Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Shakespeare Week // The Telegraph // March 2014

A version of this piece was published online in The Telegraph, March 19th 2014


This March, I’m an ambassador for Shakespeare Week (no sash, unfortunately). 

I've been acting, writing about, producing, teaching, and running workshops on Shakespeare for the last 15 years, and I’m often asked why should we teach our younglings his works? I can answer with my own experiences. 

I did terribly at Shakespeare in English Literature, and struggled to get essay marks higher than a C. But years of character parts in musicals had finally gotten me noticed by a director, who was starting up a repertory company, and I started acting Shakespeare at the beginning of my A-Levels. 

By the time I had left for university I had acted in two Shakespeare plays, and auditioned for the National Youth Theatre and the Manchester Youth Theatre (both unsuccessfully and then successfully) with monologues from the canon.
Acting Shakespeare - Ariel, in The Tempest - outside in a new stone amphitheatre with perfect acoustics, for the most part to an audience new to the play, and for many of my fellow am-dram actors the first time we’d got to roll those words round our mouths, softening with time like a gobstopper, in front of an audience. 

It was there I had my Road to Damascus moment, for the biblically-minded out there, or caught my first Shakespeare wave, for the surfily-minded out there. It was the first time it made sense.
Out there, covered in gold makeup, freezing my under-developed ginger pectorals off in the September North Welsh rain, Shakespeare made sense, and I fell hard and fast in love with acting his words.
From that moment on, I’ve never had too difficult a time understanding Shakespeare, acting it, teaching it, explaining it to others, or writing about it. I can take apart a speech in a dozen different ways, and I spend a lot of my time working out how to articulate how we are guided by Shakespeare towards the way he might have wanted it to be spoken, and then attempting to articulate all this in the printed word.
I still have little to no idea how to analyse a piece from a literary-critical point of view. I have a feeling I’d still get a C, despite the 15 years experience. It makes sense to me watching it in a theatre (even if the production’s bad) and it makes sense to me when I’m acting it, or helping others work out how to act it. I struggle to make it make sense on the page.
The key fits the lock, the engine growls, the car roars into life, when acted. It’s what the words were written for.
Shakespeare is the reason I don’t work a 9-5. He’s the reason I’m miserable sometimes, and he’s often the reason I laugh hard. He’s the reason I earn less money than I could, and he’s the reason my life is sometimes a shambles. But I get to work with the best English language playwright most days of my life, and I consider myself blessed for that.
Shakespeare teaches me something new about life every time I speak it, because I’m a day older than the last time I looked at it, and so the words resonate differently to me. A 13 year old girl can tell me more about what its like to be Juliet than I can ever teach her. And the sooner you discover that speaking Shakespeare is fun, the sooner you can pick up one of his scripts (something that has been worked on in a similar way by thousands of artists before you). 
Then, if you learn the words by mind, and find a way to speak them by heart in such a believable way that you activate that special part of your audiencesbrains and engage their suspension of disbelief, and maybe make them laugh or cry - well, what a wonderful thing to do.
And for so long, like so many others, I hated his works. We need to cut off the Medusa head before the snake-hair sprouts, because by the time students get to secondary school, an antipathy towards Shakespeare has often already set in, almost by osmosis.
In reaching out to over 1500 primary schools, Shakespeare Week is the perfect project to encourage our younglings to speak and love Shakespeare, free from analytical study. 

Come on board, join in, bring a treasure chest of writing to the next generation of Shakespearians.

-----------------------------

My Top 5 Ways to Engage Kids in Shakespeare 

Quote it!

Whether it be telling your son he's a tower of strength, or your daughter does something all of a sudden, you're quoting Shakespeare. He brought over 1,000 words and phrases to the English Language that we still use today. 

Globe it!

Take your children to one of the touring productions c/o Shakespeare's Globe. Legs might get tired standing at their home on the South Bank in London, but you can take a picnic and sit in the sun to enjoy the riotous, fun touring productions. This year it's the romantic comedy Much Ado About Nothing. http://www.shakespearesglobe.com/theatre/whats-on/globe-theatre/much-ado-about-nothing-2014

 Shout it!

Boy did Shakespeare know how to insult people! By comparison, our vocabulary is fairly four-letter limited. Shakespeare's Insult Kit (c/o Chris Seidel) is a harmless, inventive and fun way to introduce your kids to the richness of his words. Get to it, thou artless, bat-fowling bugbear!

Explore it!

Pick a play. A nice fun one like A Midsummer Night's Dream, or a dark and bloody one like Macbeth, and explore some of those rich, vivid characters. Go to a nearby park or wood and pretend to be Witches and Faeries for half-an-hour. It's what Shakespeare's actors would once have done.

See it!

Whether it be a Manga cartoon adaptation, or Shakespeare's Animated Tales, some of the Bard's best works have been given a modern flavour. While simplified - and no replacement for The Real Thing - my 8 year old nephew adores them!

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

FHM piece - Shakespeare & flirt-texting


In September 2013, I was asked to write a piece for FHM on the Dos and Don'ts of text-flirting, and what the great writers had to say. Here's the piece in full:


For a flirty text how important is brevity? How long is the ideal length?
Try too hard, she'll think you desperate. Don't try hard enough, she'll think you weak. Say too much and you'll bore her, joke too much and she'll think you're a clown. And always remember, as Shakespeare said,

Brevity is the soul of wit.

So anything longer than a Tweet (140 characters) is too long. This is a wooing, not PhD thesis. Be brief, simple, to the point. Too many relationships start, continue and explode with texts. A text message is the means to the end - being in the same room together.

How best to make yourself seem intriguing? What sort of language is best to use?
Shakespeare suggests

Speak low if you speak love

The modern meaning of 'low' is gently, briefly, and with humility. From the heart, in other words. You'll never know how far a simple line like

You looked beautiful today

will take you until you try it. And definitely don't brag about yourself along the

It's hard to be humble when you're as great as me

kind of line. It'll get you ignored faster than junkmail.


And what sort of language is best to avoid?
As Lord Byron once wrote

So, we'll go no more a roving
   So late into the night,
Though the heart be still as loving,
   And the moon be still as bright.

Translation - never text late at night, and certainly not drunk. And do NOT take Charles Bukowski's advice to elicit a response:

If something bad happens you drink in an attempt to forget; if something good happens you drink in order to celebrate; and if nothing happens you drink to make something happen.

Is it in fact better to send texts which you HAVEN'T poured over for hours? If the text seems like the result of hard work does that put people off?
I've spent what seemed like hours over how to phrase an initial text to a woman I like:

Hey, how're you?
Hey how are you?! X
Hey, how's it going? :-)
Hey, howzit? x
Hi, I want to see you!!! XXX

One kiss or none? Two or one big X? A smiley like :) or like :-) ?

Irony is hard to get across without a voice backing it up, and sarcasm is practically impossible. Avoid both. Leave out the smileys, drop the howzit and goin' type slang, never use more multiple exclamation marks, and show willing with a final 'x'. So don't think too long or too hard, and try not to follow Oscar Wilde's poetic technique:

I worked all day on a poem. In the morning I added a comma. In the afternoon I took it out again.

Spending an hour on a three word response will end with her thinking you're mad or ignoring her.

Oh, and for goodness sakes, make sure you haven't left in any spelling mistakes. Women want men to love not boys to teach.


Is it wrong to overload your flirty texts with adjectives? Will it make the writing seem clumsy?
Women like to be complimented, but take advice again from our Bard Shakespeare:

Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind

So I probably wouldn't take Edmund Spenser's line, making actual make direct reference to your lady's assets. Lips, breasts and, indeed, paps should probably be left out.

Her lips lyke cherryes charming men to byte,
Her brest like to a bowle of creame vncrudded,
Her paps lyke lyllies budded,

Direct, and to the point seems best, as Samuel Taylor Coleridge tried:

You lie in all my many Thoughts, like Light

This sounds basic, but it's important: how to write something romantic? Something that a girl would actually think was attractive and not creepy/lame? What have the great romantic writers in the past shown us with regards to manipulating (in the nicest possible way) the hearts of the opposite sex.

Surprise and romance is key. I'm a romantic, and while some women can be surprised by what is generally considered a long-dead tradition, a touch of direct sweetness can go a long way. A lot of writers played hard, fast and loud. But softly softly catchee. As the 17th century poet Andrew Marvell once wrote:

Had we but world enough, and time,

This coyness, lady, were no crime.

That said, it didn't stop Shakespeare. He wrote a pretty desperate run of 17 sonnets trying to convince someone to procreate, arguing it would be a sin for his love's beauty not to continue:

Look in thy glass, and tell the face thou viewest 

Now is the time that face should form another

Don't be lewd, rude, or be too forward (save that for after you've taken each other's clothes off). Whatever you say, the response you're looking for is 'Ah' rather than 'Ew!'


The thing that everyone wants to avoid in texts is sounding desperate. But is there a GOOD way to express desperation? If you're desperate to see someone, and you express it in  an appropriate way, can it actually be quite attractive?
Don't be like Thomas McGrath, you'll scare them away - especially the kind of I'LL DIE WITHOUT YOU talk of death:

You'll look at least on love's remains, 

A grave's one violet: 
Your look?-that pays a thousand pains. 

What's death?-You'll love me yet!

Other lines probably best avoided, even if you think they sound great in your head:

That's so funny! You remind me of my mother / ex-girlfriend.
Gotta go, off to drink my weight in cider!
God I hate romantic comedies.

Even a well-meaning

I'd like to take you shopping

Can be mis-interpreted as 'You've no style / you're overweight / you dress like my Gran'.

Honesty and, to thine own self be true (Shakespeare yet again) seems to be the way forward. You don't have to be a poet, or hugely original. If you've never felt this way before, and you had a great night, then tell her

I've never felt this way before. Thanks for a great night.

If she likes The Devil Wears Prada and you actually don't mind watching it, it really is ok to admit it (to her, perhaps not your friends down the pub). Wearing your heart on your sleeve, as in the most famous of love poems, Shakespeare's Sonnet 18, is a great piece of double-thinking.

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?

Sounds like a good line doesn't it? But nah, he goes on to say, summer is too hot, itchy, boring, and it ends.

But thy eternal summer shall not fade...

You're better than a summer's day. With you it's summer every day.

Take an (autumn) leaf out of e.e. cumming's book:

Your slightest look easily will unclose me

Or indeed, women perhaps know best. The great love poet Emily Dickinson:

Were I with thee, 
Wild nights should be 
Our luxury!

If you're texting, it's unlikely the object of your affections is across the room. And our current Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, takes us straight to the heart of the matter:

I want you and you are not here...
Wherever you are now, inside my head you fix me with a look...
I hold you closer, miles away, inventing love

Monday, 5 August 2013

Programme notes for Branagh's Macbeth


In January 2013, I held my breath and sent Ken Branagh the draft of my Springboard Shakespeare: Macbeth. With his production planned for the Manchester International Festival in July that year, I hoped he might flip through it. 

I was called a week later. He had been reading everything he could lay his hands on about this dark play, and apparently so much of what I'd said in my book matched his ideas. Would I consider writing something for the production's programme?

The following is the text they printed, part of which I adapted from my Springboard Shakespeare series...


The be-all and end-all
Actor and writer Ben Crystal sheds a 21st-century light on the darkness of the Scottish Play

Macbeth: image-famous for witches, a floating dagger, and the midnight murder of a Scottish king.
Beyond these, it’s a blood-soaked play with unspeakable brutality – throat-slitting, decapitation, the killing of an innocent mother and child (nothing less than horrific), the murder of people while they sleep, the splitting of someone from stomach to jawbone with a sword, and a few other deaths that make the on- and off-stage body count at least a dozen.

There are bloody ghosts, witches, and figures from the Greek underworld, all ideas that would have brought terror to the minds of Shakespeare’s audience. Characters hallucinate, are drugged, and are so terrified of their leader that they flee from their home and country. Some are so opposed to the dictator-like, tyrannical killing of innocents that they raise an army and go to war.


Pixies, faeries & ghosts
For Shakespeare’s audience at the Globe in 1606, the presence of witches and the main plotline of killing a king were topical as well as terrifying. Macbeth was first performed in a period of persecution now known as the European Witch Craze, during which many women (and men) were put under trial and executed under suspicion of witchcraft.

In 1603, the Scottish King James VI acceded the English throne as King James I. A few years earlier, he had written a book about witches. And in 1605, a few months before Macbeth was first performed, he survived an assassination attempt by Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators. (Indeed, the word ‘assassination’ was coined by Shakespeare for this play. As I say, topical.)

The King or Queen was officially considered to be God’s voice on Earth and the removal of the rightful monarch meant anarchy, that the skies would darken and fall. Superstition was so powerful that the existence of pixies, faeries and ghosts were a commonly held belief, while an equally religious world thought earthquakes were the punishing Hand of God. Written in that fearful time, this is a play that asked questions about political and social instability: about how far someone will go for power, and what that can cost...


Macbeth and the canon
As he did for many of his plays, Shakespeare took the basic plot for Macbeth from Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles, a history of Britain. The second edition of Chronicles appeared in 1587, around the time Shakespeare came to London to begin his theatrical career.
In some respects, the play is a re-run of his earlier Richard III (written c.1592) and Julius Caesar (c.1599): the first half features a slow build-up towards the murder of the rightful leader, with the second half concentrating on the emotional and psychological fallout of such actions. It’s a structure that has inspired many imitations on stage and screen; Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 film Psycho, for instance, follows a similar path.

Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, Pericles, Coriolanus and The Winter’s Tale followed – titanic works, each exploring the fall of a good man, but from a slightly different angle each time. Othello suffers at the hands of another, Lear is foolish, and Leontes (in The Winter’s Tale) is susceptible to jealousy, as we all are. However, like Richard III before him, Macbeth becomes a tyrant, a killer of innocents.

Macbeth is an incredible character. He experiences a rocket-rise to absolute power via murder, then plummets into absolute disaster, a roller-coaster ride turned runaway train. He’s the loyal soldier who embraces his inner darkness, reaching a point of near-insanity through megalomania, paranoia and greed, and who swings from uncertain weakness to a Superman-like conviction of invincibility.


The Macbeths
If Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings had taken the Ring and Arwen had turned to Mordor, he would have become Macbeth, and she, Lady. Macbeth, essentially, takes the Ring. Whatever his actual years, he doesn’t seem to have acquired the wisdom that usually comes with age to see past the Witches’ equivocation; instead, he believes the Witches and is terrified by Banquo’s Ghost. He becomes paranoid to the point of excluding everyone from his side, apart from a character called Seyton (pronounced, like the devil, ‘Satan’).

In the second half of the play, Macbeth feels like a man with nothing left to lose. However, pity for him is often reignited during his final encounter with Macduff, as all the pieces of the puzzle fall into place. He makes for a great and dramatic figure: someone who’s profoundly aware he’s trapped in a downward spiral and decides to plunge headlong down anyway.

Lady Macbeth is different. We watch as she embraces her own darkness and see her being left far behind her husband, having encouraged him to engage with his own inner demons, before losing her mind in a living waking-dream.

Macbeth is a tragedy driven forward not by a solitary figure but a married couple. Some productions have made the Macbeths an overtly sexual couple, while others have tried to suggest that their strength – or ensuing disintegration – comes from having lost a baby. They only have a few scenes together, but in that time, we need to believe they’re a couple in a strong relationship, that they could plot and carry out a murder together.


MACBetH Does MURDeR sLeeP
I like Macbeth. He’s a weird animal, the character of a warrior with a very poetic heart. The verse Shakespeare wrote for him is muscular and erratic, and its imagery is incredibly powerful. From the terrifying:

O full of scorpions is my mind, dear wife.

To the child-like rhyming:

I will not be afraid of Death and Bane
Till Birnam Wood come to Dunsinane.

To the near-suicidal:

I ’gin to be a-weary of the Sun
And wish th’estate o’th world were now undone.

To elegiac reflection:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time.

There’s a hauntingly tragic moment when, having murdered Duncan, Macbeth tells his wife:

Methought, I heard a voice cry, ‘Sleep no more!
Macbeth does murder Sleep’...

He’s describing the medical condition of insomnia – a term that isn’t recorded in English until 1623, when ‘insomnie’ was defined as ‘watching; want of power to sleepe’. Oddly enough, bearing in mind what happens to Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, the four stages of the rare condition called fatal familial insomnia are now known to be as follows:

1 – Up to four months of sleeplessness; panic attacks, phobias and paranoia.
2 – Around five months of severe panic attacks and hallucinations.
3 – For up to three months, a complete inability to sleep followed by rapid weight loss.
4 – Over the next six months: dementia, a lack of physical or verbal response to others, and eventually death.

Other symptoms of long-term sleep loss include menopause in women and impotence in men. Both are fascinating possible character choices, especially considering Lady Macbeth’s reference to losing a child. She lambasts Macbeth’s manliness, prompting him to respond, ‘I dare do all that may become a man’, and, after seeing Banquo’s Ghost, his proclamation that ‘I am a man again’.


Shakespeare’s lines
Shakespeare writes prose, a theatrical reflection of everyday speech, and he writes poetry, organising a character’s speech into rhythmical lines of verse. He uses this verse to direct his actors, bringing out the traits of their characters through the type of lines they speak.

In Macbeth, the distinction between prose and verse, and between different kinds of verse, has a hugely dramatic role. Most of the characters in Macbeth speak in verse – only 6.5 per cent of the lines in the play are prose. The play has this rhythm pounding through it like a heartbeat, albeit an irregular one that changes its pace. Drops of earthy base prose are scattered throughout, stopping and starting the rhythms like a jazz trumpeter improvising.

We hear the Porter, the Scottish Doctor and Lady Macbeth’s Waiting-gentlewoman speak in prose, as well as Lady Macduff and her Son; the Witches, too, from time to time. Prose, closest to everyday speech, is the medium that Shakespeare’s lower-class characters normally use.

The Scottish noblemen and the Witches both speak in verse, but they do so in very different ways. The noblemen use the form of verse that was most popular in Shakespeare’s lifetime: iambic pentameter. This is a rhythmical line with ten syllables, made up of five (‘penta-’) stronger beats and five weaker ones, with the stronger beat every second syllable: de-DUM (known as an ‘iambic’ rhythm).

Iambic pentameter is the type of verse closest in rhythm to spoken English, and its weak-strong beat pushes the speaker towards the more important syllables in a line. We hear it when we first see Macbeth, who says to Banquo:

So foul and fair a day I have not seen

This length of line of can be easily said with one intake of breath, and the regular heartbeat-like rhythm makes it easy to commit to memory.

The less-than-human characters are different. When Shakespeare breaks from that iambic rhythm, he’s telling us, aurally, that there’s something different about the characters, or that what they’re saying is especially important. The Witches speak in short lines of four DUM-de beats, a type of verse called trochaic tetrameter. We hear it in the opening lines of the play:

When shall we three meet again
In thunder lightning or in rain

This rhythm, so different from the rhythm of everyday speech, is a very subtle but effective way of making the characters seem even more other-worldly than they would if Shakespeare had written their speeches in prose or regular iambic pentameter. The repeated four-beat lines convey a hypnotic sound that drums into our ears. The effect is especially noticeable later in the play, as the Witches concoct their spells...


Comedy and tragedy
As well as being one of Shakespeare’s shortest plays, Macbeth is also one of the darkest. It’s often played as a tragedy with little to no comedy; even the main ‘comic’ part, the Porter, can be played as a dark, tragic demon-figure. But as with all of Shakespeare’s plays, there’s an inherent balance of comedy and tragedy written in.

He knew, as the classic image of theatre (the ‘persona’ mask) implies, that comedy and tragedy work best next to each other. Balance is key: if you make an audience laugh, it’ll be easier to make them cry, and vice versa. So don’t be surprised if this production delivers unexpected laughs, or if it has a black comedy focus, instead of feeling like a ‘pure’ tragedy.


Themes… and variations
When the drunken Porter shows up to open the castle gate, he speaks of an ‘equivocator’, someone who intentionally misuses one word for another to deceive the listener. At the time of Macbeth’s first performances, equivocation was on the minds of Shakespeare and his audience. Father Garnet, a Jesuit priest, was hanged in May 1606 for his part in Guy Fawkes’ Gunpowder Plot of 5 November 1605. At his trial, he was famously discovered to have sworn evidence to be true that he knew in his mind was false – so trying to equivocate his way out of guilt. The idea of equivocation underpins the play. The prophecies the witches give to Macbeth seem to be straightforward but turn out to have a double meaning – lies masquerading as truths – and eventually doom him.

Shakespeare’s works are often discussed thematically, but such discussions don’t tell the whole story. It’s characters that make themes, not themes that make characters. Underneath the speeches are characters that think and feel like any living person. And that’s the starting point.

Shakespeare didn’t set out to write a play about a particular theme. Macbeth doesn’t reach for the crown to explore the theme of ambition. He simply is ambitious, and therefore we read that theme into the play. Similarly, Lady Macbeth is a strong woman, so it’s also a play about feminism. It can equally be read as a play about the current conflicts around the world, democracy or any number of other subjects. The marvellous thing about Shakespeare’s plays is that we can use them to reflect or refract virtually any modern political or sociological theme: freely channelling ideologies through his writing as if he wrote his plays to be sponges, sucking up whatever part of life we bring to them.


Ben Crystal is an actor and the author/co-author of several books on Shakespeare, including SpringboardShakespeare: Macbeth (Arden Shakespeare) and Shakespeare on Toast: Getting a Taste for the Bard (Icon Books). He Tweets at @bencrystal

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Interview with Sir Richard Eyre, Hay Festival, May 28th 2011

While working and speaking at the Hay Festival last week I interviewed Sir Richard Eyre, who ran the Royal National Theatre for ten years, published excerpts of his diaries of his time there in his National Service, and was at the Festival to interview his wife, the producer Sue Birtwistle, on the challenges of adaptation. I grabbed half an hour with him...

There was a look in his eyes that made me speechless. Not a good way to start an interview, I grant you, but goosebumps shivered up my arms, I put down my pen and forgot about the dictaphone in my bag.

He stared into the middle distance, watching the scene play out in his memory. "Heart-breaking..."

We'd been talking about his last production as artistic director at the National Theatre, directing Ian Holm in King Lear. As a student, I'd queued for hours to get a ticket on the last night. It remains one of the best Shakespeare productions I've seen. What is his favourite line from the play? That look again. "There's something about 'it smells of mortality.' And the simplicity of Lear's lines to Cordelia at the end, 'So we'll live / And pray, and sing, and tell old tales... Who loses and who wins; who's in, who's out'..."

A table away from us, in the green room of The Telegraph Hay Festival, his wife, the producer Sue Birtwistle sits talking with a friend of theirs. Richard had spent the last hour interviewing her about the task of adapting the phenomenally successful Cranford series and the Pride & Prejudice that brought the world's attention to Colin Firth.

"I'm a gentlemen, so I'm not going to say how long ago it was, but she was wearing suede trousers... so I suppose I'm saying it was her legs I noticed first. And I was her landlord," he grins. "And we've been together ever since."

Do you often work together? "No. We did once on the film of Lear we made after the run at the Cottesloe Theatre had ended. I directed and Sue produced." Was it difficult? "No," he says, flicking a smile over towards her, "but the thing is, it's impossible to get away from it. It's there at the breakfast table, at dinner..."

Their paths cross, artistically though. In their talk, Sue had described one of the joys of producing Cranford had been forming a Company of stellar actors that had to be kept on contract, sometimes for up to 17 weeks, taking turns to play the lead and the background artists in each others' scenes. "Her experience reminded me of my ten years at the National," he says. "Keeping a Company, working with actors you trust again and again."

I cautiously ask him if he misses the building. "Yes, everyday." In his diaries of his time there, National Service, he described the task of planning a repertoire of 17 shows a year for three theatres as 'three-dimensional chess in the dark', and writes starkly of the pressures such a task brings.

"Yes, but what was it Diderot said? Happiness is white? When you keep a diary you don't feel the need to capture all the moments of pleasure, 'Oh what a wonderful day,' that sort of thing. You use it to unload. But it was a wonderful time, I loved it, that creative freedom."

And ending your tenure with King Lear? "It's his greatest play." But you staged it in the smallest space. "I'd always planned to put it on in the Cottesloe. And Ian hadn't acted Shakespeare for 28 years - we wanted it to be an intimate experience for the audience."

Is there a Shakespeare you haven't done yet that you'd like to? He stares into the middle distance again. A few moments, as the wind whips up and rattles the green room tent. "Twelfth Night... I will do it... But you need the perfect cast."

I admit I used to severely dislike that play, until I was cast in it. Now, I love it. It's a perfect blend of comedy and tragedy. He agrees. Then turns the tables. "Who did you play?" It was my first professional Shakespeare gig, and I had the immortal line of Orsino's servant, agonising over how I should phrase 'Will you go hunt, my Lord?'

He laughs. "When I started out as an actor I played Mountjoy in Henry V. I had to give a speech to the army, standing onstage with the audience beyond, who couldn't see the hand gestures my troops were making, trying to put me off my lines..." He pauses. "You know, I think Shakespeare might have spent some time in the army, in Europe."

You mean during his 'lost years'? "Yes..." Shakespeare goes off-record in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1585 and surfaces seven years later in London, a working actor and playwright about to hit the big time. The theories of what happened to him are legion. "I'm fairly sure there are army references in every play." And there's that curious character, Parolles, in the somewhat odd play All's Well That Ends Well. "Exactly. There are little details scattered throughout the canon. It fits."

What about the conspiracy theorists? With the epic blockbuster director Roland Emmerich bringing out Anonymous later this year, a Da Vinci Code type of film revealing the hidden 'truth': that Shakespeare didn't write Shakespeare, and others were responsible for the works. He leans back in his chair, sweeps a hand through white locks. Glares now at the middle distance. "Ha, it infuriates me. It's ridiculous. Just because Shakespeare wasn't of the right stock, he can't have written these plays. It's maddening."

And in 400 years time they'll doubt a desk clerk came up with the theory of relativity? He laughs, the glare gone. "Quite."

Do you care for the recent trend to add big lights and sound, turning Shakespeare's plays into a multimedia event? He raises an eyebrow at me. "It's not my sort of thing... But you can do anything to Shakespeare, I can't bear people who say you should do this with him, and you mustn't do that. Shakespeare will endure, he's resilient. Look around the world, he works in any language. If we don't keep playing around with him, then we'll lose him."

An excited scream goes up from a gaggle of young interns. Rob Lowe is due to arrive soon, I explain, to give a talk. "Yes, I know, he and his wife are friends of ours. I directed him in a film of Tennessee Williams' Suddenly Last Summer. We had dinner the other night. He hasn't spoken at this sort of thing before. He was panicking about what one wears to a literature festival."

Wellies and a scarf? "Definitely."

I ask him where he thinks we are with contemporary theatre, what with all the funding cuts, and entire grants being taken away from long-established theatre companies. He had discussed with Sue earlier onstage the difficulties she had faced raising finance for such an epic undertaking as bringing the Cranford novellas to the small screen, even with Judi Dench attached.

He nods. "It wasn't reality, or a quiz. Drama will always suffer. But I'm hopeful. Incredibly hopeful. Ironically, it seems to be healthier than it was ten years ago. People want immediacy. I mean look where we are," he says, sweeping his hands out around us, "a literature festival, thousands of people coming here, wanting that interaction, that spark."

He stands to leave, they have to get back to London. So we come and we engage and we want our hearts to be broken? Again and again?

That stare again, but softer this time. He nods. "Yes. Well, I hope so..."