Relive Simon Russell Beale's greatest theatre performances, film appearances, and more

Marianka Swain
Marianka Swain

In June, the revered actor Simon Russell Beale finally won his first Tony Award, for his dazzling lead performance in play The Lehman Trilogy.

In the meantime, this busy, multi-Olivier Award-winning actor is starring in an intriguing revival of an Ibsen play at the Bridge Theatre, John Gabriel Borkman. He plays the title character, a once-respected entrepreneur who was jailed after speculating with his investors’ money. Following his release, he is desperately plotting a comeback, but has family drama to contend with as well.

It’s certainly not the first time that Beale has led a much-anticipated production, and this show builds on his long relationship with director Nicholas Hytner - who formerly ran the National Theatre, and is now artistic director of the Bridge. And it’s the latest example of Beale’s bold, interesting choices, which include theatre, TV, film, radio and even ballet. Get to know the actor better with our definitive guide to his incredible career.

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Simon Russell Beale’s beginnings

Beale was born in 1961 in Malaya, where his father, Captain Peter Beale, served in the Army Medical Services, but he soon began his performance career back in the UK. A musically gifted child, he became a chorister at St Paul’s Cathedral aged eight and studied at the adjoining school.

Beale also made his Shakespearean debut while at primary school, playing Hippolyta in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. And, in a sign of things to come, he proved a natural with Tom Stoppard’s work as well, performing in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead while in the sixth form — a play he would star in at the National Theatre in 1996. Beale went on to read English at Cambridge and to study at Guildhall School of Music and Drama.

Simon Russell Beale on stage

Beale established himself as a promising classical actor in a series of productions with the Royal Shakespeare Company — including The Seagull, The Tempest, The Man of Mode, Troilus and Cressida, Ghosts, and Edward II.

He then became a regular at the National Theatre, winning his first Olivier Award for Ben Jonson’s Volpone in 1996. Numerous other successes followed, including Jumpers, Humble Boy, Candide, and Summerfolk. Beale proved a dab hand with riotous comedy, too, as seen in the likes of London Assurance, and with musicals: he won his second Olivier for Candide. Beale was also a glorious King Arthur in Spamalot on Broadway and in the West End.

But it’s his facility with Shakespeare that has elevated him to one of his generation’s greatest actors. He was a memorably emotive Hamlet, gave penetrating readings of Macbeth, King Lear and Prospero, and impressed as Malvolio in Twelfth Night. The latter was one of a pair of plays he did with Sam Mendes, then artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse. The other, Uncle Vanya, scored Beale his third Olivier Award.

Simon Russell Beale Bach & Sons - 750 - LT

Most recently, Beale played the great composer in Bach & Sons at the Bridge Theatre, and won a Tony Award for The Lehman Trilogy at the National Theatre (Beale was previously nominated for a Tony for Jumpers).

The Lehman Trilogy tells the extraordinary story of the immigrant Lehman brothers, their descendents, and their company’s spectacular rise and ruinous fall. Just three actors play all the parts: Beale was joined by Ben Miles and Adam Godley for the National and West End runs, with Adrian Lester succeeding Miles on Broadway. The show is back by popular demand, playing an encore West End run in 2023.

Simon Russell Beale on screen

Although Beale is primarily a theatre actor, he has had some significant roles on screen too. He won a BAFTA Award for Best Actor for playing Kenneth Widmerpool in the popular 1997 TV series A Dance to the Music of Time — an adaptation of Anthony Powell’s novel series.

Beale then played Winston Churchill in the 2004 drama Dunkirk and the Home Secretary in series Spooks, and drew on his Shakespearean experience for Falstaff in The Hollow Crown in 2012 - which earned him a second TV BAFTA. He also appeared in Penny Dreadful and Vanity Fair.

On the big screen, Beale made his film debut with the Tilda Swinton-starring Orlando in 1992. He had supporting roles in several other features, including The Deep Blue Sea, My Week with Marilyn, and the movie adaptation of Sondheim’s musical Into the Woods, in which he played the Baker’s Father.

The Death of Stalin - 750 - LT

In 2017, Beale starred as the menacing Lavrenti Beria in Armando Iannucci’s acclaimed black comedy The Death of Stalin, about the power struggle among the USSR’s political and military leaders in the wake of the dictator’s death. The whole cast, which included Steve Buscemi, Paddy Considine, Jason Isaacs, Rupert Friend, Michael Palin, Jeffrey Tambor and Andrea Riseborough, was highly praised, but Beale was singled out by the British Independent Film Awards, winning for Best Supporting Actor.

Beale is also a devotee of classical music, and has presented several programmes on the subject — including the BBC’s Sacred Music. This versatile performer has branched out into other mediums too, including playing George Smiley for Radio 4 and even appearing in the Royal Ballet’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. There truly is nothing that Beale can’t do.

Photo credit: Simon Russell Beale in The Lehman Trilogy, Bach & Sons, and The Death of Stalin (Photos by Craig Schwartz courtesy of Center Theatre Group, and courtesy of productions)

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