Simon Russell Beale, whose Olivier award for Best Actor in a Musical crowned an extraordinary season at the National, is to play Hamlet there this August.

Now at the peak of his powers, Russell Beale's assault on this most challenging of roles at the age of 39 is bound to be one of the National's main attractions this year.

In the past six months, he has played three leading roles on the South Bank - Alfred Evelyn in Money, the dual role of Voltaire and Pangloss in Candide, and the Prince Regent in Battle Royal, not to mention a cameo role in Summerfolk as the vexed and crumpled doctor, Dudakov.

Quietly spoken and self-effacing in person, on stage Beale is capable of filling the cavernous Olivier Theatre both vocally and physically as though it were a studio space.

'I'd be lying if I said I didn't feel at home on stage,' he says. 'I'd be perfectly happy to have a whole career as a classical theatre actor. I need the meat of these great plays.'

Yet his outward confidence is often underpinned by uncertainty. He describes himself as 'high maintenance' in rehearsal - 'I need a lot of ideas thrown at me' - and he was extremely nervous about taking on the romantic lead in Money.

'It was quite odd for me because I've never played the romantic interest before. My looks usually determine the roles I play. We really didn't know what sort of creature we were dealing with when we started rehearsals. Alfred never uses one word where ten will do. I can feel awkward if I have to talk too much on stage.'

The actor cheerfully admits that he sometimes has to be talked in to playing parts he considers unsuitable.

'The big moments in my career have been when I have been cast in something I would never have thought of, such as Konstantin in The Seagull, and Ariel in The Tempest. If a director thinks I'm the right man for the job, I have to justify his faith.'

His ability to sustain a gruelling schedule of day-long rehearsals followed by three-hour performances, carrying shows like Candide and Battle Royal, has become the stuff of theatrical legend at the National.

'There is a pride in keeping going, but it takes its toll. Everything else in my life has to be done before 10.30 in the morning.'