How do you feel about coming back to the RSC?
It feels very familiar. Theatre is what I\'ve done more of than anything else. Admittedly I\'ve been on sabbatical to \'television-land\' for the past few years which I\'ve probably ended up better known for. But this feels like the day job. It\'s what I do. So it\'s great to be back and working with Greg. It\'s an incredibly friendly company which is a great relief. Most of the company have already done A Midsummer Night\'s Dream so they would have been perfectly within their rights to be a little bit sniffy about a new boy coming in to do the next show, but they\'ve been very welcoming and enthusiastic. There\'s a great feeling about the company and a real sense of something new and exciting about the RSC at the moment.
It\'s different but the same (from when I performed here before). The principle that we\'re out to achieve hasn\'t changed, but there\'s a new sense of ensemble which is very exciting to be part of. There\'s an enthusiasm from everyone and a willingness to muck in, and the different disciplines and departments seem to be more integrated than I remember last time I was here. There\'s definitely a sense of a company that\'s got an idea of what it is and what it\'s for, and how it can best achieve that, and it\'s very exciting to be part of that.
Do you have any significant memories of your previous time working with the RSC?
This is the third season I\'ve done and I\'ve always had fantastic experiences here. I\'ve got some fond memories of the six plays I\'ve done before and I made some great friends. Being part of the Royal Shakespeare Company is something I\'ve always been proud to associate myself with and to be publicly aligned to.
Are Hamlet & Berowne two roles you particularly wanted to play?
Yes, they are two of the greatest roles around. Hamlet is often regarded as the acme of acting to test yourself against, which isn\'t a particularly helpful thought to be honest. Of course, it is very flattering to be asked to do that role because of everything that is attached to it. But once you get into rehearsal, you have to relinquish thoughts like that and just try and tell the story. It\'s still just a play and you can\'t start approaching it in a different way than you would approach any other role.
What does Shakespeare mean to you, particularly performing his work here in Stratford-upon-Avon?
Of course you\'re aware that if you do these plays here in Stratford you\'re instantly joining a line that goes through some extraordinary individuals, actors and directors, and it\'s very exciting and humbling and terrifying and thrilling to be part of that line. Obviously there\'s something about Stratford – because it\'s Shakespeare\'s home town and because of everything that\'s been invested here in terms of theatrical history that makes it a very special place to work in.
What’s the attraction of playing the dual roles of Claudius & the Ghost in Hamlet?
I\'ve wanted to play Claudius on stage for years and years. I\'ve pitched myself to other directors but never had any success in getting myself cast but Greg, I\'m delighted to say, was happy to take me onboard this production and I\'m enjoying it immensely … In my first season at Stratford in 1966, the third role I performed was the Player King in Peter Hall and David Warner\'s Hamlet and in that production Brewster Mason doubled as the Ghost and Claudius and it made absolute sense to me. Over the years, the more I\'ve thought about it, the more it\'s seemed like the natural thing to do. They\'re not twins but they\'re brothers and there ought to be similarities, even though Hamlet makes a lot of fuss about how different they are. I have two brothers and we were very similar - our gestures, our inflections, the way we spoke and so forth - unmistakably brothers. I think it\'s invaluable when the doubling is possible. It doesn\'t create too many problems. It\'s ideal to have a similarity while at the same time exploring the contrasts.
What other memories do you have of performing in Peter Hall\'s Hamlet in 1966?
The Peter Hall Hamlet was in its second revival. It had opened in Stratford and transferred to London where I saw it and was overwhelmed by it … I took over the role of the Player King opposite John Normington as the Player Queen … I enjoyed being on stage with David Warner who was my hero. I was only 25, and I think that David was a year younger. In every way his Hamlet spoke to me … For me there will be a part of (David Warner) that will be forever Hamlet … Looking back I feel really proud to be even modestly connected to that production.
What does Shakespeare mean to you? Is there something special about performing it in Stratford-upon-Avon with the RSC?
I have loved Shakespeare all my life … When I became a professional actor, all I wanted to do was classical theatre. And my ambition, from the day I left drama school was to work for the Royal Shakespeare Company … It took nearly three years before I could get myself an audition. I was finally auditioned one Sunday night in November in the main house by Peter Hall, John Barton and Maurice Daniels, who was head of casting in those days, and they invited me to come for the season. It was thrilling for me. I had finally arrived in the place I always wanted to be. So we jump forward 40 years and I\'ve spent 17 years living in Los Angeles largely doing film and television, whilst all that time knowing that there\'s only one place I really wanted to be which is where we are now. So when I returned to England four or five years ago my main objective was to get back into this company if they would have me.
Hamlet runs at the RSC’s Courtyard Theatre at Stratford-upon-Avon from 5 August 2008 (previews from 24 July) until 15 November, and is joined in rep by Love\'s Labour\'s Lost from 2 October. Hamlet then transfers to the West End’s Novello Theatre from 9 December 2008 (previews from 3 December) to 10 January 2009.