There's a lovely history regarding the Hampstead Theatre and Private Lives. It was the theatre's first commercial success when James Roose-Evans directed it three years after founding the venue in 1959. And it was hugely important for Coward too, because up until that point he'd been suffering a real lapse in popularity. Since the war, he had steadily been replaced by a new generation of writers, and I think this came as a big shock to him considering how successful and revered he was in the 1920s and 30s - but that production kick-started something of a renaissance for him. So I think it's a very fitting choice to open the theatre's 50-year anniversary season, and I'm delighted to be directing it.

Whilst at university I had a very set preconception of Noel Coward – in the arrogance of youth I thought he only did very stilted drawing room farces. But once I had the humility to actually read his plays, I realised how well he writes for women, how prescient his scenes are, and actually how erotic a lot of his work is. In many ways he was radical, and like all writers of that period he was dealing with both censorship and a deep reaction to the First World War. I think his plays have a really interesting voice – a very existentialist voice. After all, how can one believe in God after such a brutal conflict?

I'm leaving the text well alone, I'm not doing a makeover. You could try and do something drastic in the staging but I think you'd be throwing out something very important about the piece. I think the resonance of the play is clear - it's a very funny yet very painful excavation of human behaviour. It revolves around a divorced couple who honeymoon with their new spouses in the same hotel, and realise how much they still love each other. It's a very economic piece, yet it touches on so many fundamental themes, the major one being the impossibility of love.

You can take enormous risks with it theatrically, because Coward was taking risks. I think a lot of people still get Coward's plays confused with his own image – it's not just about people poncing around with cigarette holders! There's actually a lot of pain contained within his plays, which reflects the situation in his own life; being a homosexual in those days can't have been easy. That melancholy, that sense of being an outsider, a deep lack of fulfilment - there's a real tension there  you can exploit, which is very much rooted in the period.

Next up I'm directing Julius Caesar with the new ensemble company at the RSC, so it's rather the opposite end of the spectrum to Private Lives! It'll obviously be very different in terms of scale, but I'm very much looking forward to returning to Shakespeare and working on such a big canvass.


Private Lives opens on 27 January (previews from 22 January), running until 28 February.