by Simon Callow
I'm six. My mother is the secretary of a school
deep in the Berkshire countryside. The
headmaster's mother, Mrs Birch, a hirsute,
full-breasted old Cockney whom I adore, and
on whose breath there is always the sickly
scent of sweet sherry, gathers me up onto her
hospitable lap and switches on the radio. Spooky
music. The announcer says, in his crisp cut-glass
accent, Mecbeth, A Play by William Shakespeare. It
was scary and very strange, this Mecbeth, and
thank God for Mrs Birch's ample bosom into which I
could sink for comfort. I realise now that this was
the first play I ever saw, and I use the word "saw"
advisedly. The images conjured up, of battlements
and blasted heaths, of witches and kings, of
murdered children and dead men walking,
compounded by the sound of wind and rain and
marching feet, haunted by the music of the words,
most of which I could barely understand, installed
themselves in my brain and have never left them.
A certain landscape, Shakespeare's landscape,
entered my consciousness, like a dream that is
more vivid than experience itself. Scholars talk of
the Shakespeare Moment, meaning the moment
in time, the crossroads—historical, linguistic,
theatrical—at which Shakespeare stood; but my
personal Shakespeare Moment was then, in that
cosy room in Goring-on-Thames, on that familiar
lap, enveloped by the scent of that sweet warm
breath. Ever after, I craved the poetry, the power,
the sense of history, of great conflicts, and of the
other world—the overwhelming atmosphere, in a
word—that this astonishing writer purveyed.
My family were not notable theatregoers, nor were
they even very great readers, but like most British
people of the time, they had a Complete Works of
Shakespeare on the bookshelf. This particular one
belonged to my maternal grandmother, another
ample-bosomed, sweet-breathed, spirited old
personage, and was a rather splendid affair, in three
volumes—Comedies, Tragedies and Histories—
edited by Dr Otto Dibelius of Berlin, and illustrated
with Victorian black and white engravings. As a no
doubt somewhat overwrought 12-year old I would
stretch out on the tiger-skin rug in the front room
with the precious volumes, reading aloud from
them, weeping passionately at the beauty and the
majesty of it all, though I had only the vaguest idea
of what it was that I was saying. Big emotions, big
beautiful phrases, big expansive characters—it was
a better world than any my daily life afforded me,
that was for sure.
Then school did its best to destroy my love of
Shakespeare by reducing him to a Set Subject.
Oddly, there were no school plays at my school,
although the elocution teacher worked with us on
some scenes from A Midsummer Night's Dream, and
I was cast as Bottom and began to get very serious
about it, when the whole thing was abandoned as
being too ambitious. Perhaps it was I who was too
ambitious, and the other kids got bored with my
incessant questions and requests to do the scene
just once more. Otherwise whenever I could swing
it, I took the leading parts in the ghastly droned,
fluffed, misinflected classroom readings of the
plays during English lit classes.
I had at last seen some of the plays. My paternal
grandmother had some personal connection with
the Box Office Manager of the Old Vic in its dying
days, in the early 1960s, and there I saw the good
honest productions of that time, and began to
realise something of the diversity of this author, the
different worlds—so very different from that of
Macbeth—that he had brought to life. And I began
to hear the language more and more precisely, not
as undifferentiated music but as a succession of
images and metaphors with a life of their own.
In 1963, Laurence Olivier arrived at the Vic, and
what had been black and white (more often grey,
in fact) was suddenly Technicolor. The company he
created were all high-definition performers, none
more so than himself. He prowled the stage like a
puma, orchestrating the language with the
trumpets and piccolos and high strings that
in his own voice, swooping down on particular
phrases and branding them indelibly into memory.
His fellow actors were not far behind him, Robert
Stephens, Maggie Smith, Albert Finney, the young
lions Jacobi, McKellen, Hopkins, Gambon. We lived
in a sort of Shakespearean paradise in those days.
And I consumed as much of it as I possibly could.
I cannot remember experiencing any great curiosity
about Shakespeare himself, however. The
conventional wisdom was that everything known
about him could be written in the back of a
cigarette packet, and I accepted this. At a certain
point, a friend of my grandmother's, a wise old bird
from Bavaria called Ilse Andter, gave me a bijou silk-
covered edition of the Sonnets. I was 18 and not
entirely sorted out sexually; maybe she thought I
might find some clues in its pages. I started reading
the Sonnets in sequence from the beginning, but
was daunted by verbal and narrative obscurities,
and by the lack of any thread one could follow.
There were some sensational sexual ambiguities
("O thou my lovely boy"—who was talking to
whom?), but they were tantalising rather than
titillating. From time to time, one would come
across a famous poem—"Shall I compare thee to a
summer's day?" or "Let me not to the marriage of
true minds admit impediment"—and these I cherry-
picked, rather as one might select the chocolates
with soft centres from one's box of Milk Tray; but it
never occurred to me that the Poems might tell me
anything about Shakespeare himself.
In due course I left school. Inspired by yet another
astounding performance at the Old Vic, I
impulsively wrote a letter to Laurence Olivier and
he wrote back by return of post offering me a job in
the Box Office, and from that vantage point I was
able sometimes to sneak into rehearsals; once, from
the shadows at the back of the stalls, I spied on him
working on his Shylock. Inevitably, I conceived a
desire to act. But the school I attended, fine though
it was, had a very un-English bias against
Shakespeare, preferring Ben Jonson, so when, five
years out of Drama School, I came to play the title
role in Titus Andronicus at the Bristol Old Vic, it was
as a Shakespeare virgin.
Some deflowering! But it was then and only then—
wrestling with this astonishing play during the
course of which the youthful author graduates from
bombast to some of his profoundest explorations of
grief and madness—that I became deeply interested
in the man who could have created it. I started to
conjure a Shakespeare for myself. I thought of him as a
quintessential actor, absorbing everything around him,
shifting shape, adapting face and voice to whoever he
was addressing, uniquely available to emotion. The deep
craving for stability, so central to the plays, explained the
apparently incongruous facts of his quest for a coat of
arms and his determination to buy the grand house of
New Place in Stratford.
It was As You Like It, as it happens, that took me back to
the National, on stage instead of in the Box Office, and it
was while I was playing Orlando that Michael Kustow,
head of Platform Performances, called me to say that
he'd just read a new re-ordering of the Sonnets by a
psychoanalyst called John Padel which suggested that
they were a record of a profound personal experience.
Would I like to be part of a group of actors who
performed them in the new order? I would, I said, and
then two minutes later I called him back and said, in the
full flush of my youthful megalomania, that surely if we
thought the poems were autobiographical, it should be
just one actor, and surely that one actor should be me?
We embarked on a series of programmes at the National
which climaxed one afternoon in a performance of all 154
poems in a sold-out Olivier Theatre in which Sir John
Gielgud rather prominently sat, scaring the life out of me.
I have often performed the Sonnets since, and it has
never been less than overwhelming; and I've played
Falstaff (twice), overwhelming in a quite different way.
For some years, now, I have been exploring Charles
Dickens, the man, and it has been a profoundly
exhilarating experience. Approaching Shakespeare the
man is quite as intense but in some ways more
ambitious: we know less, and the work is even greater.
Being Shakespeare is a voyage of discovery for me which
I have found deeply affecting, because he deals with
nothing less than all of human life.
This article is an extract from Simon's book My Life in Pieces.
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