Simon Callow finds the Bard much to his liking
BY HEDY WEISS Theater Criticemail@example.com April 18, 2012 4:54PM
“He was a man filled with emotion and impetuousity, and a sense of unworth and self-disgust — despondent at times, sexually obsessed, lyrical,” says actor Simon Callow about William Shakespeare.
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Updated: April 19, 2012 8:29PM
First encounters with Shakespeare can be life-altering events, with some experiences inspiring lifelong devotion and others creating lifelong aversion. For British actor and polymath Simon Callow, now performing the one-man show “Being Shakespeare” at the Broadway Playhouse (presented as part of Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s World’s Stage program), his first exposure to the Bard was nothing short of “miraculous.”
“My mother worked as a school secretary in Berkshire, a town in the English countryside, and as part of her salary I was enrolled there as a very young boy,” recalled Callow, when we met for tea recently in New York.
“The headmaster’s mother, Mrs. Birch — a hirsute Cockney woman with a hint of Madeira always on her breath — taught me how to read. And on Wednesday afternoons we’d listen to radio plays together. I still remember hearing ‘Macbeth’ for the first time. It thrilled and terrified me with all those dead men walking, and forests on the move. And as the words were flying by, pictures were accumulating in my mind.”
Callow, 62, a solidly built man of palpable energy — with a ruddy complexion, bold features, a thick black mustache and a voice that suggests a gathering thunderstorm — also vividly recalled his grandmother’s great three-volume set of The Complete Works of Shakespeare.
“I would lie on my stomach and read the plays out loud, and I still remember the lines from ‘Julius Caesar’ about the stones of the Roman streets and the forum. Shakespeare’s world is so inclusive. It contains everything we know. Some say he would be making movies if he were around today. I don’t know, though I do believe Charles Dickens [the subject of Callow’s previous solo show, “The Mystery of Charles Dickens,” performed here in 2001] would not only be making them, but, like Orson Welles, reinventing the form along the way.”
“Being Shakespeare,” eight years in gestation, involved a close collaboration between the actor and Bate, an eminent Shakespeare scholar and biographer. Its basic structure builds on Shakespeare’s “Seven Ages of Man” speech from “As You Like It,” using passages from the plays and sonnets to conjure a portrait of Shakespeare and his world, with all its religious tensions, its evolving, uniquely flexible state of the English language and its philosophical musings about man’s place in the universe.
“In 2008 I performed all of Shakespeare’s sonnets in a single night, and I believe it was then that I realized he had written his autobiography,” said Callow. “He was a man filled with emotion and impetuosity, and a sense of un-worth and self-disgust — despondent at times, sexually obsessed, lyrical.”
Callow attended his first performance of a Shakespeare play — “The Merchant of Venice” — before he was 12.
“I was in Northern Rhodesia, where my father was working, and where I lived for three years as my parents, who had separated when I was three, were attempting an unsuccessful reunion. But I suppose the defining influence on me, as for most of my generation, were the three film performances by Laurence Olivier in ‘Hamlet’, ‘Richard III,’ and especially ‘Henry V.’ And then my ‘proper’ Shakespeare education really began when my grandmother took me to the Old Vic in London in the early 1960s, and I saw a number of plays directed by Michael Elliott, who was quite a reformist, stripping away a lot of the barnacles to create wonderfully clear, clean versions. Many of those ideas were thrown sideways when Olivier — a genuine puma with a symphonic voice — began the National Theatre. But there were plenty of other interpretations to see at the newly established Royal Shakespeare Theatre, in the West End, and in Stratford.”
“Though I was in love with the theater, I had no thoughts of acting myself,” Callow admitted. “My ambition was to be a writer of novels. Christopher Isherwood was my model.”
But his love of the theater prompted him to write a fan letter to Olivier, and the actor wrote back, suggesting he take a job in the box office.
“I still have that letter,” said Callow. “I took the job, and met actors like Michael Gambon, Derek Jacobi and Jane Lapotaire for the first time. I then went off to university, and finally to a drama school that preferred the Jacobean plays to Shakespeare’s because they were seen as more subversive.”
Callow made his professional debut in 1973, but it wasn’t until 1977, when an actor dropped out of a production of “Titus Andronicus,” and a panicked director asked Callow, then 27, to step in, that he performed a Shakespeare play. He would go on to play Orlando in “As You Like It” at the National Theatre, and then in 1979, to create the role of Mozart in the original stage production of Peter Shaffer’s “Amadeus.”
“From the start I adored every second of performing Shakespeare,” said Callow, who last year won raves as Sir Toby Belch in “Twelfth Night,” at the National Theatre. “And I am forever intoxicated afresh by the sheer beauty of Shakespeare’s language. He was, as George Bernard Shaw said, the greatest musician who ever wrote words.”
Callow, who still might be most widely recognized for his role as Gareth, half of the gay couple in the hit 1992 film “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” or as a judge on the recent British TV show “Popstar to Operastar,” said one key to understanding Shakespeare was to know that his mother had two children who died before he was born.
“He was the miracle boy, with special status,” said Callow. “I don’t think people pay enough attention to that fact. Also, though he only played small roles in the theater, his temperament was absolutely that of an actor — a real shape-shifter.”
In his “spare time,” Callow is now working on the third volume of his massive Orson Welles biography, and plans to head off to the Greek island of Mykonos later this year to complete it.
I save the prickliest question for last: What does Callow think of the “Shakespeare deniers” — those who believe someone else, most notably Edward DeVere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, wrote the plays?
“I would tell them to grow up,” he said, dismissively. “Yes, we know maddeningly little about Shakespeare, but there is some snobbery in the assumption that only royalty would be capable of creating such work.”