The first time I saw Michael Maloney, he was completely naked and up a tree. The nakedness (I should add) was demanded by the script of the play he was in - Lambeth, by Jack Shepherd, about William Blake. The audience for Sleuth, Anthony Shaffer's classic thriller which brings Maloney to Dublin next week, will be spared any such shocks to the nervous system, though they will get to see him in his boxer shorts. Although Maloney has not performed in Dublin before, there can't be many who won't recognise him from Truly, Madly, Deeply and his warm, funny portrayal of the care worker-cumamateur conjurer who weaned Juliet Stephenson away from her ghost husband, Alan Rickman. That was nine years ago. However, Michael Maloney's bright-eyed, bushy-tailed charm has been well known to English theatregoers since the early 1980s. After leaving drama school he went straight to London's West End with comedies by Brian Clark and Alan Ayckbourn. But his potential for more was quickly recognised, and two years later he was invited to join the Royal Shakespeare Company and has worked in subsidised theatre ever since, playing everything from Peer Gynt to Romeo, Prince Hal to Hamlet.
"I was 23 when I joined the RSC, playing small to middling parts, but my big break was Ferdinand in The Tempest. I was terrified. It was such a grand place, and the people were so much more vital, so much more anarchic than I was used to. The year I joined, Derek Jacobi was heading it with Bob Peck, Anthony Sher, Sinead Cusack, Pete Postlethwaite, Mark Rylance and Alun Armstrong." Maloney raises his arms in a Papal-style gesture of disbelief. "We'd all end up face down in the rose bushes, complete drunks at six o'clock in the morning for a year. That changed everything for me. Until then my experience of theatre and entertainment was Alan Ayckbourn in the West End and being on TV with Peter Barkworth and Hannah Gordon, and that for me was as far as you could go. As far as I was concerned I was going to go further and further up that ladder." With the RSC, however, he was presented with a whole different ethos. "It was: `Right, if we're going to do Shakespeare then it's six weeks' rehearsal minimum and we break it in Stratford for 30 weeks and if it's good enough we take it into London. And we do this properly and we talk about the text and I have a rigorous intellectual understanding of the text which I want everybody to follow, I want everyone to speak the same language. Are we agreed?' Yes we are, and you move on. And it has this fantastic effect of an express train picking up speed. At its best, it's so valuable."
Michael Maloney speaks as fast as a bookie, the carefully modulated cadences of the actor quite absent. If you were asked to guess his profession, you might hazard jockey - small, whip-thin, bright eyes darting here and there, yet with a streak of steel that suggests he wouldn't hesitate to use the whip. Traditional luvvie he ain't. Maloney was born in Godalming, Surrey. As his name might suggest, his father came from Ireland. "I think my Dad's mother died shortly after he was born, so he was sent to Godalming where, funnily enough, there are more Maloneys than in Cork." As his father was in the British airforce and constantly on the move, young Michael was sent to "a good old-fashioned Catholic boarding school run by Benedictine monks where they beat the shit out of you. I left school at 16." It wasn't till the summer of 1986 that Maloney made the pilgrimage to Cork, to Bandon and Timoleague, where he still has relations. It is a very different experience, he says, being Irish in Ireland and Irish in England. "To the English, the Irish are people that come over and work in whatever line of work they can find in Britain and this useless stereotype has been generated that the Irish are thick, stupid and mad.
And so it was very important for me to meet my family back home and discover that they weren't mad at all, of course." This first visit to Cork had far-reaching consequences. At the time Maloney was the first choice for the "I" character in what was to become the cult film of the decade, Withnail And I, and which made a star of Richard E. Grant. Paul McGann eventually got the part because Maloney pulled out. "I had just come back from Cork, after having met the family, literally four days before, and I suddenly saw I couldn't do it. There's an early scene in a pub in Kilburn - Irish of course - and they're all drunk and they're all oppressive and potentially going to punch you. I just couldn't stomach it. So I very nobly walked away" - he pauses theatrically - "and regretted if for the rest of my life." The lapis lazuli eyes (blue streaked with gold) sparkle and the trademark floppy hair flips across his face as Maloney chortles and chokes on his coffee.
We're sitting in the foyer of the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre in Guildford where the Mobil tour of Sleuth has just opened. The matinee audience is already milling around. Far from feeling stressed at the idea of two shows ahead of him, Maloney is full of enthusiasm. He's loving doing the play, and particularly the company of his co-star. "Just being with Peter Bowles is amazing. He's a real education to be on stage with. Rehearsals were most extraordinary, especially the first two weeks when I didn't know what to expect. He's been doing this kind of thing for 42 years and he's brilliant. I learn something new every day. And his stories . . . Never a dull moment, I can tell you."
It has to be said, however, that Sleuth seems a strange choice for an actor such as Maloney. That's before you look at the play, he says. "It is significantly different from a basic thriller. Because Anthony Shaffer trained as a lawyer and then was a producer of commercials for television and film, and has that jigsaw/whodunnit attitude of mind, where he can put together plays within plays, conceits and deceits." For Maloney, however, the most fascinating aspect of Sleuth is the element of class warfare which, he says, is usually glossed over, the play being played solely for the thrills and the sadism. "In 1970 when it was written, thrillers were basic things, the like of which are described in the play: the icedagger, the poisoned drinks, the record player simulating conversation, those sort of things, and Shaffer knew he had to take it one step further." Maloney is looking forward to an Irish audience's response to the writing. "I have a stereotype impression of Irish audiences that they are much more sophisticated in the appreciation of language . . . and [in Sleuth] there is a fantastic amount of alliteration, a fantastic amount of direct response to what the previous person has said, exact response to the wordplay beforehand, deceit in sentences and things like that. It's very close to Shakespearean construction."
Whatever we talk of - his gripes about the lack of investment in new writing for the theatre, or the lack of continuum in the classical theatre which has resulted in a generation of actors who can't do blank verse - the name of Shakespeare keeps cropping up. When the Sleuth tour is over, he's off to play Edgar to Nigel Hawthorn's Lear. On screen he has played Rosencrantz in Mel Gibson's Hamlet and three times teamed up with Kenneth Branagh, playing Laertes in his Hamlet, the dauphin in Henry V and also starred in Branagh's film about out-of-work actors putting on Hamlet, In The Bleak Midwinter, in which he can be seen playing selections of Hamlet.
Two years ago, he finally got to play the full text on stage. "I was 38 which is theoretically eight years too late. I was offered it twice before with major companies but I bottled out. I just had too much fear." When it came to it, though, he claims not to have been too unnerved. "When I was told I was going to play Hamlet, it was `Oh, all right then'. Because it had never been one of my ambitions. My ambition as an actor was to be Steve McQueen on a motorbike going over the barbed wire in The Great Escape. Now that for me is great acting, that is." The eyes sparkle, and for a moment I believe him.
Mobil Touring Theatre's Sleuth is at the Gaiety Theatre from Tuesday until February 13th