As Simon Callow directs the 1970s play The Philanthropist, its writer, Christopher Hampton, looks back over decades spent working with the iconic British actor.
I must have met Simon in the 1970s with my agent, Peggy Ramsay; with actors it’s often difficult to pinpoint the actual first meeting, because of course one feels one’s familiar with them from watching their work. I suspect the first time I saw Simon onstage was in David Edgar’s play Mary Barnes at the Royal Court, a memorable exploration of new psychiatric practices.
My second play, Total Eclipse, about the relationship of the French poets Verlaine and Rimbaud, had played at the Royal Court in 1968—where it received a comprehensive critical drubbing and consequently played for three weeks to half-empty houses. It turned out, however, that Simon, still a teenager, had seen the play more than once and fallen for it in a big way; so, at the beginning of the ’80s, he hatched a plan with Peggy Ramsay to remount the play, directed by David Hare, and play the part of Verlaine. (I had a closer and more dependent relationship with her than is usual with one’s agent and spoke to her most days; Simon had rapidly become one of her closest friends and soulmates.) The production, impeccably mounted by David, arrived at the Lyric Hammersmith in 1981 and effected a full rehabilitation of the play, which, with the benefit of a distance from it of 13 years, I was able to refine and improve. Simon seized on the hopelessly vacillating figure of Verlaine with his usual ebullience and energy; but unexpectedly, the resulting performance found depths of despair and self-disgust that were profoundly moving. It was one of the best and most vivid character studies anyone has ever built up in one of my plays. His final monologue, sitting alone, recalling his long-dead lover, on Hayden Griffin’s beautifully evocative set, is one of the enduring images of my theatre-going lifetime.
I worked with Simon again on what I think was probably his second film (after Amadeus), The Good Father, based on a novel by Peter Prince, in which he played a sharp and cynical custody lawyer. By then we had become friends, the kind of friend with whom one shares so many common assumptions that—in the strange way of this profession—we could go years without meeting and then pick up the thread of conversation as if carrying on from the previous day.
What I didn’t suspect in those early years was Simon’s remarkable ability as a writer. Starting with what’s become a classic study of the implications and demands of his profession, Being an Actor, he moved on to a series of biographical studies—of Charles Laughton, of Dickens, of Wagner—scholarly, trenchant and vivid, culminating in an as yet unfinished masterpiece, a definitive biography of Orson Welles, of which the first three of four volumes have appeared. Among these was published my own favourite, his account of his passionate Platonic relationship with Peggy Ramsay, Love Is Where It Falls. If you’ve known a biographical subject very well, you’re in a perfect position to judge the accuracy of the account: and the Peggy Ramsay I knew lives and breathes, and is captured with uncanny precision in Simon’s pages. It’s an astonishing feat.
Read Simon Callow on Christopher Hampton here.
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