BWW Interview: Simon Russell Beale Talks Classical Music and THE SOLDIER'S TALE
Alongside a lauded acting career - he will reprise his Prospero when the RSC's The Tempest comes to the Barbican this summer - Simon Russell Beale has retained his passion for classical music, through projects like BBC series Sacred Music. This Wednesday, he performs as the narrator in City of London Sinfonia's Closer: The Soldier's Tale - an intimate version of Stravinsky's parable, directed by Dame Janet Suzman at Shoreditch's Village Underground.
Was classical music always a part of your life?
My father was - still is, at the age of 83 - a great singer, and he conducts as well. He's a doctor, but his great love was always music. I was playing piano from about five, and he sent me to be trained as a chorister at St Paul's Cathedral when I was just turned eight.
Did you connect with the music on an emotional level?
I wasn't really aware of it speaking to me in any emotional way when I was younger. I could sight-read early on, so if ever I was getting bored with a particular piano piece, I could turn it over and lay out another one. That made me think "Oh God, this is such fun". Piano has stayed with me the rest of my life: it allows me to shut out the world.
I often do a couple of hours practice before rehearsal - theatres generally have pianos, like in Stratford there's a wonderful grand piano. I have a piano teacher, and it's very important to me - much more, funnily enough, than the choral music I was brought up on. Though actually I did a programme about Bach recently, and of course I knew the Passion backwards; it was lovely to return to it.
Has your relationship to music changed over time?
As an adult, Beethoven has been a great discovery - more the chamber repertoire, not the opera, though oddly enough I did start training as an opera singer. I give myself new projects to study all the time. Part of the joy of the BBC programmes I do is making all these discoveries - like Dvorak is often dismissed as lightweight, but the symphonies are amazing stuff. Haydn I thought "Yeah, yeah, he's not as interesting as Mozart", but again the symphonies are masterpieces, and you come to realise what an extraordinary life he had.
How hard was it choosing your Desert Island Discs?
That was horribly difficult. I actually did Private Passions years before, and it was interesting seeing what I chose in my twenties versus my forties. It would be probably be different again now - more Beethoven certainly, perhaps Strauss.
Does your musical background inform you as an actor, for example with verse speaking?
I don't know that there's a particular correlation, and I never regard verse as a musical thing - that way madness lies. You end up singing it, which is a mistake, rather than making the thoughts clear. What was instilled in me very young as a choirboy was professionalism: in a big cathedral like St Paul's you're required to be professional for two hours a day, at the age of eight. I look back and think it's amazing they gave us the responsibility to take charge of our own abilities.
If you see adult choirs perform and someone does a jerk of their hand, that means they're cathedral trained - when you made a mistake, you put your hand up so the director of music didn't have to go back over a section to find out what went wrong. I do that occasionally when I'm performing Shakespeare - my hand involuntarily flaps up!
Was it a difficult choice to pursue acting rather than music?
Well no, I wasn't very good, so there are no regrets at all, and acting is my big love. I don't miss performing as a musician. But my piano teacher does an annual Christmas concert, and when I first went to her a couple of years ago, I said "Can you make me go through a whole piece in public, without swearing or stopping?" She gets us to play short movements or pieces, and I managed that with 500 people watching, which was a major achievement.
If you talk to any actor about performing with musicians, there's complete reverence of their skill and technical ability. Whenever you have something like a band, it's just a joy. The RSC Tempest has two proper singers - the cast is really in awe. Now these classical music shows come my way; I'm very lucky. I always say yes when it's something intellectually fascinating.
Did you know The Soldier's Tale well?
It was actually one of my O-level set texts, so I've known it all my life! It's a funny old piece. It's very similar to all those devil fables, so it has that dark, spiky, wry feel to it - like Goethe's Faust, a rather savage view of the world. And the music is appropriately spiky. There some softer passages too, but the music is of that tradition, as with Mahler and so on, where the violin is the devil's instrument.
And your narration is set to music?
Some of is, some is more rhythmic, which is why I'm asked to do it, because I read music. The narration can have rather a dry, remote quality, but Jeremy Sams, who is the world leader on this type of stuff, has done a new translation - a much better version than the one I studied at O-level. As with Stravinsky's Oedipus rex, there's a sort of Parisian chic cynicism that doesn't necessarily come across particularly well - it does help to get the audience out of the period and do it as a full-blooded, immediate story. This version is rather witty and feels very natural.
The music is also quite remote, so it's worth underlining the fact that this is a universal story: the soldier coming back from war, who finds someone to love and who loves him, but is tempted by untold wealth. It should have an emotional impact.
The piece is often performed with dancers - might we see a return to dance from you?
Do you know I've never been asked to return since my Royal Ballet days! I had a wonderful time with Alice - it was one of the major experiences of my life. I would be standing this close to these extraordinary, world-class dancers, open-mouthed at their skill, and of course thinking "What on earth am I doing here?". I did love it, but I'm probably on surer ground with music.
Do you hope your acting work will attract newcomers to classical music?
It would be nice to bring in different audiences. It's such a wonderful world, and it seems like a remote one in many people's lives. Classical music can be difficult to understand, but - like Shakespeare - if you dig in and work at it, it yields up endless riches. Though I'm as guilty as anybody of having music in the background or listening on headphones when I'm doing something else.
I'm not precious about behaviour and etiquette at concerts. You just behave as you would do - I don't mind clapping between movements, which some people take issue with. Food is slightly different. I tend to ignore distractions really, but I can understand not wanting to disturb the emotional concentration of something like Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. But things like phones ringing - nine times out of ten the person doesn't want it to happen. It's the trade-off for that live theatre audience.
Are you interested in doing more screen work?
I don't think about it consciously. I might try to explore those different media more, because I'm probably coming to the end of my Shakespeare time. I do need to do more film. There's one coming out this year about the death of Stalin - it's Armando Iannucci, and I had a wonderful time on it.
Film and theatre do require different techniques - I'm still not very good at film acting. I think it's to do with relaxation. I've never had a problem with that on stage, but on film I can tense up and try too hard to do an 'effect'. There are techniques on stage of course, like vocal projection, but you can learn that. I do admire people who have a natural facility for both.
Anything or anyone on your theatre wish list?
There are quite a few. New writing would be wonderful - I would like to do more of that. Working with new directors as well. Of the classics, Ibsen is beginning to creep up on me...
There aren't many Shakespearean roles left - Shylock is a possibility, I might be too old for Angelo. Some of the littler roles maybe. I fell in love with The Tempest, but it's more exhausting than I thought it would be. It's not Lear or Hamlet, but it is quite tiring. Completely thrilling, though, discovering that a play I thought was quite remote and cold is actually hugely emotional.
Are you doing much work on it before it transfers to the Barbican?
I suspect there will be some changes. It was a ravishingly beautiful production, so it's mainly tidying. I'm not involved with all that - I just stand in the middle! The chap playing Ariel, Mark Quartley, he's learned a few things about the technology - how useful it is, how best to employ it.
Finally, why would you recommend The Soldier's Tale?
It's classical music, but not face on - it should hopefully be a really exhilarating experience. And I think everyone should try live classical music at least once. It's always more visually exciting than you imagine - there's a whole other dimension.
I saw Alison Balsom do her Sunday afternoon concert recently with seven Baroque trumpets - they're such extraordinary instruments just to look at. It's this visceral thrill: a bank of violins playing together, or a brass section pumping away at the climax. Live music has a physical connection - it gets into your bones.
Photo credit: Charlie Carter, Luke Finn/BBC, Topher McGrillis/RSC, Mark Douet