How did you feel when you first agreed to direct Hamlet?

A mixture of terror and real joy! Working on any Shakespeare play, I always feel a sense of not owning it, but instead briefly touching something that gets passed on for someone further down the track. I think Hamlet is one of the great human documents, in any form of art. It never ceases to amaze me and fill me with wonder. I also feel a great sense of excitement that I get to share this story with so many Australians. Bell Shakespeare has done Hamlet before, but never toured it to regional Australia. This six-month tour will take us to Melbourne, Canberra, Sydney and many regional areas.

What is your vision for this production?

My desire is to create a really contemporary production that’s full of atmosphere. The castle of Elsinore is an incredibly powerful presence in the story. In other Shakespeare tragedies we see streets, battlefields, churches and so on. But Hamlet is different. Most of the play is contained within Elsinore; this brooding, elegant, quite foreboding, strange castle. I wanted Elsinore to feel like a real figure in the story. So the entire set design looks like a giant window into this vast contemporary Scandinavian palace.

Without sharing too many Danish state secrets, is there anything else you can reveal about your production?

I’ve tried to create a world where the surveillance isn’t just tacked on to the production. Instead it’s absolutely insidious. The level to which people’s private lives are intruded upon is quite horrifying at times.

I’ve also tried to give as strong and as real a vision of family as you would hope to see in a contemporary play. Shakespeare is a brilliant writer about families. And while all Shakespeare’s great tragedies are as big as nations, they are also just as small as families. I’ve tried to work very hard to give as much texture as I can to the two central families in the play. Aside from all that, our approach to “the play within a play” is quite original. That “mousetrap” for Claudius holds a few surprises!

Why did you choose Josh McConville for the role of Hamlet?

Josh is not only one of the most match-fit, hungry, continuously working stage actors in this country, but he’s also simply a thrilling actor. I’d previously seen him on stage playing characters across such a spectrum – straight drama to very sensitive work to sheer brutality to high clowning, which he’s such a genius at.

Watching Josh in that series of plays, I could see he was somebody who could carry the myriad ideas that Hamlet has to embody. Many actors can do Hamlet with one or two of those qualities, but Josh is capable of all them: sensitivity and nuance, as well as real power and awe and great intellect. That is the difference between a good Hamlet and a great Hamlet.

You’ve never directed Josh before. What is he like to work with?

The main thing that has struck me about working with him has been his humility. He’s terrified of the role, which he openly admits. That keeps him away from one of the great pitfalls for actors who play Hamlet, which is that the role can allow an actor to explore all their vanities – all of their “show off skills”. Whereas Josh is, at every turn, avoiding that. He’ll show little flashes of comic clowning but he never lets that overcome the role and he has this bedrock of grief and emotion that sits underneath everything he’s doing.

Hamlet has just opened in Melbourne. How were you feeling in the days leading up to that?

Pretty terrified! I haven’t been sleeping well. I feel a weight of burden about Hamlet, because people really treasure this play. I just hope the ideas and the approach to the character that we’ve worked on in five brief weeks in the rehearsal room work in front of a live audience. But you’ve got to take risks. Life is too short. And hopefully people enjoy this production.

Damien Ryan directs Bell Shakespeare’s production of Hamlet in 2015, at the Arts Centre Melbourne (14 – 25 July) then regional venues, before the Canberra Theatre Centre (13 – 24 October) and Sydney Opera House (27 October – 6 December). Details at

Interview by Andy McLean, freelance writer and journalist.