Ian McKellen will play Falstaff in Robert Icke's new Henry IV Shakespeare adaptation

Sir Ian McKellen in 2015 (Getty Images)
Sir Ian McKellen in 2015 (Getty Images)

Although now 84 years old, Ian McKellen is showing no signs of slowing down. The acting legend, who is currently starring with Roger Allam in Frank & Percy at The Other Place, is now lined up to play the roguish knight Falstaff in a new adaptation of Shakespeare's Henry IV, after describing the opportunity as "irresistible".

The new play, which will combine parts one (first published in 1596) and two (1600) of Shakespeare's beloved plays, will open next March at the New Wimbledon Theatre followed by Manchester Opera House. It will then transfer to the Noël Coward Theatre in April, where it will enjoy a 12-week run.Player Kings will be directed by Robert Icke, the former associate director at the Almeida Theatre, whose adaptations of Uncle Vanya (2016), Mary Stewart (2016) and The Doctor (2019) won the young director rave reviews and a 2019 Evening Standard Best Director award, while his 2017 Hamlet was described as "career defining" for its star Andrew Scott. The new play has been created using Shakespeare's text, but the famous lines have been rearranged and amalgamated to create a thrilling new script.

"It's a genuine honour to work with one of our greatest Shakespearean actors, Ian McKellen, especially as he tackles one of the most iconic Shakespearean roles," said Icke. "And one he's previously never turned his hand to. It's an exciting challenge to bring together two of Shakespeare's plays into one production."

Despite having acted in over 15 Shakespeare plays over his six-decade career, McKellen has never played Falstaff, though he has transformed into Hamlet (twice), Lear, Richard III, Macbeth, Prospero in The Tempest and Iago in Othello.

"I decided to become a professional actor at Cambridge in 1959, when I was in John Barton's undergraduate production of Henry IV," said McKellen to the BBC. "Derek Jacobi played Prince Hal and I was the ancient Justice Shallow. Ever since, the plays have been among my favourite Shakespeares, although through the years I've resisted offers to play John Falstaff. Robert Icke's ingenious adaptation was irresistible."

John Falstaff features in both parts of Henry IV, and in his lesser-known 1602 comedy, The Merry Wives of Windsor. Both witty and disreputable, the close friend of Prince Hal offers comic relief throughout the tense historical play, which tells the story of troubled early reign of Henry IV and the eventual ascent to the throne of his son Hal, as Henry V.

McKellen will also be starring in an upcoming contemporary film adaptation of Hamlet, directed by his frequent collaborator Sean Mathias, and produced by theatre stalwart Bill Kenwright, who died last month. The film is set to be released in early 2024.

Last year, Icke directed Judas, which premiered at Internationaal Theater Amsterdam, and adapted George Orwell's Animal Farm, which went on a national tour.

Player Kings, New Wimbledon Theatre March, 1-9; Manchester Opera House, Match 14-23; Noël Coward Theatre, April1 to June 22, 2024; playerkingstheplay.co.uk