At the Temple of Shakespeare

Tucsonans get a glimpse of the 'Greatest Living Hamlet.'

Every time Simon Russell Beale arrives in a new town, he knows exactly what the newspaper headlines will extol: "The Greatest Hamlet Since Olivier" or "The Best Hamlet of His Generation."

"They always use the same quotes. It scares me witless," Russell Beale reports from his hotel room in Minneapolis, where he's preparing for a matinee performance of the Shakespeare tragedy. "But in one or two years, there'll be another. After all, just a few years ago, Kenneth Branagh took on the mantle of (Laurence) Oliver."

Critics are not so sure Russell Beale will be deposed as easily as Branagh seems to have been. Russell Beale has starred since last September in the Royal National Theatre's production of Hamlet, directed by John Caird, and he's won nothing but lavish praise for his portrayal of the troubled young Dane. The show arrives in Tucson Wednesday for a limited six-performance run at the Temple of Music and Art.

"The soliloquies have rarely sounded fresher," the New York Times raved. If the Times equivocated with that "rarely" the Chicago Tribune pushed on unequivocally to "never." "Old lines suddenly take on a brilliance and impact they never had before," opined its critic.

Ironically, before critics even got a chance to hear Russell Beale utter his first "To be or not to be" on stage, they fretted that the Englishman didn't look the part. He's 40 and, well, a little on the heavy side. As he quipped to one interviewer, their doubts about him could be summed up in true Shakespearean fashion: "Tubby or not tubby?"

"Physically I'm not the traditional type," Russell Beale admits. "My Hamlet is not tall, slim and dark. I do look a bit odd." But other greats of the English stage have played the young prince, a university student, well into middle age, he noted. "(John) Gielgud took it up to his 50s."

What matters, of course, is how readily Russell Beale took to his character.

"I'm in love with him," he says. "He's a really wonderful man. I suppose that's the basis of everything I've done with the part. That's not always the case. I didn't like Iago (his character in the Royal National's King Lear that Arizona Theatre Company brought to Phoenix in 1997). I was very disturbed by him.

"Hamlet is different. I fell head over heels. I present him in the kindest light. I found his dilemma completely understandable, and sad."

Yet Russell Beale is troubled by Hamlet's treatment of the two women in his life. The prince is furious that his mother, Queen Gertrude (Sara Kestelman), has wed the brother of her dead husband, Hamlet's father and the true king. And he betrays Ophelia (Cathryn Bradshaw), the innocent young woman to whom he's betrothed.

"Hamlet doesn't understand women," the actor says. "He's vile to Ophelia. And he doesn't understand his mother's sexual needs. He thinks freshly about other things, but his thoughts about women seem to come from his friends. At the university, he's surrounded entirely by other men."

Russell Beale is perplexed enough about his hero's misogyny that he has trouble playing it. On the previous evening in Minneapolis, he says, he was dissatisfied with the Ophelia scene.

"I was talking to Ophelia just last night about this. We weren't happy with it. I decided I will portray Hamlet as more vulnerable."

Such alterations are not unusual in a long run of a single play, the actor says. "The relationships sort of change. It's one ingredient of a great play."

Russell Beale grew up an "Army brat," the son of an English officer during the waning days of the English empire. Born in Malaysia, he learned the Queen's English living in "very English communities" in North Africa, in Hong Kong and in Germany before returning to England for boarding school. And though he's adept at the intricacies of Shakespearean language, Russell Beale claims to be fluent in no foreign tongue.

"I'm a terrible linguist," he insists.

He studied at Cambridge University "for three wonderful years," and then went on to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama to train as an actor. After working in Scotland for a bit, he was picked up by the Royal Shakespeare Company and thence the Royal National Theatre. The two "royals," he says, are rivals, the Shakespeare specializing in the works of the Bard, the National doing both classics and contemporary plays. Both are highly regarded, and the two companies each get about three-quarters of their funding from the British government.

Russell Beale's résumé boasts diverse roles. It's full of Shakespeare, of course, including the title roles in Edward II and Richard II, the sprightly Ariel in The Tempest and Edgar in King Lear, but it also notes that he won his prestigious Laurence Olivier Award for Best Actor in a Musical, for his work in Candide. And he had a tiny part in the 1999 movie An Ideal Husband.

"Blink and you miss me," he says with his usual modesty. "I was the newspaper editor."

The current Hamlet, after limited U.S. tour stops in Minneapolis, Tucson, Phoenix and Boston, will wind down in London, Russell Beale's home, in July.

"That's long enough, really, for people of our limited genius."

And after Hamlet? It won't be easy to shake off the prince's ghost. For one thing, right away, he'll do a "new play based on Hamlet, Humble Boy by Charlotte Jones, who's about 30 years old. It's an enchanting play, a happy version," a vision of what would have happened had the prince lived. And for another, the Greatest Living Hamlet has the feeling that he's actually met the spirit of Hamlet.

The Royal National had taken the production to an ancient castle in Elsinore, the Danish town where Hamlet is supposed to have lived. "It's a restored 'Hamlet Town,' with Ophelia Drive," he says delightedly, and its residents are "proud of Hamlet, they love Hamlet."

Olivier, Derek Jacobi and Branagh have all performed the part in Elsinore, but for some years now the Danes have decreed that all performances take place outdoors. The policy changed when the Royal National arrived.

"It was the first time in 30 years, they allowed us inside the castle to do the play. It was fascinating to be there."

But Russell Beale soon learned that "there are no lavatories inside" and he was forced outside into the night "to have a pee." Alone, in the dark, with the old stone castle rising up before him, he had a sudden strange sensation of the presence of a character he knows as well as himself.

"I had the feeling," he says, "of Hamlet walking through the castle."

Arizona Theatre Company presents the Royal National Theatre's Hamlet from Wednesday, May 16, through Sunday, May 20, at 7 p.m. with 1 p.m. matinees Saturday and Sunday at the Temple of Music and Art, 330 S. Scott Ave. Opening night tickets are $100, and include a post-show reception with the cast. All other performances are $45 to $60. For tickets and information call 622-2823.
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