A Closer Look: Simon Russell Beale
If you think you don’t know Simon Russell Beale, you just don’t know you know Simon Russell Beale. He’s a highly respected actor who has worked non-stop on stage, in TV and film and was even described by The Independent as “The greatest stage actor of his generation”. While that may seem like a heavy title to bear, he has certainly earned it. Currently appearing in the stunning new production of The Tempest, get to know Simon better with our closer look at his incredible career.
Son of a Surgeon General of the Armed Forces, Simon shared a love of music with his father who sent him to train as a chorister at St Paul’s Cathedral at the age of eight. By this time, Simon could already play the piano and he’s kept up the practice to this day, telling Broadway World, “I often do a couple of hours practice before rehearsal – theatres generally have pianos, like in Stratford there’s a wonderful grand piano. I have a piano teacher, and it’s very important to me – much more, funnily enough, than the choral music I was brought up on.”
As many actors do, Simon started with Shakespeare. It was something that would later blossom into a deep and long-lasting relationship with the Royal Shakespeare Company but first he would complete his educated at Guildhall School of Music and Drama. He would develop his fine singing voice, a tenor, but would be known for his deep, distinctive speaking voice. On his early influences, Simons told The Independent, “I acted at school a bit. As with most actors, it was a great English teacher at big school who was the spur. I did Desdemona at 14 for him. He was extraordinary. He was very puritan. I was going to be a doctor like my parents. He said, ‘You can’t do medicine, you’ve got to do English.’ He got me to play Lear when I was 17. Doing the school plays and studying Shakespeare were the spurs.”
In the late 1980s, Simon’s work with the RSC began, taking roles in The Man of Mode by George Etherege and Restoration by Edward Bond. Moving into the early 1990s, he appeared in The Seagull, Ghosts, The Duchess of Malfi and as Edgar in King Lear. The RSC also brought him together with director Sam Mendes, with whom Simon has worked with a number of times on shows like Othello, Uncle Vanya (for which he won an Olivier Award) and Twelfth Night.
The RSC has undoubtedly been a huge part of his life and it seems Simon has learned a lot about himself as a person and an actor through those experiences. “My technique is a puzzle. If I’ve got one thing, I’ve got a strong voice. It’s not a beautiful voice but it’s a strong one. I must have learnt to do that through singing and my years at the RSC. I think I don’t have a good technique, to be honest. I’ve certainly learnt things I’m aware of using. Stillness and conservation of energy. I’ve a weakness for flashing energy around in a rather diffuse way… Stillness and concentration is the most pleasurable thing, even more than laughs.”
Although he’s more comfortable in singing roles, Simon’s not afraid of a challenge. His exploits as an actor are well-documented but what you may not know is he’s also performed ballet, notably in 2011 with The Royal Ballet’s production of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
There’s hardly been a time since the beginning of his career where you couldn’t see Simon’s work, either on stage or screen, and while his CV favours Shakespearean roles quite heavily, he’s explored lots of varied and interesting characters. From Joseph Stalin, Collaborators at the National Theatre to the titular role in Life of Galileo, even tackling broader comedies like King Arthur in Monty Python’s Spamalot.
If you’ve never seen Simon on stage (The Tempest is now playing!) then he may look familiar from his appearances in TV and film. He took on Winston Churchill in the 2004 TV series Dunkirk, he starred in the spy show Spooks, My Week With Marilyn, Penny Dreadful, Into The Woods, The Legend of Tarzan, My Cousin Rachel and many, many more. While he has worked a great deal in TV and film, his true love is the stage, as he made evident in an interview with The Independent, “I feel very deeply that the most exciting thing you can do is watch real live people on stage. I still get a thrill from going to the theatre. And that applies on the other side of the footlights for me. I just love being there.”
While Simon himself leans more towards self-deprecation than pride, he cannot deny his own success and place within the theatrical community. He is the owner of two Olivier Awards (Uncle Vanya and Candide), two BAFTAS (A Dance to the Music of Time and Henry IV, Parts I & II) and even a CBE.
His distinctive voice and undeniable stage presence mean Simon makes an unforgettable impression, one that critics have recently noted in his performance in The Tempest. Michael Billington of The Guardian commented in his review, “Fears that the technology would upstage the actors are firmly scotched by the presence of Beale as Prospero. He has the capacity not only to act mind but to convey moral gravity. The part requires the actor to suggest an internal struggle to compensate for the lack of outward drama, but Beale is also exceptional in stressing Prospero’s private guilt. He dwells on the phrase “twelve year” as if appalled at his prolonged exile, but also lets us see that it was Prospero’s bookish solitude that provoked his usurpation.”
Now you know him, go see him while you can in The Tempest, now at the Barbican Centre, with exclusive Rush tickets.