Last summer, when Simon Russell Beale was playing Hamlet on a pre-London tour, one provincial headline read, "Tubby or not Tubby, Fat is the Question." That didn't worry an actor whose squat physique had already been compared with a frog, a balloon, and Gertrude Stein. "If they'd said I was fat and awful, I'd mind," he laughs. "Not otherwise."
Yet when John Caird's revival opened at the National Theatre, the sneers evaporated. The consensus was that the 39-year-old Russell Beale's Hamlet was wonderfully intelligent, sensitive, and, yes, noble. He displayed that versatility, that near-magical gift for transformation, that marks greatness.
Greatness? Well, the British are already calling Russell Beale the finest actor of his generation: which is surprising, given his background. His father was Surgeon General to the British army, and he initially planned a medical career. Even Cambridge University, where he won a choral scholarship and took an honors degree in English, left him wanting to be a historian or a singer. As he says, he "drifted into the theater."
But what a drift! In 1986 Russell Beale joined the Royal Shakespeare Company, and soon graduated from comic to classical roles, notably a vicious Richard III and a poisonous Iago, both for Sam Mendes. But Mendes' plan to stage the Russell Beale Hamlet was aborted, since the director was busy filming American Beauty. "Do it yourself, you're getting old," he told Russell Beale—and Caird, who had just directed the actor as both an acerbic Voltaire and a nerdish Pangloss in Bernstein's Candide, took over.
If he'd played Hamlet for Mendes, Russell Beale thinks he would have been tougher, harder. As it is, the prince he's bringing to the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis (May 2-13; then to the Temple of Music and Art in Tucson, the Herberger Theater Center in Phoenix, and the Brooklyn Academy of Music, in New York) is, he says, "kinder, more romantic—I think he's ended up a surprisingly sweet man." As Americans will discover, the supposed frog is a true prince.