Simon Callow: How the Bard saved my life

Celebrated stage actor Simon Callow tells Laura Davis about Shakespeare, his mother and coming out

IT WAS a “rather hairy Cockney lady” who introduced Simon Callow to Shakespeare. The five-year-old, who would go on to play some of the greatest roles in theatre, listened enraptured to the battles and bloody deaths as Macbeth played on her radio.

She was the headmaster’s mother at the school where Callow’s own mother worked as a secretary – his education thrown in as part of her salary.

“It seems stupid to say it changed my life but it did because it aroused my imagination in the most extraordinary way,” recalls the 60-year-old actor, whose many film and TV roles include Hugh Grant’s exuberant friend Gareth in Four Weddings and a Funeral.

“Of course I didn’t understand what was going on but all these images formed in my mind of battlements and men fighting hand to hand and of witches and blasted heaths and the walking dead. It was absolutely astonishing to me.”

As soon as he could, he would read aloud from his grandmother’s collected works, enjoying the music of the words and the stories they painted.

Since then, he says, he has been a “Shakespeare addict”, so it was inevitable that, after his one-man show about the life of Charles Dickens won critical acclaim, that he would turn his attention to the Bard.

The Man from Stratford, which tours to the Liverpool Playhouse next month, was written by biographer Jonathan Bate – “who knows more about Shakespeare than any one living human being”, says Callow.

Combining his scholarly research with the actor’s experience of the stage, the piece considers the world the Elizabethan playwright was living in – “and thus”, adds Callow, “his mind”.

The one-man show looks at his education, what it would have been like to grow up in 16th century Stratford-upon-Avon, why he married so young, what took him to London, what was it like to walk from Stratford to London and, as Callow puts it, “what happens when a boy from Warwickshire who has only met half a dozen sheep and the local police constable goes to a huge, noisy, polyglot city”.

Thousands of people over hundreds of years – academics, theatre professionals and school children among them – have tried to fathom the man behind such celebrated plays as Romeo and Juliet, Richard III and Hamlet.

Callow believes this is inevitable.

“Here’s this absolutely extraordinary body of work – these 37 plays, many of which are among the greatest pieces ever written in the whole of world literature, and of course you’re going to want to know who wrote them,” he says in his recognisable deep and dramatic voice.

“It’s a little bit frustrating that we don’t really have letters or diaries or personal memoirs so we have to rummage around a bit.”

It’s important to understand the circumstances surrounding Shakespeare’s work, adds Callow, because the period in which he lived had such an impact on it.

“If he hadn’t been alive at that time his work would have been absolutely different because it was precisely that the language was in such a state of flux that allowed him to write the way he did.

“He arrived at just the moment that the theatre began to be part of the life of the nation and he was able to supply the actors of the audience with these astonishing narratives and this remarkable new sense of character.”

Although Callow’s fascination with Shakespeare began at the age of five, it was not until he started a job in the National Theatre’s box office that he considered a career on the stage. He was 18 at the time and had been offered the position by none other than Laurence Olivier after writing to the actor-director in praise of his theatre.

However, Callow’s own family background suggested a career in entertainment was inevitable.

One great-grandfather was a clown in Copenhagen’s Tivoli Gardens before becoming a ringmaster and marrying Callow’s great-grandmother, a bareback horse rider.

His great grandfather on the other side taught the celebrated French actress Sarah Bernhardt the part of Hamlet. But these family tales did nothing to dull his mother’s reaction when he announced he was leaving Queens University in Belfast to become an actor.

“She said ‘I think it’s a catastrophic idea but there’s no point in telling you not to do it because you’ll only regret it for the rest of your life. Meanwhile I won’t pay a penny to support you.’,” he recalls,

“She kept to her word and I had a very tough time of it. And it wasn’t until I went to the National Theatre and played Mozart in Amadeus that she I think relaxed a bit and thought I maybe could make a living out of it.”

Callow’s mother, Yvonne, who brought him up alone, now suffers from Alzheimer’s, a subject on which he has written very moving accounts.

With biographies of Charles Laughton and Orson Welles among his achievements, his reputation as a writer is catching up with that as an actor.

It was in autobiography Being an Actor (1984) that he came out publicly as a gay man, although he had never, even as a teenager, attempted to hide his sexuality.

“I think it was a good thing and it gave courage to other people,” he says. “Ian McKellen has generously said it was one of the things that made him feel he could come out. I’m not a very political person and not a leader by any means – both of which Ian is – but I think I was John the Baptist to his Christ.”

Liverpool Daily Post, 21/5/10