Gambon takes 'role he was born to play' as glorious clown Falstaff

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The Independent Culture

Sir Michael Gambon is making his long-awaited theatrical debut as Sir John Falstaff, Shakespeare's most glorious clown and wit.

Ralph Fiennes and Simon Russell Beale may have sold out Julius Caesar at the Barbican before it even opened, and Derek Jacobi's Don Carlos may well betipped for a Broadway transfer, but London's theatre critics have been keenly anticipating the application of Gambon's undisputed talent to the role of Prince Hal's disreputable sidekick in Henry IV.

When Nicholas Hytner, director of the National Theatre, announced that Gambon would be following in the footsteps of the late Sir Ralph Richardson by playing Falstaff, there was a universal nod of approval.

Mr Hytner said: "Michael is not only witty himself, but the 'cause that wit is in other men', like Falstaff.

"He has more stories, and there are more stories, than anyone else in the theatre. One of his stories was that he'd been banned from the National for bad behaviour, so I thought I'd call his bluff."

Terri Paddock, of the whatsonstage.com website, said: "Everyone seems to think it's the role he was born to play."

A Gambon Falstaff has been a long time coming. As long ago as 1988, Sir Richard Eyre, one of Mr Hytner's predecessors at the National, broached the subject after Gambon laughed so much at a dinner that he fell off his chair. "With his belly, his legs stretched out and his seismic laughter, he looked like Falstaff," Sir Richard later recalled in his memoirs. He asked the actor whether he would play the role. Gambon agreed but it never came off.

Last year, however, the Gambon, 64, finally signed up to bring Falstaff to life, which was why the National Theatre finds itself presenting Henry IV parts one and two after it has already staged Henry V, the play that succeeds them.

Although better known for his film and television appearances in productions such as Gosford Park, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and Dennis Potter's influential TV drama, The Singing Detective, Gambon has a long history in the British theatre.

He was an original member of the National Theatre company under the direction of Sir Laurence Olivier in 1963 and went on to play the title roles in many of Shakespeare's plays, such as Macbeth, Coriolanus and Othello.

But "the great Gambon", as he was dubbed by Richardson, has not only proved a classicist.

He won awards for his performance in Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge and Alan Ayckbourn's A Chorus of Disapproval and was seen in the West End last year in what one critic described as "moulting majesty" in Samuel Beckett's menacing farce, Endgame.

In 2002, he appeared in the Royal Court premiere of a new Caryl Churchill play, A Number.

"I can't go a year without doing a play," he said recently. "This gives me the right to go and earn a lot of money in a movie. I feel this legitimises my life."

The publicity for Henry IV has been enormous. From an entire South Bank Show dedicated to Henry IV rehearsals broadcast on Sunday night to a slot on the BBC's News at Ten on Tuesday, this Shakespeare production is being presented for mass consumption.

It is one of the plays in the Travelex-sponsored season of £10 tickets and all of the £10 seats made available so far have sold out, although a second booking period, covering July and August, is now opening and £25 seats are available.

For the role to work, Gambon needs an appropriate foil in Prince Hal, here played by Matthew Macfadyen, best known from the television spy drama, Spooks.

However, not all critics have been won over by his Falstaff in preview performances so far. Although one early reviewer praised Gambon's Falstaff as "sensitive... full of contradictions - wonderful", another complained that he was not as audible as the punter would have liked.

It is a larger-than-life role that, perhaps, requires time for full exploration. "He's a deeply duplicitous bastard," Gambon said. "He is an actor - different in every scene. I don't know who the real guy is yet. I don't know if I'll ever find him."

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