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“There’s something nice about playing old bags”

What’s it like to star twice in the same play – decades apart? Five actors* tell all to Lyn Gardner.  Guardian Arts, 26th January 2005

In 1980 Michael Pennington played the title role in ‘Hamlet’ for the RSC; in 1994 he played his uncle and stepfather Claudius in a West End production directed by Peter Hall with Stephen Dillane as Hamlet.

I’ve been in ‘Hamlet’ five times. It is a play that has attended me like a curse all of my life. It’s like having knobbly knees. I am not going to do it for a sixth time for love or money. I want to draw a line. The first time I played Hamlet I was a student at Cambridge and I was 20. the second time was for the RSC when I was in my 30s. I did 150 performances and yet on the last one I still felt bereft. I didn’t want to stop. I knew that was it, that I would never play Hamlet again. You know that you only get one shot at it in the professional theatre. It was as if something was behind me that had once been in front of me.

When I was offered Claudius, I was in my 50s and I said yes immediately because I knew that Claudius is a really playable part, not that it is always seen like that. In fact, the play only really makes sense if the actors playing Hamlet and Claudius are very well matched. It makes the play into a duel. The actor playing Hamlet gets the young audience’s vote but you know that if you play Claudius with some sympathy you can make a bid for the middle-aged, all those people sitting in the audience who have got troublesome stepchildren.

It is different for men. In your 50s, at a time when parts are getting thin for women, we men can look towards all those great Ibsen and Chekhov roles. It’s a great injustice, but that’s how it is.

· (In addition to Michael Pennington the actors interviewed for the article were Sheila Hancock, Sian Thomas, Gabrielle Drake and Isla Blair.)

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