THE main thing is it’s very short,’ laughs renowned Shakespearean actor Simon Russell Beale, 57, of the Almeida Theatre’s production of The Tragedy Of King Richard The Second — screened nationally at cinemas on January 15.
‘The full text takes three-and-a-half hours, and ours is an hour and a half. It still keeps all the main speeches, but it’s a rapid gallop through the world of Richard II,’ he says.
Another notable aspect is the minimalist set. All the action takes place in what resembles a concrete box, and all eight actors in the cast remain on stage throughout.
‘It’s a simple story, which is why it works being cut down — it’s about a weak king being deposed in favour of a stronger king. And the set reveals the fact they’re living in a brutal world. Late medieval England wasn’t a pleasant place to live. It shows what’s happening behind the poetry,’ says Simon.
Reviewers have been quick to point out the parallels between the political power struggles on stage and recent events in Westminster. But Simon believes this is a hallmark of Shakespeare’s work.
‘We never discussed the current political situation in the rehearsals, but people who have seen it have talked about it. The battle for leadership is always applicable — the way you fight for the top job or cling on. I did Julius Caesar years ago and read a programme note from a previous production, which is almost the same as the ones we’ve been having — “Now more than ever this play is relevant.” That’s true of Richard,’ he says.
Simon became a Shakespeare devotee at the age of nine, after he had to read Mark Antony’s Dogs Of War speech out loud at school. As an actor, he’s appeared in major productions of many of Shakespeare’s work, including the lead role in the National Theatre’s production of King Lear directed by Sam Mendes in 2014. He’d like to have another go. ‘It’s the greatest play ever written — and it does say Lear’s 80,’ he laughs.
So what’s the appeal? ‘Tom Stoppard did a production of The Cherry Orchard once, which I was in, which we did with The Winter’s Tale. He saw me afterwards and said, ‘He exercises all your muscles doesn’t he, Shakespeare?’ And I think that’s probably it.
‘He demands an intellectual commitment to the work, but it’s also about the emotional life of the people you’re playing, especially the great parts, and there’s also something physical about it.
‘This is some of the most beautiful stuff ever written. So enjoy it, do it properly and try to make sense of it — that’s the main thing as some of it is quite tricky. My job is to make it comprehensible on the first listening.’
Away from Shakespeare, Simon can currently be seen in the current film release Mary Queen Of Scots, albeit briefly. He did one day on set as the man who (spoiler alert for those who don’t know their history) delivers Mary’s death sentence. He was offered the role by director Josie Rourke, with whom he worked when she was artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse.
What did he make of Saoirse Ronan’s Scottish accent? It has attracted some comment…
‘I haven’t heard it,’ he laughs. ‘She didn’t speak at all in the scene. She was just about to have her head chopped off.’
After Richard II, Simon will star in the West End transfer of The Lehmann Trilogy at the Piccadilly Theatre from May 11, following its successful run at the National.
‘I’m looking forward to doing that again. It’s not a conventional play. It’s a type of writing I haven’t done before — there’s not much dialogue. It’s three people playing hundreds of different characters. And it has the most beautiful set. It’s really lovely.’
He also suspects more grandfather roles might be on the way, following his role in ITV’s adaptation of Vanity Fair last year.
‘There was a ghastly moment. Claire Skinner was playing my wife and turned to me just before a scene and said “You do realise these are our first grandparent roles?”’ he laughs.
But it’s his work in Shakespeare and Chekhov, winning an Olivier Award for Uncle Vanya in 2003, of which he is most proud.
‘Frankly, it’s the privilege of doing great writing. It sounds sentimental but it’s true. If you get the chance to do ‘to be or not to be’ 100 times, you can’t complain, can you?’
■ The Tragedy of King Richard The Second is broadcast live to cinemas on January 15 as part of National Theatre Live. It runs at the Almeida Theatre until February 2, ntlive.nationaltheatre.org.uk