Simon Russell Beale comes to the Marlborough LitFest - as he prepares to play Prospero at Stratford

Written by Tony Millett on .

One of the key events of this year's Marlborough LitFest (September 30 to October 2) will be marking the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare's death.  

Simon Russell Beale, who has strong family connections with Avebury, will be 'Celebrating Shakespeare' on Sunday, October 2 in the Town Hall.

He is one of Britain's foremost actors and is perhaps the greatest Shakespearean actor alive today. Marlborough.News spoke to him by 'phone as he stood in a London square.  There is nothing like starting with the most fundamental question you can ask: "Why, Shakespeare?"

There was a short pause.  "Hmm. I first got into it through a great English teacher - that's the practical 'why'. I don't think my family were particularly Shakespearean.  They were very, very musical...and a lot of doctors.  I don't remember Shakespeare looming very large.  Though just before my mother died she told me she used to listen to Olivier on a record in her bedroom - Olivier doing Hamlet."

"My teacher Brian Worthington was an inspiring man - an absolute inspiration. He has been an inspiration for a lot of people - some in the business too.  Another reason is that the only thing I was any good at, I think, was English and particularly Shakespeare  - even to degree level.  That was always my strong suit."

"The bigger 'why' is that Shakespeare is endlessly, endlessly fascinating - I don't know whether any other writer has that sort of generosity."

And he tells how Tom Stoppard, after he had watched Simon Russell Beale in a run through of The Winter's Tale in Brooklyn, said: "Shakespeare exercises all your muscles - doesn't he."  "That", says Simon Russell Beale, "from another great playwright is a good comment."

In November, Simon Russell Beale, who has played so many major Shakespearean roles from Hamlet to Lear and Timon, will be playing Prospero in the RSC's new production of The Tempest at Stratford on Avon.   He last acted there in 1993 - directed by Sam Mendes in The Tempest playing "Ariel - an airy spirit".

About eighteen months ago, the RSC's Director Greg Doran emailed Simon Russell Beale saying he was trying to do The Tempest in a way that would somehow acknowledge the great special effects that they used in the seventeenth century for masque theatre - of which The Tempest is an example.

Doran came up with idea of working with the technical wizardry and digital magic of The Imaginarium Studios which were founded by actor/director Andy Serkis (famous as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings cycle.)

The studios' motion capture technology has mostly been used in films and gaming, but after a year of research with Intel and The Imaginarium, Doran and his team are going to bring digital avatars - notably Ariel - to life on stage in real-time, interacting with live actors.

A novel way perhaps for Ariel to be seen, as he says, " fly, To swim, to dive into the fire, to ride, On the curl'd clouds."  Or to give contemporary form to some the play's stage directions: "Enter Ariel, invisible" or "Thunder and lightning. Enter Ariel, like a harpy; claps his wings upon the table; and, with a quaint device, the banquet vanishes."

Simon Russell Beale is very excited by Doran's approach and has already had two days at Imaginarium's Ealing Studios with Doran and Mark Quarterly who is playing Ariel.  (You can see RSC's report on the visit here.)

Simon Russell Beale as Timon in the National Theatre productionSimon Russell Beale as Timon in the National Theatre productionTimon of Athens at the National Theatre - with Simon Russell Beale in the title role - was one of Nick Hytner's ground breaking modern dress productions and resonated strongly with the economic chaos of the time: "Nick Hytner said 'It's blatantly obvious what we should do with it" - it was only a couple of years after 2008."

"Timon is a piece that is rather - erm - unfinished - literally.  Therefore it allows you, I think, the licence to play around with it.  We re-arranged it and added a few lines.  It was begging to be set in London and begging to be about the financial world."

Might The Tempest find a similar political resonance?  "I've learnt it off by heart - I always do that - it's amazing how things change when you learn it. I don't see really whether it would have any direct relevance to any situation at the moment.  I don't think there's a Brexit angle. There is I suppose the whole debate about colonisation and refugees.  You never know what will come up."

Simon Russell Beale has always found The Tempest rather a cold play. Now, he says: "I think it's a much more emotional play than I remember.  But it always happens when you study Shakespeare plays - you change your mind about them.  Even a play that I think is ghastly, The Taming of the Shrew, I would probably fall in love with if I studied it."

"I think - I need to talk to my director about this! - I'm very keen that Prospero's not in control.  The more I've read it the more I thought that if you are a magician and starting a big trick like raising a storm and risking people's lives, you would spend most of the time worrying that it was going to go wrong - I would.  I have the idea of him as being less assured - I think he starts from a level of anxiety rather than of power."

"The most important thing in the play we learn from Ariel, who is not human, is how to behave like a proper human being - and then ditch the magic."

"The Tempest is rather like a very, very beautiful Renaissance jewel - polished and remote. The language is not tortured like The Winter's Tale, it's sort of baroque and elaborate.  It's like a game - a palindrome. My job is to find some sort of emotional jeopardy."

A National Theatre poster for King Lear with Simon Russell Beale A National Theatre poster for King Lear with Simon Russell Beale Recently - and for a year - Simon Russell Beale took on a very different role - as Cameron Mackintosh Professor of Contemporary Theatre at St Catherine's College, Oxford: "I loved it - I've never taught before."  He decided to do workshops rather than lectures: "I had a lovely time."  

Every year he also mentors a student from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.  He is optimistic that the British theatre will always have a plentiful supply of good young actors.  But what about the audiences - how do attract a younger audience?

"That debate's been going on ever since I started - and logically half the audiences I had then must be dead!  And they've been replaced."

He thinks the age group that theatres should aim to attract is the thirty-year-old: "In my twenties I didn't go to the theatre.  There were much more interesting things to do like going to the pub.  I was never a clubber, but it was that sort of world - you went out with your own mates and got drunk."

"Young thirty year-olds - it's the age when you like to sit down and watch.  We can't sit on our bottoms and not do anything about young people - obviously. I just wonder whether we shouldn't be catching them a bit later."  

The LitFest website has details and ticket information for all this year's events.
The Tempest opens at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre on November 8.