is a good man, but everything went wrong very quickly. ‘It’s really such a moving play – it taps into the fundamental human desire for a second chance.’

The brainiac – he obtained first class honours in English at Cambridge University and was offered a place to do a doctorate – says he has ‘thousands of books’. His favourite topics? English history, philosophy and music. He has just bought a new book on musical harmony. He says with a smile: ‘Maybe on the long flights I’ll teach myself
harmony.’

Thanks to Abigail who got this interview from the Straits Times.

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3 Responses to “Simon Russell Beale Really Wanted to Sing”

  1. Shi March 12, 2009 at 8:21 pm #

    first class honors? whattaman! oh wow, he is a very impressive man, wow. he’s smart and talented and down to earth, wow.

  2. JohnnyFox March 13, 2009 at 9:46 am #

    Hmmm. I think Ms. Laberinto wouldn’t mind tasting the ‘spiky king of fruits’ either … it’s a good epithet for SR-B 🙂

  3. feignedmischief March 14, 2009 at 10:42 pm #

    @Shi: Yes, I am so insecure already.

    @John: You are ever so naughty, this blog is supposed to be wholesome!

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