Prince of Darkness
It was always Simon Russell Beale's ambition to play Hamlet, but when he finally stepped on stage in the Royal National Theatre production which comes to Dublin, one crucially important person was missing.
His mother, the woman who encouraged him to become an actor and never doubted that her son would one day get to play the role he coveted, died of cancer just before he went into rehearsal in April.
"She always said she was certain that I would play Hamlet and that she would be there to see it," recalls Russell Beale, now 39. He believes she is still with him, however. On the night before the first preview, Russell Beale had a vivid dream about his mother. "I told her that I loved her," he says happily.
All this talk of dead parents and dreams might well set alarm bells ringing at the National. When Daniel Day Lewis was playing Hamlet there in the mid-1980s, he had a breakdown. The nightly experience of seeing the ghost of his fictional father walking the battlements proved too much for the actor, troubled as he was by his unresolved relationship with his own dead father, the poet laureate Cecil Day Lewis. Day Lewis junior quit the role and hasn't been seen on stage since. Talking to me in a restaurant, Russell Beale admits that there never was a play like Hamlet for making you think about the fundamentals of your relationship with your parents, and that he'd be lying if he said the Day Lewis parallel hadn't crossed his mind.
But Russell Beale is made of sterner stuff. For the past few years, he has been glueing together Trevor Nunn's fragile National Theatre ensemble with a string of notable performances, including, appropriately, the spin doctor Pangloss in Candide, who believes all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. While his prettier, sexier, thinner contemporaries, such as Ralph Fiennes, were flitting off to Hollywood in the late 1980s and 1990s, he went on slogging it out in Stratford, pushing his way out of the "comic actor" box into which he had been shoehorned, and honing his craft as a classical actor.
The hard work paid off. He was the best, most vivid Edward II and the most repulsive yet vulnerable Thersites in Troilus and Cressida that I've ever seen. His Richard III, suggested one critic, looked like the "unhappy result of a one-night stand between Pere Ubu and Gertrude Stein", who never got over his own villainy. Even when ambition gets the better of Russell Beale, as when he played Edgar to Robert Stephens's swansong Lear at Stratford, his are quirky, watchable mistakes.
Hamlet is the part he has been yearning to play for almost 20 years. He is not going to blow it now. But Hamlet, he acknowledges, gets under an actor's skin like no other role. "I never expected it would be so qualitatively different from the experience of playing any other," he says, "but it is.
It's like that idea that all philosophy is a postscript to Plato: you come to realise that all plays are a postscript to Hamlet. I've always been slightly baffled when I've heard actors talk about the wonder of playing Hamlet. But I now know what they mean. It is so much to do with being you. Hamlet is Simon Russell Beale, only much more brilliant." Even so, this is the Hamlet that nearly got away. The possibility of Russell Beale in the role has been talked about for almost a decade but never came to fruition. This production was originally slated to be directed by Sam Mendes, the man Russell Beale describes as his "professional soul-mate" and for whom he has given some of his greatest performances, including an Ariel in The Tempest that was a daring piece of casting against physical type.
But then Mendes went to Hollywood and made American Beauty, and it soon became clear that the one thing he wouldn't be doing this year was directing Hamlet on the South Bank. He told Russell Beale not to wait for him. "I understood completely," says Russell Beale. Yet it made him wonder yet again why he was so obsessed with the idea of playing Hamlet. "I kept asking myself would it really matter so much if I didn't."
Then John Caird, who had directed Russell Beale so successfully in Candide and Money, stepped into the breach. "I could have held out for Sam, but I knew time was running out for me. I seriously think that this is my last chance of doing Hamlet. I'm 39. I'm not a dashing Alan Rickman figure who can do Hamlet at 45 and get away with it."
Perhaps the wait to play the part may have been a bonus: "If I'd done it 15 years ago, I'd have been much more of a show-off about it," he says freely. "I am glad I've already done those more external, cynical roles like Richard III and Iago. Hamlet is much more uncynical. He is bright as a button but he is an innocent about the world and playing him is about playing what goes on internally."
The mechanics of grief obviously fascinate Russell Beale and perhaps explain his obsession with Hamlet. "When you lose someone you love," he muses, "life goes on, even though you feel you are losing your marbles."
Similarly, Hamlet doesn't go instantly insane with grief; he goes to the theatre and chats with his friends. "I am using playing Hamlet as part of my grieving process for my mum. I miss her desperately and I think of her a lot. But I've not had that great wailing moment that I expected to happen. I just feel like the guy ropes have suddenly gone."
Perhaps the biggest test will come when he stops playing Hamlet. When the run finally comes to an end next year, he will have achieved a long-cherished ambition, turned 40 and, for the first time in his professional career, will be facing an empty diary. The man who has spent almost all his professional life within the bosom of either the RSC or the National will suddenly be on his own. Despite his success in the TV version of A Dance to the Music of Time, he is not an obvious TV or film actor, and without work in these two media, he can never expect to earn a great deal; while he would love to work at the Donmar or Almeida, he worries about the mortgage payments on his tiny Pimlico flat. But after years in a frock coat, he is aware that it's time to get out and spread his wings.
"I love Shakespeare but I have a feeling that I shouldn't do any more for a bit. I do feel rather jealous of ballet dancers who get roles created for them. That's what I'd really like: to get Patrick Marber or Tom Stoppard to write a really good part for me."
As we get up to leave the restaurant, he spies Tom Stoppard at a table lunching with the rest of the National board. "Go on, then," I challenge, "ask him." Russell Beale looks abashed. "Do you really think I should?" A pause. "I think I will. Excuse me," he says politely, and slips away towards the playwright.
A few days later, word comes back that Stoppard might indeed be able to oblige. I hope so. Every good Beale deserves a favour.
Hamlet runs at the Gaiety Theatre October 3rd-7th at 7.30 p.m.; matinee on October 7th at 2 p.m.