Called to the Bard

Yorkshire Post
24 April 1986

Sheffield's Sean Bean never made the grade on the football pitch but he has now scored resoundingly on the stage. Michael Hickling reports.

If Sean Bean had got his way ten years ago, Bramall Lane would have been the stage on which he displayed his talents.

The scouts from Sheffield United came round to watch him play football for his local team but were unimpressed. The call to become a pro never came. Like hundreds of other hopefuls Sean gave up the idea of celebrity, shrugged his shoulders and followed the same trade as his father, a welder.

A diffident, easy-going lad, he was going nowhere in particular. The welding lasted for three years and then he drifted into a series of dead-end jobs, one lasting for no longer than a morning. Last week, as he celebrated his 27th birthday, he looked indistinguishable from lads of his age and background who have made the usual compromises with youthful ambitions and accepted humdrum reality: a casual sports top, a pair of jeans with a rolled-up copy of the Mirror in the back pocket, an engaging grin.

In fact he has got himself selected for another famous team, one which has a major advantage over Sheffield United. The Royal Shakespeare Company could not care less about meagre footballing abilities. Not only is he in the team, he is the star. For his first role he was given Romeo and this Thursday, just after RSC's production opened, his first film is being premiered. He plays the lead in that too.

All this would be enough to turn anyone's head. So many people at the moment want a piece of him - the interview was sandwiched between calls from television studios anxious to get him in front of the cameras. His head, however, remains unturned, his local accent unreconstructed. Unlike many actors who off-stage play the part of being an actor, Sean plays himself. In short, he is his own man.

One reason for his unusual route to theatrical success is that initially drama was simply not an option. "We only ever had one drama lesson at school. No one took it seriously. I seem to remember one or two chairs getting chucked about in the course of it."

He left school, Brook Comprehensive, with two "O" levels in Art and English. Working as an apprentice with his father required attendance at Rotherham Technical College on day release. Technical drawing was on the syllabus, but he preferred the other sort, reverting to cartoons of workmates when the opportunity offered.

"I wanted to be an artist, still do in a way. Welding required a lot of reading from technical drawings and it didn't suit me." His career then got rather bitty. He started some other classes at Rotherham Tech in art but found then uncongenial. He only stayed until break for one. Marks and Spencer gave him a job as a porter humping cheeses. He left that at the first lunchtime. His mother had to ring in and explain it was because he could not stand the smell. Trimming hedges in the council parks was another stop-gap.

Then he settled down to a full year of art classes and more importantly began taking an interest in the amateur stage. His parents, Brian and Rita, were happy that he had found something he liked. Neither had any stage background. "My father loves welding - he's in partnership with a friend - my mum is a housewife who has more than got her hands full fetching granddad's fish and chips and giving lifts to my sister and her baby."

The turning point in his career seems to have come with a production of "Cabaret" at Rotherham Civic Theatre. "It was then that I got excited and took it seriously. I really went for it." He applied to RADA and was accepted. "I thought everyone there would be from the Home Counties, but they were from everywhere."

Since leaving college he has worked fairly solidly, though not without the odd lapses that dog new young actors. Like the time he walked on with his flies undone and the scene in a restoration comedy which, half way through, he unilaterally declared to be over by saying, "Well, that's that then," and walked off the stage.

He remains matter of fact about doing Shakespeare and the sacredness of the text. "I'm sure if he was around today he'd be saying, you can cut that, it doesn't make sense any longer." Before the RSC took him on he had never even been to Stratford and is not a great theatre-goer even now. "I don't like having to sit in one place for so long and not be able to get up for a beer." At home in his London flat he likes to watch "EastEnders."

There is no doubting his commitment, however, to the current role. That day was matinee day, when he is on stage almost constantly for six hours or so. But he had come in early to do more work on the first scene. "It's still a bit hit-and-miss. You can never get it right on Press night - there's so much false tension. It'll take three to four weeks to mature. I love doing the part because you have to be so frank and giving."

It is perhaps the definitive show to introduce Shakespeare to those schoolchildren who packed the afternoon show. It is done in modern dress against a glitzy set with big motorbikes and fast sports cars whizzing across the stage. There is dancing and fighting choreographed like "West Side Story," and the whole production has enormous verve and style. Sean Bean, the welder's son, and Niamh Cusack, the daughter of one of the most famous dynasties of the English stage, are the best pair of star-crossed lovers I have ever seen.

The new film looks like being more controversial. It is directed by Derek Jarman, whose two previous works "Sebastiane" and "Jubilee" profoundly upset Mrs. Whitehouse when they were shown on Channel 4 television a few months ago. Sexuality of a fairly explicit sort might be expected again because this one is about Caravaggio.

Caravaggio killed a man, possibly his lover, in a duel in Italy in 1606 and spent the rest of his life escaping from authority in Naples, Sicily and elsewhere. This would be quite enough for most people but Caravaggio also found time to paint some of the masterpieces of the Renaissance. Even on his canvas he courted trouble, using pimps and roughnecks as the models for paintings with a devotional theme. One, in which the Virgin Mary was modelled by a celebrated prostitute, caused a sensation.

"I haven't seen the film yet," said Sean. "But when Derek Jarman got the cast together at the beginning, the first thing he said was that it wasn't going to be a gay film. So far as I could see he didn't try to bring a homosexual element into it.

"I enjoyed doing it very much. In films you are more physical. I like not having to say much. I was told to use my normal Sheffield accent. I expect we'll get slagged off for that, because the director wanted it basic and down to earth. I play someone called Renuncio, a fellow Caravaggio used to knock about with, who finally slits his throat. It's insinuated that there's a triangular relationship between the two men and Renuncio's girlfriend.

"There's one scene that's quite provocative."

His parents have been down from Sheffield to see "Romeo and Juliet" and pronounced themselves well pleased. They were not coming down again for his birthday. Sean's girlfriend currently starring as the chippy's girlfriend in ITV's "Auf Wiedersehen Pet," had gone back to London, so he was expecting a quiet celebration.

"I don't make a big stir socially. I like being at home doing my painting. You're too tired after a day like this to do much and I'll probably just go for a quiet drink." A modest bloke, happy to play down the fact that his life at the moment is a bit special.

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