Simon Russell Beale is a name that needs a little neon in this country, but across the pond it's practically halo-lit. Back home, in the aisles of London theatre, SRB has done his SRO damage in a stunningly short time onstage — a mere two decades at the RSC, National and Donmar Warehouse — and now at last, at 43, he's on Broadway.
"Simon is a phenomenon, really," insists one who should know: David Leveaux, director of his belated Broadway bow in Tom Stoppard's Jumpers. "I don't think there's an actor in England of his generation who comes close to him in terms of the joy of language."
Given this love of words that Russell Beale radiates with effortless enthusiasm, it is indeed fortunate so much of his career has already been in the service of two of England's most eloquent and intense wordsmiths, Shakespeare and Stoppard. Even conversationally, you sense he's on intimate terms with the language — how he savors their succulence or gulps them down greedily in bunches. Beautiful!
He has been called "almost certainly the greatest classical actor of his generation." In terms of praise, power and prestige, he looms a little like the new Olivier. It's just that the packaging is different (quite). He is, as classicists go, Cassius-challenged. No "lean and hungry" here. None of Olivier's matinee-idol sheen. He lumbers forth with Laughton-like largess that, miraculously, hasn't limited him. It is a testament to his talent, and to the foresighted risk-taking of directors like John Caird (Candide, Hamlet) and Sam Mendes (Uncle Vanya, Othello, Twelfth Night), that he's cast against type. So far, Russell Beale has sprinkled that magic sparingly on these shores. He has given 79 performances in the U.S. and all at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) — six thick-necked Iagos in 1998, five stocky Hamlets in 2001 and, last year, 30 marvelous Malvolios and 38 Olivier Award-winning Vanyas. "Oh, and there was Michael Frayn Day at Lincoln Center," he cheerfully postscripts. That occasion he marked by participating in a reading of Frayn works (they've been friends since he did Konstantin in a Frayn-refried Seagull).
Any of the above would have made excellent entrees to Broadway, but Russell Beale elected instead to wear his rare comedy mask to the U.S. He has been specializing in such surprises since public school days in Bristol where, in one semester, he ran a rather startling gamut from Lear to Desdemona. He threw everyone off again when he won another Olivier for a musical (jumping from Voltaire to Pangloss in the Caird Candide).
"It's all by chance, really — my time in New York," he insists. "There is no game plan. I went with the plays to Brooklyn because of Sam's relationship with BAM. And Jumpers just seemed like the right thing to come to Broadway in. It's a really entertaining two hours. I think Tom would like for it to be taken for that, too. It's a strange, silly piece. He messes around with genres, and I hope people just have a good time with that. For me it's like a detective novel or a crossword puzzle. It requires you to work out puzzles, but that's quite fun."
Playfulness abounds in the play, literally, with a troupe of philosophers doing mental and physical gymnastics and at least one gal doing a striptease on the chandelier. The setting is the home of an otherwise nebbish moral philosopher, George Moore (Russell Beale) — "a man," says Leveaux, "trying to prove — on entirely intuitive grounds — the existence of God, while wearing a cardigan." So deeply is George into his ethics lecture, "Man: Good, Bad or Indifferent," he doesn't notice his decidedly dotty wife, Dotty (Essie Davis), is, by turns, cheating on him and stashing a corpse in her closet. It is, farcically speaking, a full house.
Russell Beale admits an affinity and affection for flawed characters, and the improbable romanticism he wraps them in increases their poignancy. "Essentially, George is a good man," he says. "He loves his academic work with a passion, but he fails, which I think is Tom's quest, and I find that sad. But I like how he keeps plugging away."
While they were originally rehearsing Jumpers, the actor pondered aloud to his director, "Is it that I always play failures, or do they become failures because it's me playing them?" It's a good thing, either way, in Leveaux's long view. "He's got that thing that Ralph Richardson had — the ability to transmit the glory of failure better than anyone."
Perhaps that's the price — and the payoff — of being a persistent romantic. "Something that Simon and I share, I think, is sort of endemic romanticism, which is not usually associated with Stoppard," says the director who instilled a romantic current in The Real Thing, his previous Stoppard revival, and touched the heart. "Jumpers can do that, too."