Kevin R McNally is currently making his professional Shakespeare debut as Claudius in Michael Grandage\'s production of Hamlet, which stars Jude Law as the Dane and rounds off the Donmar\'s year-long season at the Wyndham\'s theatre. McNally also starred last year in the season\'s inaugural production Ivanov, for which he was nominated for both an Olivier and a Whatsonstage.com Award. His other recent stage credits include Boeing Boeing, The Lady in the Van and Naked.


Being in Hamlet is a very nice book end for me having also been in Ivanov. It\'s a great honour to come back and finish this hugely successful season, which I feel has achieved everything it set out to do and more. And it\'s fascinating as well for those of us who have been involved with both productions because there are many similarities between the two plays and Chekhov was using Shakespeare as a source – there are several direct references to the Dane in Ivanov.

We have the most amazing cast and it didn\'t take long in rehearsals for any initial worries I had to disappear completely. I think one of the first things you have to do with Hamlet is to decide which Hamlet you\'re going to put on, and Michael Grandage was very meticulous in cutting the play so that it\'s accessible, exciting and the one that will most appeal to a modern audience. Michael has a great desire for clarity and so that\'s something we\'re really working. We want people to really \'get\' the play, perhaps in a way they never have before.

This is the first time since leaving drama school that I\'ve done Shakespeare, so I had some worries about my competence in that area and obviously a great person to talk about that was Kenneth Branagh. He was very useful in a rather relaxed way - we never got down to getting into a room and working on it. But I did manage to talk to him about the notion of how one goes about playing Shakespeare in a modern setting.

I’m not sure why I\'ve never done a professional Shakespeare - whether it was me avoiding Shakespeare or the other way round! In the late 70s, when I started to work in theatre, I became known for working on new plays, and in particular modern American plays. I guess that meant that when the Shakespeare roles came up I was never on peoples’ lists . Which I\'m sort of glad of, because to come to Chekhov and Shakespeare in my 50s has been a real thrill for me, it\'s like starting a whole new arm to my work. I hope I can bring to this, as I tried to with Ivanov, the things I learnt doing new plays.

In terms of my approach to the character, what I try to do is imagine I\'m in a play called Claudius, and the villain is Hamlet. That works for me, because it\'s very hard to think of anybody, even the worst in history, be it Hitler or Fred West, who went about thinking “I’m going to be really evil today”. I think they had some belief in what they were doing and I’m trying to take that approach with Claudius - the audience need to see there are arguments on all sides. In some respects Claudius has got a point in that Hamlet is a rather wistful and depressed student and that\'s not perhaps the best person to have running a country, as we know from Gordon Brown!

Jude has taken to the role like a duck to water, and it was wonderful to have someone of his charisma and ability coming so well-prepared into the rehearsal room. He also brings many years of film experience, which is a wonderful training ground for bringing honesty to the work; you can’t lie in a big cinema close-up, so you instantly find he\'s bringing a tremendously modern truth to what he\'s doing. And it\'s wonderful working with Penelope Wilton again - we worked together on a film called Cry Freedom many years ago, and on the stage in Andromaque, the opening production of Jonathan Millers’ tenure at the Old Vic in 1988. So it\'s great to come back to being lovers after 20 years!

Obviously people will draw comparisons with the recent RSC Hamlet, but I\'ve tried not to think about that. The only time I did was when I lost the Olivier award to Patrick Stewart and I went up to him and said “the kick in the right bollock is that you won that award, and the kick in the left is that you won it for a part I\'m about to play!” I think he quite enjoyed that.

- Kevin R McNally was speaking to Theo Bosanquet


Hamlet, which also stars Peter Eyre, Matt Ryan, Alex Waldmann, Ron Cook and Gugu Mbatha-Raw, continues at the Wyndham\'s until 22 August.