A decade on, Gambon returns to the National

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MORE THAN 40 years after being handpicked by Laurence Olivier to join the original National Theatre Company, Sir Michael Gambon is to make a return to the venue where his reputation was built.

Gambon, 64, will play the role of Falstaff in Henry IV parts one and two from May until August.

The Irish-born actor, who began in theatre and went on to forge a screen career with critically acclaimed performances on television in Wives and Daughters and Dennis Potter's The Singing Detective and films including The Gambler and Gosford Park, rose through the repertory companies to headline Shakespearean tragedies.

In repertory he played the title roles in Macbeth, Coriolanus, and Othello, and in 1963 he was chosen by Olivier for the original National Theatre Company at the Old Vic. He last appeared for the National Theatre in David Hare's play Skylight in 1995.

Nicholas Hytner, the director of the National Theatre, who is directing Henry IV, said the role of Falstaff was perfectly suited to Gambon. "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," he said.

"One of his stories was that he'd been banned from the National for bad behaviour, so I thought I'd call his bluff."

Mr Hytner, who was announcing the National's 2005 season, said the theatre had an obligation to create debate and controversy.

The season includes David Edgar's new Playing With Fire. Racial tension is a central theme of the production, which Mr Hytner described as a "large, ambitious and exciting new play set in a fictional Northern town about contemporary domestic politics and the tensions that emerge from multiculturalism".

The 2005 season will also see Jim Broadbent perform at the National in May, in the sinister role of Edward Lionheart in The Theatre of Blood, an adaptation of the 1973 horror film.

Rachael Stirling, who starred in the Sapphic television series Tipping the Velvet, is cast as his daughter. Her mother, Dame Diana Rigg, starred in the role in the original film.