THEATRE / Diary: Greatness thrust upon him: Simon Russell Beale played Richard III as a humpback and paid for it with a slipped disc. Which gave Ciaran Hinds just over a week to step into his shoes . . .

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'BARBICAN: Terry Hands, in a black bomber jacket, kneading a piece of bluetac in one hand, chain- smoking with the other, talking about Richard III. '(Shakespeare) doesn't give Richard a rest . . . Hamlet has all that Ophelia stuff, Lear's got the whole Edmund sub-plot, but Richard is on throughout. With the terrible physical strain, of course, of sustaining a crippled position all evening.' He tells me that when Robert Hirsh did it for him in his Comedie Francaise production, he limped on alternate legs from night to night, with two sets of costumes. 'You might like to think along similar lines. I've been advised by an osteopath that irreparable damage can be done to the pelvis otherwise. It's a little known historical fact, but apparently after the original production Burbage said to Shakespeare, 'If you ever do that to me again, mate, I'll kill you.' ' From Antony Sher's 'Year of the King'.

Simon Russell Beale has become Richard's latest victim. After five months in Sam Mendes's production for the RSC and just three days into the run at the Donmar Warehouse, Beale was forced to retire and last week had an operation on a slipped disc. The crown was passed to his understudy, Sam Graham, while a frantic search for a replacement was conducted. Mendes turned to Ciaran Hinds, with whom he had worked on Assassins, and asked the Irish actor to get to grips with one of Shakespeare's biggest and most demanding roles in ten days. This is how Hinds spent them . . .

SUNDAY 24 JANUARY: Came home in the afternoon to find a message that Sam (Mendes) had phoned. I called him back and he said: 'Are you sitting down?' He told me about Simon's back and said he needed someone to take his place, would I be interested? I thought about it - I've worked with Sam in Assassins - and I said yes. Ever since, every half hour I've said 'Jesus Christ what have I done?' I've got 10 days.

MONDAY: I've started frantically learning the part - it's been six years since I've done it and there's been a lot of water under the bridge since and there are a lot of lines. Still, it's an adventure.

WEDNESDAY: I feel bamboozled. My head's addled. From 10.30am to 5pm I rehearsed, then went off with Sam and worked for another three hours, then supper and more learning. I'm half-way through the first half. If you learn slowly you can gaze into the thought processes. If you do it faster you can't. The company is great - after five months of doing this they've got to go through the motions all over again, starting with a read-through. At one point the understudy Sam Graham said: 'Mark your text with chance to have a fag.' I may have time to roll one, but not to smoke it.

I saw the production last night. Very clear, played in a square, monochrome and grey, interesting music. The first part is about the machinations of power, the second part a man's isolation. I went to watch and found I got involved in the story instead.

I'm doing something I've never done before, in that I am doing Simon's version, following Simon's logic, fitting into the physical thing that he did. Simon had a stick and a hump - I didn't have a stick when I last played Richard. Hopefully, hopefully, after some time, and within the parameters that we've set down, I'll be able to put something in that's mine. I have less sense of panic now I've learnt some of it, though I started reading the second half and there's miles to go.

I'm swimming round coping with the moves - it's not organic for me and I need to find a reason why I do everything I do or I'll resent it. The fewer there are involved in a scene, the more you can play off the text and the more it becomes your own. But time's so short you've just got to have the balls and the nerve to take directions from everybody.

THURSDAY: Went over some of the words in the bath this morning. They came through lightly, warmly, without any pressure. A good feeling.

Before I began rehearsing with the company I tried to get my lines for the first few scenes and failed, so I carried the text instead of pretending to know it. I felt grateful for that and concentrated on learning ways to get off and on stage, and who was who.

Simon's stick. Well, it's there, but I don't know what I'll do with it, how much I'll lean on it, how much weight I'll put on it. We'll worry about that next week.

The worry now is that when you haven't got time to think through what you're doing you fall back on tricks instead. You don't want that. With Shakespeare you get on top of the iambic pentameter but you've got to be living every moment, the thought, the argument, the fun, and not taking shortcuts to get there. But that takes reflection and that's in short supply.

I'm working on the second section now, but the further I go the longer it takes because I have to keep going back on what I've done before to make sure it's there.

When I get an idea for something I have to make sure that no one else objects to it - I'm an outsider and the company has been doing things a certain way. They need to be up for the game that I'm playing. You can panic, but at times like this extraordinary things can happen.

Had a costume fitting. I'm six foot and slimmish, so Simon's hump needs reshaping. It's got to look like a real growth. I don't know how to limp yet. It's got to be simple, no silly walks. I try things out on the way to the tube. Simon was quite doubled over, his movement very off balance to one side - if I did that it would look like a tall man trying to be small.

It was a relief not to talk for half and hour during a fight call. I'm not too unfit, but what you need is timing, tension, twisting and turning and speed. It'll be a flash, but it's got to seem real. It's all too easy for someone to get hurt. There's no point doing it if it's not exciting so we've got a different way out if we're not ready.

I haven't bought a paper for four days in a row - that's the first time in years. The outside world hasn't really had a look-in.

I'll work on the end of the first half for a couple of hours until midnight and I'll be a fairly happy person on one little level if I've got that.

FRIDAY: I'm so tired I sleep very deeply - no dreams like Richard's. You do a bit before you go to sleep and, when you wake up, you say 'Where was I?' and you don't remember and you look for the book beside the bed. Suddenly real life comes in and you think, this is stupid, how can I be so frantic every working hour? The first thought is, what can you remember? Gave the daughter her breakfast, had a cup of tea and thought, how long have I got? Words begin turning over as I walk to the tube.

Started at 10 past 10 - a bit late - working on my own with Sam, talking through what we've got to do, how to approach the coronation, when he becomes king and begins to mistrust everyone and is always thinking, who is behind me? There's the scene between him and Elizabeth, whose children he's killed, when he wants to marry her daughter. Richard gets angry - it's a very simple structure but inside you sense his panic, the need to do a deal, to manipulate - there are 52 things going on. Richard has to woo Anne over the body of her father-in-law, whom he murdered. What's the way out of that? I think it works for him as a thrill. It's more difficult for Anne: she has to move from bitterness and hatred. What breaks through that is his honesty - his calculated use of it. We've done it once, but haven't blocked it - it's when you're working off people that the real work starts.

I've got the first half firmly cemented. Having known the part six years ago doesn't help - the cuts are different, which changes the rhythm and the thought patterns, and without the thoughts the words disappear.

We do the blocking of the second half - a perfunctory trot through the lines. In a longer rehearsal you talk, improvise, set up technically. We did it very gently, script in hand. The company is very tired. They've been touring for three and half months and when they came to London they thought it would be just the evening performances and no pressure. First there was Simon not well, then this. Mayhem.

I have an ever-changing relationship with Richard - sometimes he's a beast, sometimes human - there's the political, supernatural, funny parts of his behaviour. I feel a wee bit closer now - it's like getting into a book, at first it's tough, then you crack it.

We ignored the fight today and just blocked it in slow motion. We didn't risk anything - they might have had to find another Richard.

SATURDAY: Normally on Saturday I'd get up with the daughter and maybe go to the park and shop and pass the day very idly. Instead I raced out.

I did two scenes with the women without the text. They are all about manipulation, the art of seduction, rage. You get lost in it, but then you lose a line. But it was rewarding; there's something there. Sometimes you're brave enough to make jumps, take risks, sometimes not. You have to have something concrete to leap off from - but sometimes it's into blancmange.

Took two hours off and cooked some lunch - steak, rice and salad - watched the football and read the newspaper. Same old dreadful dirges and not many funny stories.

I've thought a bit more about the crippledness - it will be just down one side with a twist of a limp and I'll have a gloved hand. I'll keep it to a minimum.

This time last Saturday I hadn't a clue about all this. It's amazing what you can do when you have to. I've surprised myself. When you're younger, you learn quicker; when you're a bit older you think more about the quality of what you're doing, you explore the subtleties and vagaries more carefully rather than jump straight in.

I've got to learn from the coronation to the battle yet and then I should be off the book completely - God willing, touch wood. People are coming to the theatre and asking for their money back - which is fair enough. I was looking forward to seeing Simon's Richard, too. I haven't felt nervous yet; nerves are about ego, about failing and I try and tell myself I've just got to fire the story.

SUNDAY: A long lie-in, then I set to work cementing stuff in my 'dull unmindful' brain to just before the battle. Lunch and out to the park - swings and slides with the daughter - the first time I've been out in the air except for travelling to and from work. I had a long sleep last night and feel clear- headed. It was good not to rush, not to have a deadline.

I've learnt up to 'A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse', then he's slain and then, thank God, he can't say another word. Before I go to bed I'll go through it all quickly. It feels like a first test. I'll have a drink.

MONDAY: The run-through didn't go as well as I'd have hoped. Gave up at two and went to bed - after a while you can't get the flow. Today we went through the scenes cementing the movement calmly and clinically till five. The choreography's there - but it's all that verbiage, the thees, thous, know'sts that separate the words and the movement. I've got two days left, but three or four more wouldn't go amiss. I'm looking for the moments which allow you to go further, deeper - it can happen quickly, it can take weeks.

I think my performance will probably be quite different from Simon's and quite different from mine if I'd had time to work on the stitching of it all together to make an O. I gather Simon's was very funny; mine's much darker, more bitter. Straining to find the humorous context is a bad idea. He can be ironic, childish, mad, farcical - and there are any number of ways to play the lines. Playing around will come later.

Tomorrow the frock comes on - there's no make-up because it's a studio theatre - and I'll look in the mirror to see what the image is - crippled inside and out. I'm still not hugely familiar with the play but I keep telling myself I've got till tomorrow evening. It's on a knife edge and if you lack confidence it's very bad for an audience - they can't follow the journey. I'm tired and more than a bit tense now. I need an early night so I'm clear in my head, then I'll just see how it comes. You might just find me down the local hostelry screaming for a gin and tonic.

TUESDAY: Dress rehearsal. No going back.


Belfast-born Ciaran Hinds is 39; he has worked extensively at the Glasgow Citizens' Theatre, including the lead in Richard III. He worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company from 1990 to 1992, when his roles included Don Pedro in The Last Days of Don Juan, Achilles in Troilus and Cressida and Mortimer in Edward II. He also performed in the international tour of Peter Brook's Mahabharata. His most recently role was Sam Byck in Assassins at the Donmar Warehouse. Television roles include December Bride; Brian Keenan in Hostages; and the lead in Catherine Cookson's The Man Who Cried

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Richard III is at the Donmar Warehouse; see listings opposite

Ciaran Hinds was talking to Georgina Brown