Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Q & A: Simon Callow

From Martin Morrow at CBC News:

"When you sit down to interview Simon Callow, you are confronted by two men. One is Simon Callow, the distinguished British stage actor, currently performing a one-man tour de force called There Reigns Love at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ont. The other is Simon Callow, the author, whose non-fiction books include a major — and perhaps definitive — three-volume biography of Orson Welles. To these two, add several subspecies of Callow, including the film actor (A Room with a View, Shakespeare in Love), the theatre director (Shirley Valentine, The Pajama Game) and the book critic for the London Guardian. Callow seems to have taken Shakespeare’s claim that 'one man in his time plays many parts' as his personal credo.

"It’s Shakespeare that has brought Callow to Canada this summer, where he’s making his Stratford debut with There Reigns Love. The production itself is a premiere, created for the festival by the 59-year-old actor and woven out of Shakespeare’s sonnets, some 82 of which Callow recites in the course of his performance. Not merely a mnemonic feat, the show also offers a possible key to Shakespeare’s most enigmatic body of work. Callow strings the sonnets together with a narrative based on their interpretation by the late British psychoanalyst and literary scholar John Padel. In his playfully titled 1981 book New Poems by Shakespeare, Padel puts the 154 sonnets in a new order and theorizes that they recorded Shakespeare’s unrequited infatuation with a young aristocrat, William Herbert, the third Earl of Pembroke – the 'W.H.' to whom the poems are dedicated. Padel also posits that the mysterious 'Dark Lady' who appears in the sonnets was Shakespeare’s mistress and acted as an intermediary between the poet and Herbert.

"Chilling in a white T-shirt and black jeans in a lounge at Stratford’s Festival Theatre, Callow poured some of his surfeit energy into an eloquent discussion of the sonnets and Padel’s theory. But inevitably, our conversation also strayed to the Welles bio and the protean Callow’s other recent pursuits – including his Satanic leading role in Chemical Wedding, a bizarre occult horror film penned by Iron Maiden singer Bruce Dickinson.

Q: There is a real sense of discovery in There Reigns Love — not only in your presentation of Padel’s theory of why Shakespeare wrote the sonnets, but also in hearing so many of the poems recited. Even people who know their Shakespeare quite well are often unfamiliar with the bulk of them.

A: Yes, I was astonished. In the show we have what we call 'the groundlings,' people who sit on the stage on cushions, and I talk to them afterwards. I said, 'How well do you know the sonnets?' And most of them said, 'Not at all.' They know 'Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day…' and 'Let me not to the marriage of true minds…' but that is sort of it. And there are great, towering pieces of poetry there – especially the poems against time. They’re absolutely overwhelming in their scope and verbal magnificence.

Q: During the performance, you explain that Padel’s theory is just one way of viewing the sonnets. What is your personal opinion of his interpretation?

A: His way of ordering the sonnets I am entirely in accord with. The historical superstructure that he constructs around them is very speculative, however. It’s based on very well-informed guesses. To me, the whole fascination of this exercise is not so much that it tells us something about William Shakespeare, it’s that it releases a narrative of compelling authenticity – a story about the human heart. The psychological sequence of emotions that the poet experiences tells an extremely recognizable and true story to me, as it has never been told before. I don’t think there exists a better account of that kind of abject infatuation and the agony of acknowledging that the relationship is one-sided and doomed. The feelings of self-rejection, loathing, hatred, are just horribly, vividly conveyed.

That’s the wonder of the evening to me. The autobiographical Shakespearean dimension is sort of neither here nor there, except for one important thing: I find it perfectly credible that Shakespeare was that kind of a man, that Shakespeare was indeed someone who, once an emotion had started in him, had to let it run to the bitter end. This is what we find in the plays, in characters like Othello, Hamlet, Lear and Macbeth. That’s the kind of man Shakespeare was, in my view.

Read the entire interview.

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