Simon Russell Beale Talks Privates On Parade

For someone routinely referred to as the greatest stage actor of his generation, Simon Russell Beale cuts an unassuming figure. Soft-spoken, modest of stature, it hardly seems possible that this is the same man who recently breathed malevolent life into the character of Josef Stalin in the recent National Theatre hit Collaborators.

That said, his latest role in Michael Grandage’s revival of classic comedy Privates On Parade at the Noël Coward Theatre couldn’t be further from that of the ruthless Soviet dictator. As flamboyantly camp soldier / cabaret artiste Captain Terri Dennis, Beale is outrageous, hilarious – and poignant.

His fabulous impersonations of screen icons Carmen Miranda, Marlene Dietrich and Vera Lynn provide the play with its centrepiece. But this most versatile and accomplished actor is  modest about his contribution to Peter Nichols’ semi-autobiographical play about a mostly gay concert party posted in Malaya at the end of WWII.

"Although this will sound grotesquely insincere," Beale says, "the bits I enjoy most in the show are the scenes I’m not in. That’s true, honestly - but it would be very difficult not to enjoy being dressed up as Carmen Miranda." Captain Dennis marks a return to the kind of camp comic roles you played early in your career. Did you consciously back off from that kind of part to avoid being typecast while you were demonstrating your range and cementing your 'legitimate' theatre credentials?

Simon Russell Beale: "I think Terri Dennis is as legitimate a role as any other and I’ve always, from the start of my career, wanted to mix things up a bit. The results may be different in each play but the process of creating a role is always essentially the same."

TP: At the heart of the play are your wonderful cabaret turns as Marlene Dietrich, Carmen Miranda and Vera Lynn. How did you prepare to play these three icons?

SRB: "I’ve watched a lot of film footage of all the characters I’ve been asked to play but I am no mimic so, to be honest, what you see is my indistinct perceptions of a few great performers."

TP: Lately you’ve played George Smiley, Stalin and Timon of Athens to great acclaim. Do you intentionally choose parts like King Arthur in Spamalot (on Broadway and London in 2006/7) and Terri Dennis every so often as a way to balance these heavier roles and blow off steam?

SRB: "I’ve always been very lucky in that parts have arrived at just the right moment to challenge me. That was certainly the case with Spamalot and is the case with Privates On Parade."

The subject matter and setting of Privates On Parade parallel Beale’s profession and his sexuality—he’s always been openly gay—and also his personal history. Born in Malaya to a military family, he spent his childhood in Singapore. Do the play’s characters and locations ring a bell with him?

SRB: "Unfortunately I never met any entertainers like the ones in Privates On Parade when I was living in Singapore. My father however was the leading light of the local amateur dramatic group so perhaps that world is close enough. The truth is, Singapore in the late Sixties was a very different place from Singapore just after the war."

TP: But considering your upbringing and background, it looks at first glance as if the play could have been written with you in mind. Was it your idea to do it and not [director] Michael Grandage's?

SRB: "It wasn’t my idea actually, although Terri Dennis has always been a person that I wanted to play. It was Michael’s idea but I grabbed the chance with both hands."

TP: Why did you want to do it so much?

SRB: "Although it’s very funny, Privates On Parade is a play that deals with very serious questions about gay history, sexual and racial politics. It’s this complexity that makes the play fascinating."

The play originally premiered in 1978 and was a huge international success. Then, mainstream acceptance of homosexuality in the UK still depended on it being an 'open secret', as exemplified by entertainers like Larry Grayson, whose style was gently and inoffensively camp and who came across as implicitly but not openly gay.

TP: Attitudes to homosexuality began to change and open up in Britain from the early Eighties. Do you think Privates On Parade’s mainstream success contributed to that shift in any way?

SRB: "I wouldn’t know what effect the original production of Privates On Parade had on society, but from our luckier perspective I think it’s an important historical document about a time when life was harder for homosexual men and serves as a tribute to their courage."

TP: Finally, the cliché goes that comedy is much harder to play than tragedy. You excel at both, so perhaps you can tell us if that’s true.

SRB: "I’m not sure that it is true, in both cases it’s very clear when you fail although perhaps the evidence - i.e. laughter - is more evident in comedy. I’ve never been very good at physical jokes, so I tend to rely on a marvellous script like Peter’s to get the laughs from the audience."

Privates On Parade is part of the Michael Grandage Season at the Noël Coward Theatre, and performances begin on Saturday 1 December. For more information and to book tickets, click here.