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18 Actors Who Started Their Careers On Stage

Do you recognise these household names from their early stage roles at the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC)?

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1. Judi Dench

Photo by Reg Wilson © RSC.

Here's Judi Dench in 1969 as Viola in Twelfth Night, directed by John Barton. Dame Judi made her RSC debut in December 1961 in Anton Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard. Act 1 Scene 5: Viola and Malvolio (Donald Sinden) discuss the ring Olivia has tried to return to Cesario.

3. David Oyelowo

Photo by John Haynes © RSC.

David Oyelowo, best-known for his recent role in The Butler, began his stage career at the RSC in 1999. His performance in the title role of Henry VI in 2000 made him the first black actor to play an English king in a major production of Shakespeare. Oyelowo later won the 2001 Ian Charleson Award for best performance by an actor under 30 in a classical play. Here he is as Henry VI in Henry VI Part III, directed by Michael Boyd.

4. Ian McKellen

Photo by Reg Wilson © RSC.

In 1976, Lord of the Rings star Ian McKellen played the title role in Trevor Nunn’s production of Romeo and Juliet. The cast also included Richard Griffiths aka Uncle Vernon in Harry Potter. In the '70s and '80s Sir Ian became a well-known figure in British theatre, performing regularly at the RSC, and played several leading Shakespearean roles.


5. Helen Mirren

Photo by Reg Wilson © RSC.

A 24-year-old Helen Mirren as Lady Anne in Richard III in 1970, directed by Terry Hands. Here, Richard (Norman Rodway) roguishly tries to woo the recently-widowed Lady Anne.

6. Damian Lewis

Photo by Reg Wilson © RSC.

Damian Lewis, best-known for his role as Homeland’s Agent Brody, graduated from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in 1993, and afterwards began his stage career at the Royal Shakespeare Company. He appeared in Michael Boyd’s 1996 production of Much Ado About Nothing as Don John (right). Here he is with Borachio (Patrick Baladi, left) plotting to wreck Claudio’s wedding plans.

7. David Bradley

Photo by Reg Wilson © RSC.

Renowned for playing the cantankerous Argus Filch in Harry Potter as well as Walder Frey in Game of Thrones, David Bradley joined the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1971 and first appeared on television that year. Here he is in 1992 as Polonius in Adrian Noble’s Hamlet. Kenneth Branagh (standing) played the title role.

8. Mia Farrow

Photo by Reg Wilson © RSC.

Mia Farrow in the 1976 production of Ivanov, written by Chekhov and directed by David Jones. Mia played the role of Sasha, a 20-year-old who is infatuated with Ivanov (John Wood, left), a married man. The cast also included Bob Hoskins (Borkin) and Zoe Wanamaker (Babakina).


9. Alan Rickman

Photo by Reg Wilson © RSC.

In 1978, Alan Rickman (far right) played a soldier in Peter Brook’s production of Antony and Cleopatra. Alan Rickman went on to play Harry Potter villain Severus Snape, but starred alongside Harry Potter co-stars David Bradley (Filch) and Richard Griffiths (Uncle Vernon) in this production of Antony and Cleopatra. The cast also included Midsummer Murders star John Nettles.

10. Romola Garai

Photo by Manuel Harlan © RSC.

Atonement star Romola Garai played Nina in The Seagull, directed by Trevor Nunn, in 2007. The cast also included Frances Barber (Arkadina) and Ian McKellen (Sorin).

11. Derek Jacobi

Photo by Reg Wilson © RSC.

Sir Derek Jacobi played the title role in Cyrano de Bergerac in 1983, directed by Terry Hands. Pete Postlethwaite also starred as Cyrano’s pastry chef friend Rageneau.

12. David Tennant

Photo by Reg Wilson © RSC.

David Tennant as Touchstone in Stephen Pimlott’s 1996 production of As You Like It. The cast also included Game of Thrones star Liam Cunningham (Orlando).


13. Prunella Scales

Photo by Angus McBean ©RSC.

Fawlty Towers star Prunella Scales played Nerissa in the 1956 production of The Merchant of Venice, directed by Margaret Webster. Here, Nerissa yells at her husband Gratiano for giving away his wedding ring.

14. David Suchet

Photo by Reg Wilson © RSC.

Best-known for his role as Agatha Christie’s Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, David Suchet joined the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1973. Here he is as Iago (right) with Othello (Sir Ben Kingsley, left) in Terry Hands’ 1985 production of Othello.

15. Patrick Stewart

Photo by Reg Wilson © RSC.

Patrick Stewart in the 1981 production of The Winter’s Tale, directed by Ronald Eyre. Sir Patrick played the role of Leontes opposite Gemma Jones, well-known for her role as Bridget Jones’ mum. Here, Leontes (Patrick Stewart) accuses his wife Hermione (Gemma Jones) of infidelity in Act 2 Scene 1.

17. Ben Kingsley

Photo by Reg Wilson © RSC.

Gandhi star Sir Ben Kingsley as Demetrius in Peter Brook’s iconic 1970 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Helena, played by Harry Potter star Frances de la Tour, grapples frantically with a reluctant Demetrius.

18. Ralph Fiennes

Photo by Reg Wilson © RSC.

Ralph Fiennes played Claudio is the 1988 production of Much Ado About Nothing, directed by Di Trevis. Ralph Fiennes trained at RADA between 1983 and 1985 and joined the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1988. Fiennes first worked on screen in 1990 and then made his film debut in 1992 as Heathcliff in Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights opposite Juliette Binoche.