Marlborough LitFest has announced that the actor – and new Marlborough resident – Sir Simon Russell Beale CBE is to be its first ever Patron.
Simon Russell Beale – a star of stage and screen – has been to LitFest events and he was a major draw during the 2016 LitFest – prior to his appearance as Prospero in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of The Tempest: “I’m very pleased to be involved with this gem of a local festival in the heart of Wiltshire which attracts internationally renowned authors.”
Marlborough LitFest’s Chair, Genevieve Clarke, is delighted: “This is the first time we’ve approached anyone to be our Patron so it’s an exciting development for the LitFest. And of course we’re thrilled that Simon Russell Beale has said yes with such enthusiasm.”
Indeed when I met Simon Russell Beale at the Polly Tea Rooms on a wet and very blustery morning, he really was brimming over with enthusiasm about his new role: “Our LitFest is jumping up a step”. And he cites the recent announcement of the 2019 Booker Prize winner Bernardine Evaristo as LitFest’s 2020 Golding Speaker – the festival weekend’s headline event.
“This is a lovely moment for me. Kate Fry – who’s on the LitFest Committee – is married to Dominic who was part of my world when I was growing up in Avebury. She suggested I might be their first Patron. I simply said ‘Yes, yes!’ “
During our exclusive interview, Simon Russell Beale was full of praise for LitFest’s continuing attention to younger readers. He thought a next step might be to involve more teenagers – a tricky age group to get reading: “We should broaden our idea of what writing is – we need an open door to all sorts of writers.”
“I’d be very interested to hear from those who write blockbusters. And there are interesting literary and storytelling elements in all those video games.”
Looking further ahead, he hoped there could be co-operation with The Parade Cinema: “Perhaps films to match some of the visiting writers and their books – and, of course, there are the skills of the screenwriters to explore.”
One of the country’s leading actors, praised especially for his Shakespearean roles, Simon Russell Beale has recently moved to a 400-year-old town house in the centre of Marlborough: “I’m loving it – absolutely loving it.” After 25 years living in a flat in Pimlico, it is quite a change.
He is very intrigued by the new government’s move towards undoing the Beeching rail cuts, which just might include re-connecting Marlborough to the rail network: “As a new resident, I shall tell our MP it would make all the difference in the world.” He is a bus user and somewhat critical of bus timetables – he does not have a car: “It’d be a very bad idea to put me in a car – I don’t think I’m a natural driver!”
Simon Russell Beale was born in Penang (in what was then Malaya) where his father was stationed with the British Army’s medical corps. Before settling in Avebury, the family was moved about.
So his new home holds a very strong place in his heart: “As an army child I felt very transitory. There was no place that I could tell people where I’ve come from – you know, when they ask you where you’re from.” Now he is definitely ‘from Marlborough’.
His move to Marlborough almost coincided with his being knighted last year for services to the theatre. He told an American journalist about the ceremony: “I got the Queen. It’s quite rare now, apparently.”
By the time you are reading this, Simon Russell Beale will be on the move again – to New York’s Broadway. He is one of the three actors in Sam Mendes spectacularly successful production of The Lehman Trilogy – the story of the rise and grim fall of the American financial dynasty, Lehman Brothers.
Simon Russell Beale, Adam Godley and Ben Miles act about seventy parts – male and female. It is a tour de force – as one critic wrote ‘…it reminds us that one reason we go to theatre is to watch superb acting’. I tell Simon Russell Beale that I saw it streamed to a cinema in Swindon.
He is very keen on live streaming of plays – it brings in so many people who cannot get to theatres. But he says the night they streamed The Lehman Trilogy was something of an ordeal – it was Britain’s hottest night ever: “We were pouring with sweat – though they had allowed us to do the afternoon rehearsal in shorts!”
The week before we met, the three actors had been rehearsing for the four-month Broadway run. I asked whether they were making any changes for the New York audiences: “The Lehman’s started out in cotton – and slavery is just now a very live issue over there – so we may make a few small tweaks.”
During rehearsals they did have a debate about the word ‘vase’: “I have to say a line about putting flowers in a vase – and they, of course, say ‘vayse’ not ‘varse’. But we took advice and I’m sticking with ‘varse’ – which I’m more used to!”
He hopes streaming will be another plus The Parade Cinema will bring once again to Marlborough. He is amazed at the way the cameras for streaming are used so the actors hardly notice it is not a normal performance: “On the first day of preparations, the director comes and shakes your hand and you never see him again – they’re so skilful.”
This will almost certainly be the final run of The Lehman Trilogy for these three actors. In February 2020 Simon Russell Beale is committed to Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkman at the Bridge Theatre in London.
Ben Power who adapted The Lehman Trilogy from a mammoth Italian play wrote: “It’s never felt so important to be questioning the economic systems that run our societies.” And lo and behold along comes a new production of Ibsen’s play about the dishonoured banker Borkman – an illustrious entrepreneur who has been imprisoned for fraud.
Simon Russell Beale, who has not acted in many Ibsen plays, suggested the play to director Nicholas Hytner – recalling the production he had seen with Paul Scofield (at the National Theatre in 1996): “His last act was – well, it was simply extraordinary. I suppose I’m setting myself up against the great Scofield.” And he winces – and smiles.
This production will be set in present day Oslo – and Simon Russell Beale, Hytner and Lucinda Coxon who is adapting the play, have already been to Oslo to see how the modern town will work with Ibsen’s 1896 play.
Simon Russell Beale says the play has two great parts for actresses. These have not yet been announced, but he has been told teasingly that Hytner is aiming for big names – so, he says ruefully, “I might get pushed off the poster!”
Come the summer when he is back from Broadway, we can expect to see Simon Russell Beale learning his lines in the Polly Tea Rooms. When he lived in Pimlico, he had a favourite pub just round the corner where he went to learn lines: “I need a buzz.”
And – as Patron and as a patron – he will certainly be at events during the eleventh Marlborough LitFest (24-27 September 2020 – brochures available towards the end of June.)
Footnote: last year marlborough.news asked its readers to describe their favourite LitFest event. Tony Smith chose Simon Russell Beale’s 2016 talk on Shakespeare and Prospero. You can read Tony Smith’s description here.