Simon Callow gave an excellent Masterclass at Theatre Royal Haymarket yesterday. Currently starring as Shakespeare (no less) in the one-man show he’s devised with Jonathan Bate, The Man From Stratford (“I intend to perform this for a very long time,” he noted), the gracious and erudite actor didn’t attempt a potted career overview; instead he focused his opening talk upon how he came to acting through a love of story-telling generally and Shakespeare’s plays specifically. Callow spoke with passion about his discovery of and immersion in the Bard’s work (from his encounter with a radio version of Macbeth at age six to his witnessing of Olivier’s interpretations in the 1960s and his own performance of all of the sonnets, from memory, at the National Theatre in the 1970s), and was convincing (should anyone still need convincing) in his argument that Shakespeare still gives “the best account of what it is to be a human being” available in literature. Opening up to questions, Callow was asked about his most challenging stage roles, about playing Pozzo alongside Ian McKellan, Patrick Stewart and Ronald Pickup in Godot last year, about industry changes since he first started out, and about his foray into film directing with The Ballad of the Sad Café (1991), on which he battled an uncooperative Rod Steiger and an even more uncooperative DP.
Callow responded to the questions in detail and with great insight and humour. I was particularly interested in his criticisms of naturalism in theatre performance, his contention that stage acting often needs to be grander, more poetic and daring, and his identification of actors who continue to scale those dizzy heights, Mark Rylance and Vanessa Redgrave being two examples. (“The theatre doesn’t just hold a mirror up to life; its more like a painting, an expressionist painting …”). Callow also offered a brilliant impersonation of Milos Forman (explaining why he wouldn’t be cast as Mozart in the film of Amadeus). But the afternoon’s most hilarious moment came when he was asked about his attitude to critics. “I am aware that there are people out there who don’t like my acting,” Callow acknowledged, before adding, with pitch-perfect timing that brought the house down: “And I feel sorry for them.”