Interview: Simon Callow

A meeting of minds. JAMES SWANTON serves up the theatrical fruits of half an hour with the hallowed Callow.

acting actor acts of godfrey Cambridge Union charles dickens chekhov faust hero-worship hunchback of notre dame james swanton king lear play Shakespeare simon callow Theatre

I can’t believe my luck.

In a darkened room in the Cambridge Union, Simon Callow is regaling me with Shakespeare.

Callow being Shakespeare

I am private audience, first to Mark Antony’s funeral oration, then to Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be’. Callow is visibly moved by the latter. ‘Everything in our life is there. It’s existence or non-existence. Here we are for a very brief time upon the earth, this universe of emotions – and then it’s gone…’

In the just-premiered Acts of Godfrey, Callow plays God, and this isn’t so far removed from his place in theatre. Callow is our archbishop of acting, keeping it alive as religion in the twenty-first century. Now Callow is rhapsodising – in that low, rapturous, unmistakably fruity whisper – about Olivier:

‘If I could get Laurence Olivier back up on stage to give one of his great performances, then I’d pay a very, very large sum of money. Because there was nothing quite like that experience. It was like total war on the audience. You use military metaphors with Olivier. But Charles Laughton fits the later thoughts I’m having about acting. Laughton was a flamboyant figure, but he was always trying for simplicity. And, of course, we all know the total genius of The Hunchback of Notre Dame is how gentle and quiet the performance is. Underneath all that physical horror, it’s very simple – very, very simple…’

Callow as God

Simplicity isn’t something we necessarily associate with Callow’s acting. I’m more inclined to think of his performances as the dramatic equivalent of his waistcoats in Four Weddings and a Funeral. But following his sombre one-man production of A Christmas Carol, Callow may have changed for good:

‘This is all to do with my discovery some years ago of the secret of acting. I distilled it for myself in a phrase: acting is thinking the thoughts of another human being. The energy of thought is the thing that above all animates a theatre. When you connect utterly and completely with a thought, the audience falls very still, because they’re really, really listening.’

A Christmas Callow

‘It’s revolutionary for me because I was an actor who put great store on physical energy. I had such a lot of it. As a young actor, I had almost uncontrollably large amounts of it. I could hardly do enough, because I just wanted to fill every second on the stage with some fantastic invention, some use of my body, some transformation of myself. Which I think was a very good instinct for a young actor. But perhaps it’s only when you’re a little older that it’s possible to appreciate this sort of thing that I’m talking about. Or indeed to do it.’

Callow is currently preparing to take his one-man show Being Shakespeare to Broadway. He looks forward to a future of more classical work – ‘a Callow King Lear is something devoutly to be wished’ – but remains committed to a present steeped in and enriched by his heroes of the past. 2012 is an important year for Callow: the bicentennial of Charles Dickens. I ask Callow which Dickens novel he would recommend to newcomers:

‘I’m inclined to say The Pickwick Papers because it was the first book of Dickens’s that I read, and because it’s so exuberant and funny and generous and innocent. The intellectual thought police at the time didn’t admire it very much. It’s very ramshackle and all hurled together, but that of course is one of the things that makes it so postmodern now. It doesn’t care about unity of plot at all – it’s all over the place, like some mad cartoon…’

Callow has a new book out on Dickens this year, Charles Dickens and the Great Theatre of the World. He encourages me, ‘good boy’ that I am, to give it a subtle plug.

Callow’s zest for life and art – there is no meaningful separation – is truly inspiring. It has certainly been a guiding light in my own interests in acting and writing. Before I leave, I mention Love is Where it Falls, Callow’s account of his friendship with the play agent Peggy Ramsay. A glance at the book is sufficient to erase Callow’s undeserved ‘luvvie’ image. When I thank Callow for writing it, he becomes pensive once again.

‘There’s a phrase that I read recently, in a painting by Dürer: “we must live for the spirit; everything else belongs to death.” One must always go towards the inner richness of experience, and therefore the positive, and convert the negative, which is death, into life…’

Simon Callow will be discussing Dickens at the Arts Theatre this month. James Swanton will be playing The Hunchback of Notre Dame at the Corpus Playroom March 6th-10th.