Unlocking Shakespeare (Summer 2005)

Unlocking Shakespeare

by Jonathan Croall (StageWrite, summer 2005)

"Matthew Macladyen talks to Jonathan Croall about the challenge of playing Prince Hal in Henry IV"

Despite his recent successes in film and television, Matthew Macfadyen's heart clearly belongs to the theatre. 'It's five years now since l've done a play, and I feel so happy to be back,' he says. 'Theatre is what I started off doing, it's live, and I love it. Of course there is repetition and often tedium, but when it works well, it's really worth it.'

We're talking in the early days of rehearsals for the two parts of Henry IV, the opening production in the third Travelex £10 season in the Olivier, in which director Nicholas Hytner has cast him as Prince Hal. It's only his second appearance at the National; his first, back in 1999, was as Mr Brougham in Nick Stafford's Battle Royal.

Since then there's been an impressive variety of leading roles in major television dramas, including Stephen Poliakoff's Perfect Strangers, the adaptation of Trollope's The Way We Live Now, and most recently Spooks. His film career also looks set to take wing: he's soon to be seen as Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, the first actor to play the part on the big screen since Laurence Olivier in 1940.

Theatre seems to have been in the family genes: his grandfather directed plays as an amateur, his mother trained as an actress and drama teacher. At Oakham School in Leicestershire he soon got hooked on acting. 'The theatre studies department was fantastic. I did about 18 plays: we toured to Edinburgh, we even went once to Texas. It was probably to the detriment of my GCSEs, but it was brilliant.'

While at school he went through the motions of applying to university, while secretly applying to drama schools. He went straight to RADA at seventeen. 'I think it was the right decision. If l'd gone to university I would just have done a few plays, drunk beer, and got a terrible degree.' From RADA he joined Declan Donnellan's company Cheek by Jowl, and spent his first three years doing nothing but theatre.

Tall, sporting a light beard ('It's not for the part, it's just laziness'), and engagingly modest, he's fascinated by the role of Prince Hal, but admits he's still feeling his way into the part. 'Hal doesn't want to grow up, but he has this terrible responsibility hanging over his head. His father-son relationships, with both the king and Falstaff, are very simple, but also very complicated. In these early days I'm still swimming about a bit. A lot of the play feels very dense - but then Nick Hytner helps you suddenly to unlock it, and it just flies.'

He's by no means a newcomer to Shakespeare, having played Demetrius in Adrian Noble's RSC production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, and more recently Benedick in the Cheek by Jowl version of Much Ado about Nothing. But Prince Hal is a challenge of a different order. 'Benedick is mostly prose, and Demetrius more slapstick than poetry. Hal on the other hand has great swathes of verse, and that's quite daunting. I swing between being utterly thrilled and just terrified.'

He speaks warmly of the two parts of Henry IV, which are often under-rated in the Shakespeare canon. 'They're really good plays, much better than I thought they were, and they stand alone from each other. One of the misconceptions is that Part 2 is a sequel, but actually they're dramatically different in tone. Part 1 is full of joie de vivre, whereas Part 2, when Hal becomes Henry V and banishes Falstaff and all his frippery, is very sad.'

Falstaff is played by Michael Gambon, something of a boyhood hero for him; they worked together on Perfect Strangers. 'It's glorious watching him and rehearsing with him. He's very funny and very generous, and a fascinating mixture: he has elements of the clown but also of the statesman; it's all in there. I think he'll be a wonderful Falstaff.'


"Henry IV previews in the Olivier from 16 April (Part 1) and 26 April (Part 2). With the Rogue's Company, Henry IV at the National, a book about the production written by Bella Merlin, will be published in association with Oberon Books in May, as part of 'The National Theatre at Work' series. For details of background packs for the production see page 25."