Mendes persisted and the play was vaguely scheduled at the National Theatre, but the director’s commitment to Skyfall and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory has allowed Beale to edge up to 52.
This will be Beale’s seventh Shakespearean role with Mendes in a collaboration that began with Thersites in the RSC’s Troilus and Cressida in 1990. We meet in the National Theatre’s interview room, where the actor looks across at a picture of himself as Hamlet in 2000. Nowadays, with a full white beard and cropped silver hair, he looks comfortably grizzled enough to be handing over his kingdom to his progeny.
The crop was Mendes’s request. “The two nasty characters I’ve done with Sam – Richard III and Iago – for both of them I shaved my head. The first thing he said to me as Lear was, ‘Can you shave your head because it makes you feel more of a brute?’”
You can see why. After Cambridge Beale wavered between acting and singing. As he would have been a tenor, it seems pertinent to ask whether Shakespeare’s canon supplies roles which, if written for a singer, would be considered more of a stretch. After all, English theatre’s most recent Lear, whom I interviewed as he took on the role at Chichester, is the tall booming übermensch Frank Langella.
“Is there a Fach? I love that word. A Faaaaccchhh.” He stretches the vowel and dwells on the percussive consonant of the German word referring to a classical singer’s performing range. “Um, I don’t know. Of course my really weak suit is Frank Langella’s strongest, isn’t it? That sense of power in the first scene is quite difficult to find for me and that’s the bass baritone. But the last beats of the play, that’s tenor, isn’t it? I dunno. It’s a negotiation between a part and an actor. You have to play to your strengths or you slightly adapt them.”
Even Beale’s polite army of obsessive fans may not know that he first played Lear as a 17-year-old schoolboy at Clifton College. “I remember the smell because we had proper greasepaint and spirit gum. I can’t really remember anything about the performance beyond the fact that it was very exciting. And then when I picked it up to learn it for this, when I read the very first speech – ‘Mean time we shall express our darker purpose’ – it was all still there somewhere in the back of my brain. Whereas if you’d asked me to quote any of Timon, it’s gone.” (Timon in 2012 was his most recent Shakespearean role.)
As Beale returns to the role, it feels like the fulfilment of a prophecy embedded in the epithet “the greatest classical actor of his generation” which has followed him around for a couple of decades.
“It’s happening less now, though.” He unleashes a huge cannonade of laughter. “Obviously my ego is massaged when people say it. It’s flattering but embarrassing. And if you believed it, then you’d be in trouble. And I don’t. I seriously don’t. I think actually I’m a bit second-rate a lot of the time, and that’s not coy.”
He mentions actors of the same age for whom he thinks the tag is at least as apt – Mark Rylance, Stephen Dillane, Roger Allam. But none has privileged the stage over the screen with anything like the same devotion.
Does he ever wish he’d had a parallel life in Hollywood like other great titans of British theatre? “You’re talking about Sir Ian and Sir Michael and people like that. And yeah of course I’d love a career like that. Love it.” What’s to stop him taking some meetings in Los Angeles? “I suppose I could. I’ve got an American manager.”
You sense that it’ll never happen. Beale may have a vast army of nieces and nephews – he took all eight of them, aged 22 to two, Christmas shopping along the King’s Road the day before we meet, but his other family is here in this building to whose well-being, it is no exaggeration to say, he is as integral as any actor since Olivier. A tally of around 1,600 performances suggests as much. When the National was looking for a new artistic director, the chairman asked him to name his two preferred candidates (Nicholas Hytner’s nominated successor Rufus Norris was one of them). This, in short, is his home.
“I don’t think anything has ever made me as happy as working on a Shakespeare play in a rehearsal room here. It’s to do with a type of intellectual excitement. I’m sure you do get it in film and television, but it’s something absolutely viscerally pleasurable about coming here.”
So how does he feel about leaving the rehearsal room and doing it in what Katie Mitchell refers to as “the other room”? Would he be happy just rehearsing for its own sake? “No, of course not. You’re responsible for telling a story. It’s a bit like being a monk, praying for the world – sometimes you get into a state where you’re thinking that what I’m doing is valuable even if nobody else sees it. Which is, of course, bollocks.”
Perhaps there is no such thing with the capacious leading roles in Shakespeare, but once he does leave the rehearsal room does he feel he has ever strayed close to giving a definitive interpretation? “The simple answer is no,” he says. “But there were moments where you think, I can’t do it any better than that. Just sometimes it goes like a Rolls-Royce and then most of the time it doesn’t quite.”
He came closest to Bardic nirvana, he reckons, in Much Ado, delivering Benedick’s speech about falling in love with Beatrice from an ornamental pond in which he had plunged to hide during the gulling scene. “I always used to joke that the best performances are done in the bath and there I was literally floating in this warm water and talking to audience.”
That memory may be relegated in the coming months as he performs what rehearsals have reinforced for him is “quite simply the greatest play ever written”. Aside from researching dementia with the help of his mainly medical family, Beale has done his usual rummaging in the First Folio and Quarto and alighted on Lear’s obsession with tears.
“When he comes on wearing his flowers in his hair and mad, his first line is ‘They cannot touch me for coining, I am the king himself.’ Which is a moderately interesting line if you’re interested in the Mint. But the other option is ‘They cannot touch me for crying… The next line is ‘Nature is above art in that respect,’ which seems to be about instinct being more powerful than contrivance. It doesn’t seem to apply to coining at all, but it does apply to crying. So I decided to do that version.” He is eager to make a documentary about Shakespeare textual scholarship. Well if anyone can…
The downside of doing Lear at 52 is that there aren’t many peaks beyond. He was once given a lift to Stratford by John Wood, who was playing Lear and Prospero in the same season. “I remember him saying, ‘I really don’t know where to go now.’ It’s weird but you do feel it’s the end of the road.”
He doesn’t feel “a particular lust to do Prospero”. How about Antony? “Oh nooo, he’s a foot taller. I’d like to do Falstaff on stage. [Beale played the fat knight in the BBC’s Hollow Crown season]. “And Jacques, yes. Actually I’d love to do Angelo. Shylock I’m wary of because I don’t know what I think of the play.”
How about running the show? “I think not any more. There was a time ten years ago that I wanted to be an artistic director but not now that I’ve seen it at close hand.”
There is one other role which remains on his to-do list, having by his own admission got it wrong the first time round. Where Hamlet’s fleet-footed intelligence was a bullseye for Beale, Macbeth was thought by many critics to be a stretch when he played the role for the same director, John Caird, at the Almeida.
“I think the critics were right. That was a lesson about not imposing something from outside. I had a very clear idea of what I wanted to do and it was a result of an essay I did at university. The play seemed to be about a suspension of time which meant that it was very static. And that’s very anti-theatrical. This sounds craven but it’s true: years after the event, most of the horrible things that were said were probably accurate. But I’m determined that Macbeth is in my Fach.”