Crass, outrageous and politically incorrect: Simon Callow on reviving Juvenalia

Simon Callow in Juvenalia at St. James Theatre

Simon Callow in Juvenalia at St. James Theatre - Credit: Archant

Taking aim at a world in which immigration, women’s rights and right-wing extremism are the hot topics of the day, Simon Callow’s latest show may sound as cutting edge as it gets.

Presciently though, the lyrical, vitriolic and strangely moving Juvenalia was first performed by the renowned actor back in the 70s, with its content actually written roughly two millennia ago.

Despite being a prominent poet of the Roman Empire, little is known about Juvenal other than what is revealed through the biting verses of the Satires – a collection of 16 poems described by Callow as “savagery”.

There seems to be, he continues, no one in the world who escapes Juvenal’s bitter tongue: for some this proves highly entertaining, for others it has led to accusations of homophobia, racism and misogyny.

“Well it is misogynistic, they’re absolutely right,” explains the Islington resident of the reviewers who have found Juvenalia – an on-stage retelling of the Satires – an uncomfortable evening.


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“You have to think in terms of someone like Alf Garnett – I’m showing them the anatomy of a right-wing misogynist. You may say you don’t want to hear that stuff; I’m saying that stuff exists. He’s a very angry, middle class white man who feels that his world is being upturned and we can see political parties now which are very much founded on people with those kinds of grievances.”

Decades before his work in films such as A Room With A View, Four Weddings And A Funeral and Shakespeare In Love, Callow received the script for Juvenalia, which had been transformed into a show by fellow actor Richard Quick.

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He immediately fell in love with Juvenal’s mastery of language, which – alongside lambasts on “phony politicians, flashy oligarchs, gay marriage” – also contained poignant reflections on what it means to be human. He went on to debut the one-man show in 1976.

Father

Forty years later however, the 65-year-old is aware that times have moved on.

“It’s a very different show now: partly because I’ve changed, partly because the world’s changed. We now live in a time where multiculturalism is incredibly well established and that’s why some people get very anxious and tense about losing their sense of identity.

“But equally I’ve changed and am now the age more or less that Juvenal was when he wrote this. There’s a long and famously bitter meditation on the awfulness of age – of course I understand that extremely well now!”

But how can Callow, who was notably one of the first mainstream actors to formally ‘come out’ as gay, relate to such a monster?

“He’s my father. I mean that’s how my father was. My father lived in Africa for a time and he was a racist. He was just furious about how the world was changing and hated every moment of it.

“So it’s a portrait through life as far as I’m concerned. I found it upsetting that my father had these horrible views; it was very hard to deal with, so in a sense I’m kind of dealing with it now.”

Currently speaking from Edinburgh, where he is performing the show, the Fringe has certainly had a lot to deal with. After seeing off the tail end of the Commonwealth Games, the death of Robin Williams has understandably resonated around the comedy festival. Callow says: “It’s just a very sobering reminder that comedy does often come out of extreme pain and distress and confusion and heartbreak – it’s a bit of a cliché but I’m afraid it’s often true.”

He ruminates on this for a moment, alongside the looming issue of the Scottish referendum. His own views are that although he isn’t Scottish, he feels a great tie to the country and would be sad to lose connection with the land that launched his career all those years ago – although he expects all within the acting profession to vote yes, because they’re “a load of lefties”.

“All actors are needy – I don’t think they’d be actors if they weren’t. You aren’t complete unless you’ve stood in front of an audience and affected them in one way or another, whether it’s to laughter or to tears, whether it’s to frighten them or stir them differently, you want to make an impact on other people.

“I wouldn’t want to go as far as to say all actors are neurotics, though Betty Davis famously said, ‘You don’t have to be neurotic to be an actor, but no one who ever liked themselves became an actor.’”

Simon Callow performs Juvenalia at London’s St. James Theatre from Tuesday April 26 to Saturday August 30. Visit stjamestheatre.co.uk

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