Tag Archives: Simon Russell Beale

“The Tempest” at the Barbican

If you ever needed a reason to forgive computer company Intel for its annoyingly catchy ad jingle then its collaboration with the RSC is it. A large team, working with designer Stephen Brimson Lewis, has added ground- breaking effects to Gregory Doran’s production of Shakespeare’s late romance, and the result is a big theatrical event.

It’s a good choice of play to unleash the clever technical trickery on. From the shipwreck that sends Prospero’s enemies into his territory, the island becomes awash with projections. And spirits really do melt into air in the case of Ariel, played by Mark Quartley, as a live motion capture suit is employed on stage for the first time. The resulting imagery is appropriate and surely becomes more and more impressive if you understand how difficult it all is. Even so, the designers might be a tad aggrieved to know that all eyes are really on the live actor. Quartley gives a sensitive performance of remarkable physicality that doesn’t really need assistance.

The tech goes to town with the masque that Prospero conjures, its design based on Ben Jonson and Inigo Jones’ work, so that part of the play that can drag looks great. But again, beyond the spectacle, it’s the basics of the show that really work. A large cast of spirits add immeasurably and this is truly an island “full of noises” with a strong score composed by Paul Englishby that combines a variety of genres.

There’s a glitch in the application, too. The autochthonous Caliban could be the key to the island but he isn’t granted any modern magic. This rationale makes sense but it makes the character out of place, with no link to his inheritance – surely a missed opportunity? It’s a game performance from Joe Dixon, but the monster costume, the only foot Brimson Lewis puts wrong, suggests the aim is to get some laughs – what else can an actor do if he gets given a fish as a prop?

The key ingredient isn’t the intel inside but Simon Russell Beale’s performance as Prospero. Directed as a family drama, the relationship with Jenny Rainsford’s Miranda – an excellent performance – is deeply moving. Similarly, as his treacherous brother, Jonathan Broadbent makes a role often forgotten memorable. A complex relationship with Ariel, suggesting a substitute son, is also explored.

Russell Beale can be magisterial with ease but focuses on Prospero’s neurotic moments. The all-powerful magus sees his plan on a knife-edge, adding excitement to the production. This Prospero has many a mini breakdown, as the tension of plotting gets the better of him – at one point he even screams, and the prospect of changing overwhelms him. Doran was clearly sensitive to the possible drawbacks of a high-tech collaboration. Never losing sight of the fine cast here, his supervision shows a calm hand at the helm.

Until 18 August 2017

www.barbican.org.uk

Photo by Topher McGrillis

“Mr Foote’s Other Leg” at Hampstead Theatre

Biographer Ian Kelly has literally written the book on Samuel Foote, one of the 18th century’s most celebrated performers, and his expertise shines out in this new play. You’d be in real trouble if you couldn’t find the humour in a comic called Foote, but no fears here, as the jokes come alarmingly fast and varied: Shakespearian in-gags, bawdy banter and downright silliness. It’s an absolute treat for anyone with a love of the theatre.

Simon Russell Beale, Dervla Kirwan and Joseph Millson
Simon Russell Beale, Dervla Kirwan and Joseph Millson

Indeed, the theatre forms the backbone of the play – scenes are either front or back stage or in a medical lecture hall – all skilfully handled by director Richard Eyre, with Tim Hatley’s design cramming in the atmosphere. David Garrick and Peg Woffington, superbly rendered by Joseph Millson and Dervla Kirwan, are here, as is a long-suffering stage manager, Mrs Garner (a terrific role for Jenny Galloway). Comradeship and rivalry are exquisitely depicted, including in an unmawkish three-in-a-bed-death scene.

When it comes to biography, the play is as brilliant as its subject. Simon Russell Beale takes the lead, giving a dynamic performance that’s at first understated, comes alive whenever Foote is ‘on stage’, then becomes deeply moving when his sense of mischief grows dangerous as his mental health deteriorates.

 Forbes Masson as John Hunter at work with Colin Stinton as Benjamin Franklin taking notes
Forbes Masson as John Hunter at work on Mr Foote’s leg, with Colin Stinton as Benjamin Franklin taking notes

More than the history of an actor, or acting, this play is the portrait of an age. The distinguished surgeon John Hunter amputates Foote’s leg (ruined by a riding accident), while Benjamin Franklin lectures us on science. Prince George dabbles with performance and ascends to the throne (Kelly takes the role, reminding us his talents aren’t just literary). There’s American Independence and insanity as well – the madness of Mr Foote dominates the second act, ruining the pluckiest of comebacks.

Enthralled by the spirit of the times, Kelly isn’t shy of manipulating history for effect. Hence, he appropriates Dr Johnson’s servant, Frank Barber, to be Foote’s dresser, giving us a fine performance from Micah Balfour and a sub text that serves to illustrate Foote’s liberal iconoclasm. Like everything in the play, scenes with the two of them work astonishingly hard.

Care has to be taken when filling a play with such a quantity of ideas and events, yet here all is enrichment and nothing extraneous. Foote hates cant, declaring it the one word in English that is untranslatable. By avoiding cant, Kelly makes his play as fresh as it is erudite, a balance that makes this a triumph of and about the theatre.

Until 17 October 2015

www.hampsteadtheatre.com

Photos by Nobby Clark

“Temple” at the Donmar Warehouse

An exercise in erudition, Steve Water’s fictional account of 2011’s Occupy London movement is accomplished but unsatisfying. Remember how a cluster of tents formed outside St Paul’s? Water’s focus isn’t on those camping – you learn little of their political aims or ambitions – but on those running the cathedral and how they feel about their unwanted guests. It’s an angle that might strike one as oblique. And, while the central dilemma – hinging on a Dean asked to put his duty above what he may actually feel – is interesting enough, the play is stubbornly devoid of tension. Scenes of intelligent talking heads (I could have done with a dictionary) make Temple feel like a worthy radio play. The idea of the meeting chamber, where all the action takes place, as a “panic room” is almost laughable, given the lack of excitement.

The show is saved by the central performance of Simon Russell Beale as the Dean, convincing us of his turmoil as a good man blessed with a prodigious amount of self-knowledge. Unfortunately, the Bishop of London and his too obvious counterpart, a radical Canon, are sketchily drawn – one too comic, the other overly sincere – for Malcolm Sinclair and Paul Higgins to show us their talents. Likewise the role of a secretary on her first day in the job is a crude device that Rebecca Humphries struggles valiantly with. The central problem is the tenet of Church as ‘the establishment’. Although such presumed power is questioned, by the time a couple of choir boys come in to cheer the Dean up, it’s all too much like something from Anthony Trollope. Religion’s shaky relevance to lives today makes for a stumbling block that Waters doesn’t get over.

Until 25 July 2015

www.donmarwarehouse.com

Photo by Johan Persson

“King Lear” at the National Theatre

The National Theatre has rolled out the big guns to start 2014 – Simon Russell Beale as King Lear directed by Sam Mendes. It doesn’t matter what the weather is doing, or what your budget is like, make a resolution to see this one.

It’s a grand production in many ways. Star director Mendes was widely rumored for the top job at the National Theatre (it went to Rufus Norris), and is clearly at home here. Behind Anthony Ward’s deceptively simple design, the Olivier auditorium is used for all it’s worth. The sense of space is appropriately magisterial and the endlessly revolving stage reflects the play’s conceit of a wheel of fortune. Lear’s kingdom is a noirish nightmare inhabited by gangsters, militia and Blackshirts.

It isn’t just the superb spectacle that makes this Lear memorable. Simon Russell Beale gives the first unmissable performance of the year. His physical transformation is striking – he seems to shrink into the role in a degeneration that accelerates before your eyes. Always an intelligent performer, Russell Beale’s frequent work with Mendes shows how well he interprets the director’s powerful vision. This Lear is scary, a potent psychopath and giving up his throne is acknowledged as inexplicable. It’s a strategy that makes sense of his rages and fills the stage with fear. In a bold move, Lear kills Adrian Scarborough’s thought-provoking fool (in this production he’s even occasionally funny) in an agony of anger.

Matching him in menace, Lear’s daughters are clearly from the same mould. Fantastic casting is made the most of with Kate Fleetwood’s Goneril and Anna Maxwell-Martin’s Regan stealing many of the scenes they are in. Vampish and vicious, they are full of manoeuvres. Olivia Vinall’s Cordelia is also defiantly active, donning army fatigues as she leads an invading force to rescue her father. This Lear is action packed throughout. The plot fuels the tragedy in a way that emphasises that justice isn’t abstract, or the twisted sport of a divinity, but the work of man. From this, the end is even more tragic than usual, with a near unbearably moving performance by Russell Beale.

Until 25 March 2014

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photo by Mark Douet

Written 27 January 2014 for The London Magazine

“Privates on Parade” at the Noël Coward Theatre

Privates on Parade marks the start of the Michael Grandage Company’s exciting residence at the Noel Coward Theatre. Peter Nichol’s play about an army song and dance unit in Malaysia during a time of colonial struggle, has “the Queers and the Boys” camping it up to entertain the troops. The service is a refuge for gay men and misfits fleeing from Atlee’s Britain, but the vicissitudes and corruption of Army life, along with a mad major, make the escapism on stage essential: no matter how hard these guys try, their lives are far from a cabaret.

Taking the flamboyant lead is the Unit’s ‘Auntie’, Acting Captain Terri Dennis, a man on a mission to do his best for the boys on stage and off. Simon Russell Beale is hilarious in the role (his Marlene Dietrich routine has the audience in stitches), but he’s more than this – showing us the man behind the costumes. He makes the crass seems classy and the double entendres close to wit. The ensemble’s rendering of Denis King’s songs is skilful, with just the right amount of fluff to remind us that these men are for, the most part, amateur performers and conscripts far from home.

By contrast, it’s when the music ends, that things start to drag. Only Harry Hempel manages to match Russell Beale in finding the depth needed when the piece aims at intense drama. The end-of-empire politics of the play are supposed to jar with the high jinks on stage, of course, but the elements of farce in military life aren’t played with a dark enough edge and the rest of the show is so funny you really just want to focus on that. Grandage is lucky that lucky Russell Beale as Carmen Miranda still makes the show worth it.

Until 2 March 2013

www.michaelgrandagecompany.com

Photo by Johan Persson

Written 13 December 2012 for The London Magazine

“Timon of Athens” at the National Theatre

While directors seldom shy away from interpreting Shakespeare, sometimes searching almost perversely for a spin that promotes their production, Nicholas Hytner’s Timon of Athens offers something different. As Shakespeare’s least known work, we have the unusual situation of an audience coming to the show fresh. As a result, the new production at the National Theatre makes a remarkable contribution to the World Shakespeare Festival, presenting a contemporary sounding voice that demands to be heard.

Timon of Athens contains more parable than plot and traces the downfall of the eponymous protagonist, who is ruined by his generosity in a mercenary world. It’s easy to see the writing on the wall for Timon, but filling the play with contemporary references, setting the action in Canary Wharf and Parliament, and casting the rebel Alcibiades as a political protestor in the mould of ‘Occupy’ movement, give the production a powerful resonance in our financially unstable times. It’s a wicked world out there; you’ve only got to watch out for the on-stage product placement from Jaeger to have your cynicism reinforced.

The play’s main fault lies with its characterisation but Hytner’s cast manages to deal with this. Deborah Findlay is superb as Timon’s steward, adding emotional punch to the play, while Hilton McRae is excellent as the philosopher Apemantus. In the lead role, Simon Russell Beale gives a magnificent performance: his powerful presence matches the play’s directness – there are no byways here, just a monotonous misanthropy. Few actors could carry the violence of Timon’s language, his prayer of vengeance, this convincingly. Both Russell Beale and Hytner convey the bleakest view of humanity, making Timon of Athens the National’s most radical, challenging production for quite some time.

Until 31 October 2012

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photo by Johan Persson

Written 18 July 2012 for The London Magazine

“Collaborators” at the National Theatre

Having welcomed Danny Boyle earlier this year, the National Theatre now stages a new play written by his frequent collaborator John Hodge. A fantasia inspired by Mikhail Bulgakov’s play about Stalin, commissioned for the dictator’s 60th birthday, Collaborators is a romp around censorship and responsibility.

Working in the round for the first time in many years Nicholas Hytner directs with zeal. Designer Bob Crowley’s constructivist inspired set doubles as the Bulgakov home and a bunker under the Kremlin where the writer and tyrant meet. The theatre-loving Stalin can’t resist helping out. “Leave the slave labour to me,” he says, offering himself as amanuensis, then taking up the pen in person – on the condition that Bulgakov has a turn at running the country. It’s a glib allusion, but performed with such brilliance that its questionable taste is pushed to the back of your mind.

The wonderful Alex Jennings is Bulgakov, a “smack head groin doc turned smut scribe,” as Hodge brilliantly describes him. Jennings brings every nuance out of the role showing convincing relationships with Jacqueline Defferary, who plays his wife, and Mark Addy, who excels as the Secret Service man tasked with directing the play. Addy’s changing attitude to his artistic challenge, and the snippets of the play we get to see performed so skilfully by Perri Snowdon and Michael Jenn, are a real joy.

There aren’t many stage actors that can rival Jennings. But Simon Russell Beale is among them. His despot with a West Country burr is a hilarious and chilling creation – one who manipulates the audience as skilfully as his character plays with the writer.

Collaborators suffers slightly from the brevity that is also frequently its virtue: Hodge’s writing is immediate and clear but, as the drama increases, the play itself is not always dark or detailed enough to satisfy. Nonetheless, Collaborators is very funny indeed and, with its stellar cast, is an unmissable winter highlight.

Until 31 March 2012

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photo by Johan Persson

Written 8 November 2011 for The London Magazine

“Deathtrap” at the Noël Coward Theatre

Deathtrap – A Comedy Thriller, is a stylish affair. The smoking gun sign outside the Noel Coward theatre; the set by Rob Howell that looks great in a storm; and there is even the opportunity to praise graphic designer, Adam Wiltshire, for his clever artwork. On top of that, the whole thing is quality entertainment, living up to its claim to be both comedy and thriller.

You’ll laugh, and you’ll jump out of your seat. At some points you may very well squeal. Granted, not a dignified reaction – but tremendous fun. Borne along by Matthew Warchus’ subtle direction, this is an evening to enjoy.

But there will be no squealing about the plot here. It’s only fair to respect the programme’s request – to keep the storyline a secret and not spoil the fun for future audiences. Without dropping any spoilers, a once successful thriller writer, observing that “nothing recedes like success”, is driven to drastic action. Ira Levin’s cleverly crafted play is as much about the theatre as the action in it, but is no less thrilling for that.

Hugely successful on Broadway, Deathtrap’s main draw for British audiences is Simon Russell Beale. Happily, his co-stars are also superb; Claire Skinner sports a jolly American accent and Jonathan Groff makes an impressive West End debut. Estelle Parsons has a great comic turn as a psychic who has moved next door (an uncomfortable neighbour for someone planning a murder).

But it’s Russell Beale who steals the show. A great classical actor with comedy credentials confirmed at the National Theatre’s London Assurance, getting this many laughs while sculpting waves of tension, is impressive even with such a great script. It is proof that there is nothing the man cannot do.

Until 22 January 2011

www.delfontmackintosh.co.uk

Written 15 September 2010 for The London Magazine