Simon Russell Beale can’t say how many roles he plays in The Lehman Trilogy, the financial epic that opens on Broadway on March 26, after hit runs in the West End and at the Park Avenue Armory last year. That’s because Beale—a towering fixture of British acting who’s played nearly every major Shakespeare role onstage, from Hamlet to Falstaff to Lear to Timon, and whose memorable film and TV credits include Penny Dreadful, The Death of Stalin, and Persuasion—joins just two other actors, Ben Miles and Adam Godley, in essaying scores of players in the centuries covered by Stefano Massini’s three-and-a-half-hour tale, as it traces the long ascendance and eventual collapse of the financial empire built by three German Jewish immigrants to America. The play, directed by Beale’s longtime associate Sam Mendes, was adapted into English by Ben Power, but the process was more hands-on than that may sound. As I learned in a recent conversation with Beale, the current version of The Lehman Trilogy was essentially rebuilt from the ground up in an open-ended process under Mendes’s direction (the original Italian version featured five actors).
ROB WEINERT-KENDT: Was it decided before you went into rehearsal which actors would do which characters, or was the piece sort of devised in the room?
SIMON RUSSELL BEALE: We had a week, about a year before we started the main rehearsals, where we had about 10 actors, perhaps even more, and nothing was allocated. I think the three central brothers might have been—certainly I think I was allocated Henry—but basically I think it was sort of pretty vague. The play is like one long poem. We started working on it, and we couldn’t find a vocabulary for it. And then the idea of the three boys doing it by themselves—I’m gonna take credit for that. I think the parts were basically allocated by Sam according to—I mean, I know that I play the authority figures: the rabbi teacher, heads of households, governors of states and things.
You also play a Southern belle at one point.
I do—Babette. I met some of her descendants in London, this huge family group came up and said, “We’re Babette’s descendants. We have a picture of her up in our house.” I play her as a young belle, but she became quite formidable character, actually. She had a lot of children.
Though you’ve played many tragic, meaty roles, you first came to prominence in comic roles, isn’t that right?
Yeah, when I started at the Royal Shakespeare Company, they saw me as a comedian. In fact I never felt very comfortable with Shakespeare clowns, because that’s a specialist skill, and it’s one that I don’t have. But I certainly played comic characters. I did this season of Restoration fops, which is quite a rarity now in England. And then the director Terry Hands said, “I think you can play Konstantin in The Seagull,” and that changed the way people saw me. Then I started doing all the heavy stuff.
You were able to dip back again into comic roles—apart from Tony Sher I don’t know a lot of actors who’ve played both Lear and Falstaff.
It was quite a dark Falstaff, though, sort of exercised by the fact that he was dying and knew he was sick.
I’ve read that your first role onstage was Hippolyta in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Is that true?
Yes. I was, what, 10? My grandma made my costume. That was the first Shakespeare play I did. And then I changed schools when I was about 13, and a school master offered me the part of Desdemona, I think because I could sing and Desdemona famously has a song. It really kicked in there, and I became sort of an addict of Shakepeare. That was the same school master who got me to do King Lear when I was 17.
Oh, really? I didn’t know that was your first take on the role.
Yeah, and my brother was playing Albany. That was sort of my swan song at school, and it was a major, major part of my life.
We recently wrote about Rene Auberjonois when he died. He famously played Lear at the age of 25.
It’s funny, the Lear age thing. I’m friends with James Shapiro, the great Shakespeare academic, and he was over to see the Lear that I was doing. Everyone was saying, “Oh God, you’re doing it so young.” I was in my 50s, which is not so young to do Lear—famously, Paul Scofield did it when he was 40. But it made James go and look and see how old Burbage was when he played Lear, and of course Burbage was a young man, he was 38—there were no old Shakespearean actors, really, at that time. So the idea of the young man playing Lear would have been perfectly normal. Though I wouldn’t try it at 25, I think. It’s one of the parts that I’d like to do again, actually. I’d love to do Macbeth again too, because I didn’t think I was very good. It’s a play I love, and as you well know, it’s a famous stumbling block. Lots of actors fail, and I would love to do him again, though I’m getting a little bit old for him now. And of course I’d like to do Falstaff onstage; I’ve only done him on film.
You’ve worked with Sam Mendes for a long time. Is there a defining characteristic he brings to every project, or does he bring different approaches to each?
It’s interesting, because Lehman, as I said, was a different process. I remember talking to him very early on, I said, “This is going to challenge both of us, because it’s not about emotional investment. It’s a play with a real clarity of thought, and you can’t drop it for a moment, your concentration.” It’s not about doing Hamlet or Lear or spilling your guts on the stage. And the same is true of the direction—it’s about clarity of narrative. Sam has always been incredibly good at that, which is why I think he enjoyed this process. He’s always enjoyed the logic of telling a story. It’s more difficult than it looks, making it absolutely clear where the eye goes, where the mind goes, where the heart goes. And he has an amazing memory on the rehearsal floor. He’ll say, “Oh, do you remember five weeks ago you did that? Do you think you should revisit that and see if you can do that again?” He’ll log it all in his head and it’ll come out later if it’s of any use. And I love him—I mean, we’ve been working together for 30 years; it’s almost a puzzle to answer why I like working with him now. He’s just my friend.
Do you see The Lehman Trilogy as a tragedy?
It’s interesting. I think what’s weird about the play is that there’s no judgment made at all about their story. And both in New York and London when we played it, people would come out and go, “Oh, that’s a searing indictment of capitalism,” or, “That’s a celebration of capitalism.” Or, “That’s the perfect American dream,” or, “That collapse is the result of greed.” It really depended on who you were. It’s fascinating; I’ve never done a play like that. All plays require some sort of judgment by the performer; however hard you may try, you’re always going to be saying to yourself, “That person’s a bad person, this person’s a good person.” In a way we don’t say anything here.
When I started, I thought that was a weakness. I think it’s now a strength. It’s up to the audience to decide actually whether the move into super-abstract trading at the end is a bad move, or whether move into building railways was a bad move. It depends where you want to end the story. Of course, it doesn’t end happily, so I suppose in a way it is a tragedy. It’s a story of eventual failure.
Right, something obviously went wrong with the Lehmans, and the question is, what was it that you think went wrong?
The very fact that it could be anywhere in that storyline means it’s sort of an analysis of greed, or of how we define greed. I remember when I started rehearsing, I was thinking, at what point can I say somebody is being being greedy? Is it just a question of zeroes? Is it question of saying, okay, have $1 million, that’s fine—but do you really need $10 million? At what point do we say: Enough? I think for a lot of people the number would be quite high, certainly more than we need. Then at some non-specific point for each person, it becomes too much. But I mean for most of us, if we’re earning more than we actually need, I suppose that’s greed, isn’t it? I don’t know. I find that one of the puzzles of the play. Is there something exciting about investing in the Panama Canal? Is there something genuinely creative about that? Or do we say that’s also just about greed? I don’t know the answers.
You’re telling a very American story. Have you noticed any differences in the ways New York and London audiences have responded?
Adam was very interesting about this, because he lives in L.A., and a lot of his friends are New Yorkers, and they were telling him it was presumptuous of us to come and tell them a New York story. I would describe this as an exotic story for Londoners: “Oh, that’s what happened over there with that American family.” Whereas, when we were playing at Park Avenue Armory, a lot of the people in the audience knew the play’s latter-day characters, so you’d have people coming up after saying, “Oh yes, I knew so-and-so, when I first started out on Wall Street.” So it was their story, the story of their city; the Lehmans had helped build New York. When I was there, it was strange going to the Met and seeing the Robert Lehman Wing. So I think there was a different emotional investment: These families made a great city and here we are living in it.
You’ve played a lot of royals and appeared in a number of “state of the nation” plays. How would you assess the state of your nation today?
I don’t know, really. I voted “Remain,” but now that the decision has been made, I don’t think we should have a second referendum. We now have to get on with it. The very strange thing about voting on these things is that I always feel inexpert. I’m often voting for sentimental emotional reasons, and I just feel as if I’m not qualified. I feel the same with the general election, and I sit up worrying about it. I read as much as I can but I always feel I’m not an expert at this.
I just wonder if you ever look around at the England of today and see a relationship to the England of the plays you’ve been in. You talk about the expertise you lack, but you’ve played a lot of powerful men.
Yes, I’ve played rulers, but I’ve never been asked that. Isn’t that awful? Richard II was actually the last great Shakespeare king I played, and that was interesting to play in a country that was at the height of the Brexit debates. You do sit there thinking, Oh my Lord, these arguments have been waged for centuries. It’s always the same.
You were knighted recently, is that right?
Yeah, six months ago.
Was that a big deal for you, or was it just something that happened?
Yeah, it was great. My dad was knighted. He came from a working-class family in Essex, a place called Romford. So when the letter came through, it meant a lot that I was doing what Dad did, really—from a slightly different starting point, but you know, the same end. So I accepted for my own benefit but also for him.
Has he always been supportive of your career?
I mean, looking back now, yeah. My parents were both incredibly open-minded about the adventures of life. It’s quite interesting looking back from my advanced age at what our childhood was like; we went all around the world, the Far East. That was a brave thing to do, coming from their backgrounds, to just say, “We’re going to just really go for whatever stimulation we can find.” They found it all over the world, in North Africa and Germany and Hong Kong. And Dad was a great musician—he still is a great musician. There was always that side that he loved very much. I think that’s what he instilled in us. He was a military doctor, and I’ve got three doctor siblings, so that’s sort of predictable—doctors tend to breed doctors, don’t they? My mom was a doctor as well. But there was never a moment of surprise when I said, “I’m going to be an actor.” They didn’t say, “Oh, I think you should reconsider that.” Not even a flicker. Dad just said, “We knew that.”
What’s the last book you’ve read that you loved?
Well, I finally just started reading Graham Greene, who I’d never read before, Travels With My Aunt. It’s sensational. Weirdly, I’ve read two books about 19th-century Europe, one by Julian Barnes and one by Orlando Figes, which are brilliant, all about Europe and the railways, and all these composers and writers whizzing around Europe on the new trains and meeting that.
I went through a funny stage where for 20 years I didn’t read fiction at all. When I left university, where I read English, I decided I’d had enough of fiction. But about three years ago decided that to read all the big boys and girls. I’ve got Joyce. I’ve done Proust, who I thought was amazing. Madame Bovary, which I’d never read. So good.
Did you happen to read Middlemarch?
I read it last year.
I did too, oddly enough.
Isn’t it great? I’d never read Jane Eyre. Really shaming, you know? I’m doing a lot of 19th century. One of the things I have to do before coming to New York is pack my suitcase with the reading for four months. I do realize I can actually buy books there, but I have to have a sort of plan out what I’m going to read. And I’m a terrible completist, so once I’ve started at Graham Greene, I’ve got to read them all. I always need a project.