Kings and Their Fools

A bit of a post script today to last week’s A Shakespearian Smorgasbord. The National have posted a video this week that was made to accompany the cinema broadcast of Sam Mendes’ King Lear – short but really informative.


In the video Simon Russell Beale mentions having to shave off his hair in preparation for the role and he spoke about this in an interview in The Telegraph with Jasper Rees, which makes for a good read.

Why I shaved my head for Lear

When a classical actor plays Hamlet, a clock starts counting down to his Lear. There should, however, be a decent hiatus. Among those who have bagged both of Shakespeare’s twin peaks, there was a 36-year wait for Ian McKellen, 32 for Jonathan Pryce and 31 for Derek Jacobi.

For Simon Russell Beale, the gap between his “O what a rogue and peasant slave” and his “O reason not the need” amounts to a slender 14 years. And if director Sam Mendes had had his way, the interim would have been even smaller.

“Sam came to see Galileo,” says Beale. “We went and had a beer afterwards. Galileo ends with Galileo being quite old and Sam said, ‘I think we should do Lear before it’s too late.’ I said, ‘What the f— are you talking about? I’m 45!’ ”

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.”

Beale also talks in the video about research he did into something called Lewy Body dementia in order to create a convincing Lear and he goes into more detail about that in another article for The Telegraph, this time by Hannah Furness, which you can read here.

kinglear20jan2014nine_FotorDespite my dichotomous relationship with Shakespeare, King Lear is one of my favourites. One of the many things I find interesting is the fact The Fool disappears half way through the play without any explanation.  This is often seen as a flaw in the writing, and both directors and actors have to deal with this whenever the play is staged.  In Mendes’ version The Fool is bludgeoned to death in a bathtub by a deranged Lear. Academics have spent much time discussing this sudden departure but the explanation I like best is very prosaic. The Fool and Cordelia never appear on the stage together and it has been surmised that in its original production the roles were double cast, with the same actor playing both parts – so Shakespeare simply begin expedient, then. A question of economics rather that poor narrative construction.

In Mendes’ production The Fool is played by Adrian Scarborough and you can watch him discussing the role here or listen here:


The role of the fool, jester or clown is a familiar figure in most cultures, reaching back many centuries. In its The Why Factor strand, BBC World Service broadcast a fascinating pUntitled_Fotorrogramme this week, by Mike Williams, about the history of the fool (the podcast is embedded below). In China they had a whole range of jesters, one with the fabulous name of Moving Bucket In India, perhaps their most famous jester is Birbal from the 15th Century. Even today the clown is a familiar figure in Bollywood movies, one of the best known films being Mere Namm Joker about a clown called Raju, starring Raj Kapoor.


There is a nice, condensed history of the clown, written by Jonathan Baker on the website Silent Clown.

A Shakespearian Smorgasbord

Today’s post is a bit of a pick and mix of all things Shakespeare that have come my way recently. Firstly, a very recent interview with Sam Mendes, acclaimed director of both stage and screen.  His latest theatrical outing was directing Simon Russell Beale as King Lear at the National Theatre in London. Here he is in conversation with Mark Leipacher about that very production.


Along with Mendes, there are a series of video and audio recordings from the National that talk with the actors about their approach to creating all the major roles in Lear. You can listen to Talking Lear here or watch them here.  Another from the same series, which is really interesting, is a discussion hosted by theatre critic Michael Billington between psychoanalyst, Mike Brearley, and academic, Laurie Maguire, where they discuss Shakespeare’s understanding of the complexities of the human mind and how these would appear to be evident in King Lear.


Finally in connection with King Lear Simon Russell Beale wrote a piece for The Telegraph in April, Whys Shakespeare always says something newin which talks at length about playing the Bard, the dangers of editing the text and why he considers that Shakespeare still has something to say today.


Another production that has been making headlines beyond its rave reviews is Titus Andronicus currently at The Globe Theatre, London. Titus is renowned for its violence – 14 deaths, a brutal rape and scenes of mutilation and cannibalism. Inevitably, stage blood is often used by the litre in productions of the play, and occasionally to great and gruesome effect.  This particular production has clearly pushed the boundaries, being described as full of violence and sick humour in Hannah Furness’ article for The Telegraph, Globe audience faints at ‘grotesquely violent’ Titus Andronicus. The fainting count at the time the article went to press was growing rapidly. If rumours are to be believed, the largest number to faint so far in one performance is 43.


It is clear from the publicity photographs why the squeamish are not faring well at The Globe. Indeed those who faint have been dubbed ‘droppers’ by fellow theatre goers and Globe staff. Furness writes:

One theatre-goer, who watched the show’s opening night, said there had been “quite a few droppers” in the audience, who fainted upon seeing so much blood. Another reported he had “almost puked” by the interval, while a third warned: “You will definitely need a strong stomach”. Others praised the “Brilliantly staged and flawlessly acted” production, but warned of “blood and violence galore”

What is amazing that amongst all the gore, the director, Lucy Bailey has also been highly praised for bringing out the darkly comic elements of Titus and making sense of what is often seen as faltering marriage of knock-about humour and extreme suffering on Shakespeare’s part.


I16iht-lon16-superJumbo_Fotorn her article for The Guardian, There’s method in theatre’s blood and goreMarina Warner talks about violence on stage through history, why tragedies such as Titus bring us face to face with intense violence and how they also carry a vital contemporary message. A great read.

There is some really good related reading on The Globe’s website. One is a great piece wittily entitled Food for Thought by Cedric Watts about the cannibal or anthropophagous banquet scene in the play.  Another is The Sound of Cracking Bone by Robert Shore which looks at the rehabilitation of Titus as a play of substance and how staging it in a theatre resembling its original setting allows it to breath again. It also reminded me of my favourite of Shakespeare’s stage directions, which comes from Titus, 

Enter a messenger with two heads and a hand

The maxim, there’s no such thing as bad publicity seems to have held true for The Globe and they have quietly taken advantage of the ‘droppers’ to garner extra publicity for the show. No one has actually said how much stage blood they are getting through, but it didn’t stop one intrepid journalist heading off to find where it was all made. There will be blood! written by Nick Clark for The Independent visits the suppliers of the fake blood for Titus who make up to 450 litres of the stuff every week and have doubled their production in the last year, largely due to bloody productions of Shakespeare’s plays.

Finally for today, a shout out for The Internet Archive which has recently posted the Orson Welles Shakespeare Collection, a selection of Shakespeare’s plays adapted for the radio by him in the 1930s and which were groundbreaking at the time. Welles is perhaps best known for the movie Citizen Kane, as well as one of the most famous broadcasts in the history of radio, his adaptation War of the Worlds which caused widespread panic when American listeners thought it was real and that an invasion by extraterrestrial beings was taking place

Orson Welles as Brutus in However, he was also a celebrated Shakespearian actor and during the late 1930s, Welles was the toast of Broadway, thanks to a string of audacious revivals of the Shakespeare’s work. The most famous of these was his 1937 adaptation of Julius Caesar. Welles costumed the piece in modern dress with soldiers wearing what looked like Nazi black shirts. The show was lit in such a way as to recall a Nuremberg rally. Obviously this was playing at a time when Hitler’s power was growing, and the production is said to have jolted American audiences and made Welles famous, with Time Magazine even putting him on its cover.

The recordings made available by The Internet Archive are obviously dated and sound quality is not always great, but they have a surprising intensity about them. You can access them here and I have embedded Julius Caesar to give a flavour of what the rest are like.