THAT IS THE QUESTION

JOSH McCONVILLE IS STEELING HIMSELF FOR ONE OF THE BIGGEST ACTING ROLES OF HIS CAREER: PLAYING THE LEAD IN BELL SHAKESPEARE’S HAMLET. WE CAUGHT UP WITH HIM JUST BEFORE HE STEPPED ON STAGE FOR THE FIRST PERFORMANCE.

How did you feel when you were first offered the part?

When I got the offer I was super excited to do it – but also scared. And I felt overwhelmed by the amount of work that was going to be required. It’s a part I’ve always wanted to play since school. I remember my drama teacher told me, “When you get older and reach the right age, you should definitely play Hamlet”.

How did you begin preparing for the role?

I sat and thought about what it must be like to lose your dad. The play begins with the loss of a father and the suppression of grief. And I know that if I lost my dad and was told to suppress my grief, while my mum went and married my uncle, it would shatter me. That’s where I started. I thought about the emotional journey Hamlet takes, and then imagined the story in my own words.

Did you seek advice from anyone?

I spoke to Ewan Leslie [who has played Hamlet twice] early on, when I was panicking! He said it’s very daunting looking at the script and not knowing all the lines. But he said, “Don’t worry, eventually it will all go in”. And he said that each Hamlet is unique, so don’t try to copy anyone; just do your own thing.

No wonder it’s daunting. The role of Hamlet has 1,495 lines! How do you learn them all?

I went in there knowing most of the soliloquies already, so that helped. Then you learn by repetition and movement. Gradually it all sinks in. But I have no other choice. I have to learn those lines – if I don’t, then I’m in deep trouble!

Speaking of lines, how do you plan to deliver “To be or not to be”?

I’m trying not to think about it being so well known. I really am just playing it for truth, as the words say in the script.

Hamlet has a way of getting under the skin (and into the head) of the actor playing him. How is the character affecting you so far?

In the rehearsal rooms it has been affecting me quite heavily. There’s all this emotion. The constant grieving and the flipping of emotions: from being a clown, to being utterly depressed, to being vengeful, to being ambitious. It does take a toll.

But rehearsing this play, I’ve learned something about myself as an actor. I’ve learned to just be naked on stage; to open up on cue; and play with people and language. I’m learning from Hamlet in this play. There are things I never knew about myself as a human being until now.

Playing Hamlet is not “just another acting part”, is it. When an audience comes to see Hamlet, they’re seeing the real person up there on stage.

Yes. Deep down it is you bringing the truth to the part. When you’re up there on the stage saying “To be or not to be” and it’s just you with the spotlight on you, it doesn’t really get any more vulnerable than that. Luckily that spotlight is bright so you can’t really see heaps of people out there! Still, it’s quite daunting.

What scares you about the role?

[Nervous laugh] The size of it! My voice. My physicality. My wellbeing. Everything! I’ve just got to really look after myself. I’ve got to get through the next six months of this tour. That’s the scary thing!

As we speak, it’s almost opening night. How are you feeling right now?

I’m okay [laughs sheepishly]. We’ve just been given all these props. The costumes have all arrived. There’s so much new stuff going into my head that it’s a little overwhelming; but then again, it’s just a play. I keep telling myself: I’m just an actor on a stage doing shapes and noises!

Why do you think people love this play so much?

It’s the best play ever written, in my opinion, and that’s one reason why we keep coming back to it. There’s so much range in the play; it explores so many different topics. And, if it’s done well, then it leaves a lasting impression on the audience. What you want in a play is for you to leave the theatre still asking yourself questions and Hamlet makes you do that. Yet there are no right or wrong answers; it is a constant struggle to decipher the play. That alone is very exciting.

Josh McConville stars in Hamlet at the Arts Centre Melbourne (14 – 25 July) then tours regional centres, before performing at the Canberra Theatre Centre (13 – 24 October) and Sydney Opera House (27 October – 6 December). Details at https://www.bellshakespeare.com.au/whats-on/hamlet/

Interview by Andy McLean, freelance writer and journalist.

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