|THEATRE CRITICS don’t get out much, or rather they get out all the time but only to the theatre. They become suspicious when aliens from the Planet Television or the Star System Hollywood are beamed between their proscenium arches. Expect, then, resistance when Sean Bean, ITV’s sometime Captain Sharpe, plays Macbeth in the West End next month. “What bloody man is that?”, they will ask. “Has Bean’s vaulting ambition not o’er leapt itself?” they will go on — for the text of Macbeth is of great assistance when it comes to introductory paragraphs.
It is, however, a leap for Bean. He is a tremendous screen presence and is classically trained but he has not trod a board for 13 years. And if it goes wrong he will have only himself to blame, for this is not a piece of opportunist star-casting but his own vanity project. It was he who two years ago phoned his agent from America, where he was filming the Michael Douglas thriller Don’t Say a Word, and announced that he had just reread the play and felt it was time he played the Thane.
And her response was? “She said, ‘You’re potty. Why do you want to put yourself through that?’ ” Two years later, this Macbeth is as luxuriously upholstered a vehicle as he could have wished. It is directed by Edward Hall, late of the RSC, and co-stars, as Lady M, Samantha Bond (Miss Moneypenny to his Double Agent 006 in Goldeneye), Julian Glover as King Duncan and three foxy witches. It is either going to be a smash or the reviewers are going to recall Peter O’Toole’s performance in the same part 20 years ago, which they called “heroically ludicrous”, “a milestone in the history of coarse acting” and “deranged”.
Whatever the critical response, Bean, like O’Toole, will survive it. His fan base, as witnessed by the million hits on just one unofficial website, is too firmly established. For children and teenagers, he is now Boromir from The Lord of the Rings and has been immortalised in a die-cast action figure. Their mothers have been watching him for rather longer, and as they have watched, so they have lusted — after the rake Lovelace in the BBC’s Clarissa, the randy gamekeeper in Ken Russell’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover and then as Captain Sharpe, the Iron Duke’s favourite maverick. Another constituency comprises Hollywood casting directors, who favour him when they need a British villain or, as in Harrison Ford’s Patriot Games, an Irish one (he even briefly changed his professional name to “Shaun Behan”).
In my own circle, expectations for our meeting are high. Women friends volunteer to “hold my notebook”; children require his signature. I’m the only one with reservations. Off-screen Bean, from all I have read, sounds like a boozy, sexist, Yorkshire soccer bore. His temper once landed him in court for causing actual bodily harm and at the age of 30, when he should have known better, he tattooed his left arm with the legend “100% Blade” for Sheffield United. He was once quoted, out of context he claims, as saying “a woman’s place is in the home”.
Expectations are there to be confounded, however, and when Bean turns up at Artigiano, a restaurant near his home in Belsize Park, North London, he could not be sweeter. He is a big, pale, ginger-blond man with a jaw so jutting and bristly it could sand wood. He is dressed in jeans and a grey jersey pulled over a black jersey, a combo that a wife, if he currently had one, would surely have vetoed. The only signs of sexism are when he refers to his agent as “a girl called Jane Brand” and when, after some agent provocateur-ism from me, he uses the adjective “lavender” in connection with effete actors.
He spends much of the morning laughing quietly to himself, as if, at 43, to him the world remains both amusing and bemusing. His favourite line from Sharpe turns out to be mine too: in a gratuitous plot twist in one episode, Liz Hurley has to bare her breasts before him in public, and Sharpe deadpans: “My compliments, ma’am.”
We are both sexist enough to enjoy that.
He was brought up on a tough Sheffield council estate, took boxing classes, became leader of a fairly harmless gang called The Union and left school with just the two O levels, art and English.
“I had a good time at school, but afterwards I thought, ‘Well, I didn’t really learn anything’ and then I used to go down to Chapel Walk in Sheffield. It’s a lovely little street with bookstores and I just bought plays and literature and read up on Homer and the Greeks. I suppose I just spent a couple of years just reading and became fascinated by this whole world.”
By this time incompetence had cost him his job as council handyman and he had been given an apprenticeship at his father’s welding firm. As part of his training he attended courses at Rotherham College of Arts and Technology but he was waylaid first by its fine art classes and then its drama department, where he found his métier. One of the first plays to fascinate him was Macbeth, and he saw Judi Dench and Ian McKellen perform it in nearby Wath upon Dearne.
In 1981 he won a scholarship to RADA. “Sheffield was a much more industrial-based community back then, steel and coal and stuff, so it was a bit of an odd thing to do. I don’t think it’s looked upon like that any more. I mean that with acting, or any of the arts, people don’t think you’re a cissy any more.”
At college his contemporaries were Ken Branagh, Janet McTeer, John Sessions and Joely Richardson. Back home his fiancée was a hairdresser called Debra Anderson. He visited when he could.
“I suppose I was still trying to keep hold of my Sheffield life. Coming from a warm and friendly and quite close community to this madness living in the YMCA above Tottenham Court Road, it was touch and go for six months. I thought, ‘Christ, this is hard, this’, but I persevered and found that, once I’d begun to find myself and be myself rather than try and fit in and be somebody else, I was really enjoying it and I excelled in what I was doing.”
He graduated in April 1983 and was immediately cast as Tybalt in a provincial production of Romeo and Juliet. Three years later he was Romeo at the RSC. His TV career was also under way, thanks to a Channel 4 movie, Winter Flight. In the cinema he had taken the unlikely role of a bisexual model in Derek Jarman’s Caravaggio (so much for homophobia) and in 1988 he made his first Hollywood film, Stormy Monday, with Melanie Griffith.
The work has never stopped and it has taken him all over the world, not just to Hollywood but for long months to the Ukraine and Turkey for Sharpe and for an entire year to New Zealand for Lord of the Rings.
Did he never say, for his family’s sake, “No, I want to stay at home”? “No, not unless I thought it was important to be at home. I do think it is important to be at home, but I also think it’s important to pursue a career and to maintain a lifestyle.”
Bean has never talked publicly about his domestic life, but it has not matched his professional success. Debra and he divorced soon after they married and he fell in love with a fellow student, Melanie Hill, later to become well known as Aveline in the BBC’s Liverpudlian sitcom Bread.
After eight years together, they were watching a TV programme about marriage when he proposed to her with the immortal words “fancy a bit of that, then?”. Their “honeymoon” was in York, the day the Blades had a match there.
“Serendipity,” he claims.
In April 1996, however, four years after the birth of their second daughter, it was announced that they were separating. A“friend” of Melanie’s told the News of the World that Bean was a selfish, untidy husband who put football first.
By the autumn he was back filming Sharpe and sharing a bed with Abigail Cruttenden, who played Jane Gibbons, the abused niece of one of Sharpe’s dastardly enemies. They married in 1997 and soon had a daughter. Within a year of her birth, however, this marriage too was over.
I ask if there is a personal cost in a pursuing a career as relentlessly as he has. “Yeah, there is. That’s the way it is, but I personally think it balances itself out because I might be away for three or four months but I’m often back home then for a couple of months where I might see my children and family much more than anybody in a normal nine-to-five job.”
So they are not shouting at him that they never see him and that he is a terrible dad? “No. I think it’s easier because my oldest daughter’s mum’s an actress and my younger daughter’s mum’s an actress and I’m an actor, so they’ve always been accustomed to the moving around and the way an actor’s life works.”
Lorna, 15, and Molly, 11, were actually bridesmaids at his wedding to Abigail. So they must be close to him? “I’ve had a few ups and downs but I suppose, at the end of the day, things work themselves out and I’ve got three kids who are happy.”
Is he on good terms with the wives? “Pretty good.”
Is he content living alone? “Yeah, I mean especially like this last few weeks of rehearsals, probably if anybody had been with me I’d have been a bit of a pain in the arse to live with. It’s just been all day every day in Hendon, come back at night, learn some lines, have something to eat, go to bed. In that sense it’s quite fitting to be alone.”
It is hard to tell whether he is enjoying his freedom or enduring it. He seems reluctant, generally, to pass negative judgments. In her book (Sean Bean: The Biography, Piatkus, £10.99), his diligent unofficial hagiographer, Laura Jackson, finds it equally hard to find a colleague who will criticise him. Yet by default an impression builds up of a man who may be fuming inside.
His tutor at RADA, Euan Smith, said: “He could be argumentative, not with me but with other students. I saw flashes of it. Sean was quite restless at that time and he’s not good with untapped energy, so there was an edginess to him.”
It was at RADA that he received the £50 fine for ABH, after gatecrashing a party and getting into a fight. Roy Battersby, who directed him as a hard man in Winter Flight, spoke of how Bean “viscerally” appreciated “class rage”: “He understands what it is to be dangerous.”
He can be dangerous. In 1991 his director on Clarissa told him to slap Saskia Wickham — with her permission — for real in the rape scene. “When Sean clattered me round the face I burst into tears! It was really sore, but it was also the complete shock of it,” she later said. The next day he brought her a gift of a glass box etched with flowers.
More recently, in 1999, filming a TV thriller called, appropriately, Extremely Dangerous, he came close to injuring an actor he had to throw against a cabinet door. His co-star, Nitin Ganatra, said: “Sean got into the part so much that his energy was astonishing and the real glass in the door shattered and showered all over the poor guy. The split second that happened, Sean snapped out and he was so concerned for the kid.”
Bean agrees he was initially shaken. “But it looked good and when we all calmed down I said, ‘Do you think we might be able to use that?’” Does he, I ask, ever lose himself in anger? “I do. Well, I like to when I’m on stage. It’s great. You think, ‘F*** it. I can get really angry here and it might be really good and everybody likes it. I can be really f***ing angry with somebody.’ It’s great, a great release valve, and you find you don’t get as angry in life.”
What is remarkable, however, is that even when the thugs he plays lose control, they retain a vestige of our sympathy. His secret seems to be that he does not, like his critics, divide his work between romantic leads, villains and action heroes. “No,” he says, “I try to combine their qualities.”
When he talks about Macbeth, then, he emphasises not his tyranny but his “wild imagination”, energy and even morality. He is describing a Macbeth I have never considered before. “I don’t think he’s a particularly evil man. His deeds are evil and what he does is evil, but he’s a man of conscience and of great courage and resolve. If there’s one thing you have to admire, it’s his courage and his ability to pull himself up from the depths and carry on.”
It sounds as if he likes him. “Well, yeah. I admire a lot of his qualities.”
Impatient to find out how this interpretation works out in practice, at the weekend I visit the production’s out-of-town try-out. In his number-two haircut and bouncer’s leather coat, he is a very Sheffield Macbeth. When he calls Lady Macbeth “chuck” (“Be innocent of the knowledge, dearest chuck”), it sounds like local dialect. But I hope I am not pre-empting the critics when I say — and at least the management can’t quote this in an ad — that Bean is no Peter O’Toole.
Macbeth continues in Milton Keynes this week, before moving on Monday to the Richmond Theatre, Surrey. It opens at the Albery in London on November 7.
by Andrew Billen
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