When admirers laud the excellence of contemporary British acting, its versatility, technical accomplishment, and ability to switch tone and register as the situation demands, they might be describing John Simm. The wiry, fair-haired Yorkshireman is not quite a household name, yet his intense, compact features are immediately recognisable from a string of classy television dramas.
His performances in the BBC’s Life on Mars, a series that threatened merely to satirise the antique ways of the 1970s yet turned into an improbable metaphysical quest into the nature of personal identity, won him plaudits from every direction. In Paul Abbott’s State of Play, a political thriller that represented British television drama at its cynical best, he played the bedraggled journalist, weighed down by sodden ideals and a low salary, to perfection.
Yet there is more to Simm than small-screen bravura. As he approaches middle age (he is a youthful 41) he has latterly returned to his first love, theatre, after a 12-year absence. Those highly rated television shows were one thing; but he was evidently in search of greater stimulus. Two years ago, he took on the big one: Hamlet. Paul Miller’s production at Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre received mixed reviews, with Simm dividing critics: his interpretation was variously described as “troubled”, “ironic”, and “resigned”, which shows at the very least that he grasped the prince’s complexity of character.
But Simm’s appetite for the stage was whetted. Now, he is set to return to the same venue to take on Harold Pinter’s Betrayal. He confesses that his Shakespearean venture has injected a kind of fearlessness into his veins. “It was an amazing experience, of course. And I thought, if I can do that, everything else will be a doddle.”
Pinter was hardly reticent in presenting his actors with his own challenges. Betrayal is often described as his most accomplished work, documenting the sad arc of a failed extra-marital affair in reverse chronological order. Being swept back to the squalid police procedures of the 1970s was one thing; but as the adulterous Jerry in Pinter’s icy drama, Simm is required to portray nothing less than the back-to-front disintegration of a love affair: an altogether more complex form of time-travel.
“It is so rewarding,” says Simm, during a break in rehearsals at Jacksons Lane arts space in Highgate, north London. “I have always wanted to do it, and this was too good an opportunity to pass on. He is the first writer that young students get into – it’s edgy, and always seems young, no matter when you read him. Everything in Pinter is so loaded – the names of streets even. It is incredibly rich.”
Simm is tanned from a recent spell filming in South Africa for Sky’s TV series Mad Dogs, and talks in fluent, staccato bursts. I ask if he has had to tap into different acting techniques to handle the playwright’s idiosyncratic dialogue. “Well, Pinter is Pinter, there is a style of speaking it, and it has its own rhythm. Someone said it is like Mozart, there is this rhythm and beauty, but also a savagery.
“There is a way of saying things, you can’t play around with it, you have to respect those pauses and dot-dot-dots. But all the information is there, on the page. You don’t need anything else.”
Hadn’t Pinter himself once said that the famous pauses in his plays could be taken too seriously? “He was quite happy to let them go sometimes – he said if the characters didn’t believe in them, then they shouldn’t do them. But this is such a sparse play, it goes right down to bare bones, every single dot is relevant. So we are being careful about cutting the pauses.”
He says such is the play’s brilliant construction, that it would more than stand up if it were played in chronological order. “It would still be a brilliant play. But so sad and depressing.” I say that it is even sadder in its current format, which ends with the adrenalin-fuelled beginnings of the affair that we know to be doomed. He acknowledges the point. “There is that brilliant quote by Beckett on the last scene: ‘that last first look in the shadows’. It is heartbreaking.”
Simm will be acting opposite Colin Tierney in Betrayal, in whose arms he died at the end of his last stage appearance in Hamlet. “The last time I was here, it was, ‘the rest is silence … ’ and now here we are again. It is quite weird.” He says playing the prince was a “life-changing” experience, and I ask if his portrayal at the end of the run was very different from first night. “Totally. It morphed. The incredible aspect of that role is that you can change it from night to night.
“You can treat everyone differently: Polonius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, your mum, Ophelia. You can start all over again every time, depending on your mood. You can really play with it.” Listening to his evident passion for the relentless and malleable rhythms of the theatre, I wonder how and why he has spent so much time working in television. Was he sidetracked?
“I think so, yeah. I was classically trained [he studied at the Drama Centre, London] so theatre is what I was meant to do. But I got into television, and I had to teach myself screen acting. And then, by the time I did Life on Mars, I had already been doing it for about 15 years.” He sounds a little weary as he says this. “I became … not bored exactly … but I wasn’t being challenged in any way. It was like a job. And I decided I needed the kick up the arse that theatre gives you.”
But he has been fortunate, I say, to star in some of the best British television of the past decade or so: Clocking Off, Sex Traffic, Exile.
“I just love good writing. And I got to a point quite quickly when I could say no to things that weren’t right. I like to think that I picked pretty well when it came to scripts. I don’t think I could do anything with any integrity if I thought it was rubbish. If you think that Pinter himself did all those years in rep …
“But it is wonderful to mix things up. One week I am getting chased in the sun, and then I come here and do this. I understand why people do pantomime. Ian McKellen is a great example of that. He did Coronation Street.”
I ask if Hollywood has ever beckoned. “I have dipped my toe in the water,” he says neutrally, and makes it sound like the water was chilly. They remade two of his greatest triumphs, Life on Mars and State of Play. “They remake everything. But I haven’t seen those. If I play a role, I want to keep it mine. I don’t want to see Hamlet again for a while. I want to keep it in inside my head.” He must have been tempted to see the feature film of State of Play, with its superstar cast including Russell Crowe and Ben Affleck? “Not for a second. I haven’t looked at any of it. The TV series was so good. It was six hours long – and they tried to do it in two.”
An integral part of the John Simm career mash-up has been music. In the 1990s, he formed a band, Magic Alex, which supported Echo and the Bunnymen, and he once appeared on stage at the Wembley Arena, playing lead guitar, supporting Coldplay. “It is a massive part of my life,” he says, and describes those experiences as “surreal”.
“It should have been my career. But I took a turn.” Does he have unrealised ambitions in that regard? “I’m lucky, I have done everything I wanted to do.” Now, he says, he is happy to make his music at home. “I’ve been playing Beatles songs on ukelele. There is a great app. “Across the Universe” on ukelele – it’s quite something.”
He plans to take a career break when the run of Betrayal is over, finding it “painful to watch my two children growing up on Skype”. He seems to want to prise himself from the more manic rhythms of an actor’s life, but also acknowledges that they are “part of the job”. Even in this immersive profession, he says, there is a need for distance.
“At the Drama Centre [where Simm was schooled in Stanislavski techniques] I received a great piece of advice. There was someone clearing his locker on the last day, and he told me I should try what might work, but if it didn’t work it was important not to worry about it. And he said ‘good luck’ and left. And I have never forgotten that. There were people there having nervous breakdowns about such and such an exercise not working.
“But all it is, is a box of tricks.”
Peter Aspden is the FT’s arts writer
‘Betrayal’, by Harold Pinter, is at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, until June 9, www.sheffieldtheatres.co.uk, 0114 249 6000