It’s long been one of the abiding amazements of the British theater that not only can its practitioners do what they do to a generally very high standard, but they can also explicate their craft – make that art – with unerring eloquence and grace.
All of which helps to explain a packed house on a recent Sunday morning for the 2009 Ernest Jones lecture at the Institute of Psychoanalysis in Bloomsbury. “You should all be in bed,” came the opening quip from the day’s speaker, Simon Russell Beale, whose talk, “Without Memory or Desire: Acting Shakespeare,” was remarkable, whether or not you had extensive experience of this performer’s singularity on stage (as not everyone in attendance did).
As if to forge a direct link between one’s humanity and that same person’s gifts, Russell Beale impressed time and again as someone, in his own words, gone “softer at the edges,” so as to fully view his characters in the round, free of the florid bells and whistles that he often applied to his performances when he was starting out. (The turning point: His shattering Konstantin in The Seagull for the director Terry Hands in 1990/1.)
It was fascinating, of course, to get Russell Beale’s take on his near-definitive Leontes in the Bridge Project version of The Winter’s Tale, now at The Old Vic, in which one witnesses a king infantalized by a jealousy that becomes pretty well synonymous with psychosis. I don’t think I’ve ever heard the landscape of forgiveness better or more succinctly expressed than was the case here.
Indeed, the actor was at his most fascinating as he anatomized many of the more difficult, often least likable Shakespearean figures he has played – whether Thersites, Richard II, or Iago, the last of whom ends up inhabiting what Russell Beale aptly described as a death-in-life in significant contrast to the accumulation of actual corpses piling up around him.
It’s a testament to Russell Beale that the audience coupled a hefty turnout from the psychoanalytic community with quite a few other theater critics in addition to myself, as well as National Theatre artistic director, Nicholas Hytner, who last year oversaw the star’s transforming performance – a lower voice than usual included – in Major Barbara.
Russell Beale spoke of his own acquaintanceship with death – including the loss of both a mother and a sister – as fuel for his genuine “sweet prince” of a Hamlet but admitted to looking forward to jauntier assignments, too, which will surely include London Assurance for the National next year and, following that, Deathtrap in revival on the West End. (Looks like the word “death,” at least, is not so easily escaped, even if Ira Levin’s thriller is not exactly Hamlet.)
Later the same day, I found myself very much part of a hyper-adrenalized live audience at the Shaw Theatre surviving the shrieks and hollers of her highly specialized fan base to savor the transformation of West End musical star Kerry Ellis (Wicked, We Will Rock You) into a golden-haired rock chick of a fairly formidable sort.
At show’s end, Ellis was joined on stage by the wild-haired (dark this time, not golden) guitarist Brian May, of Queen renown, who brought an already frenzied crowd roaring once more to their feet.
A defining Shakespearean actor at his movingly reflective best and Sting and Snow Patrol, among many others from Ellis’s British songbook, sent scorchingly through the roof, all in the same day? Only in London, folks. And believe you me, I mean that as a compliment.