METHOD IN THE MADNESS

LAUGHING, CRYING, FIGHTING, DYING – IT’S ALL IN A DAY’S WORK FOR JOSH McCONVILLE, WHO HAS BEEN PLAYING THE LEAD IN BELL SHAKESPEARE’S HAMLET SINCE JUNE.

You’ve been rehearsing and performing the role of Hamlet for six months now. How would you describe the experience?

Touring Hamlet nationally has been fantastic. Everyone in the cast and crew gets along, and we got to see the whole of Australia together.

For me personally, playing Hamlet has been life changing. It’s the toughest thing I’ve ever had to do. Diving into a character of this depth is something I’ve never done before.

It’s been physically and emotionally exhausting. I’ve learnt so much about my technique and stamina. Hamlet has taught me how to regulate my body to get through a show of this length. Everything you learn at drama school needs to be applied in this role.

What has surprised you about the past few months?

Playing Hamlet is like playing a game of footy every night – you really have to be match fit! The role is emotionally driven and vocally demanding, and there are a lot of physical elements too, like sword fighting and stage fighting. It has really taken me by surprise just how fit you need to be.

Seeing you on stage, it’s obvious how much emotional energy you are throwing into the role.

Yes, it’s making me a little insane actually! You feel grief. You cry every night. You feel lost and vengeful and angry. Every emotion on the human scale. And you fence. You jump into a grave. You die. If you’re committing to it and giving it a red hot go, then it really takes a lot out of you.

So how are you responding?

In the daytime, prior the show, I’m just playing video games! I’m doing things that remind me of my childhood, when I didn’t have a care in the world.

As an actor, you know it’s all pretend of course. But I spoke with Leon Ford and Brendan Cowell, who have both played Hamlet for Bell Shakespeare, and they agreed that it’s draining. They said that when you finish you need to get away and just do nothing and reset your brain.

Do you feel sympathetic towards Hamlet as a man?

I think you’ve got to be sympathetic with every character you play, because if you’re not then you’re just commenting on them. I feel strongly for Hamlet. He’s in deep grief over his father, who was his best friend and the guy who he looked up to. Then all these terrible things happen. He sees a ghost. His mother marries his uncle. It’s a snowball effect of insanity that he is rolled in to. I have massive sympathy for him.

Yet he’s capable of some quite horrifying acts too, isn’t he.

Most tragic heroes are flawed and that what’s makes them tragic. Hamlet’s treatment of Ophelia is awful but it can be justified. She hasn’t spoken to him for the past two months. She’s not replying to any of his letters and he doesn’t know why. Then she appears out of nowhere after hearing him deliver his speech about “To be or not to be” and she gives all the letters back to him and says that they’re all tainted – and he can’t understand why. Also, he suspects that her father is spying on him.

If you put yourself in the shoes of Hamlet – this poor kid who is quite fragile, who goes through so much – then you can sympathise. He makes some terrible decisions but they can be justified in the sense that no-one is listening to him or giving him the time of day.

What are you hoping audiences take away from this production?

Everyone has a pre-conceived idea of what Hamlet is. I hope people arrive with an open mind and leave feeling that they’ve seen something fresh and new in the play. We’re very proud of this production; there’s clear storytelling and there are wonderful actors in it. So I hope people walk away having seen something in our Hamlet that they’ve never seen before. I think that would be great.

 Josh McConville stars in Hamlet at the Sydney Opera House from now until 6 December. Details at https://www.bellshakespeare.com.au/whats-on/hamlet/

 Interview by Andy McLean, freelance writer and journalist. @1andymclean

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