It was time to make my solo directing return, and The Convict's Opera just happened to be the project. I did King of Hearts pretty soon after I came out of hospital which I co-directed with Ramin Gray, but I didn’t feel it was my best work. Then I did Mixed Up North at Lamda which was a devised project with the students and that went very well. Whereas before I had thought 'oh fuck it I can’t do it anymore', after Mixed Up North I thought 'no this is really quite good again'.

I suppose The Convict's Opera is the first singing, dancing, music and multimedia show I've done and putting it all together has been quite a challenge. But being able to do that was a real step forward in my road back to health. And it's a relief, because retirement was never something I envisaged.

There are undeniable parallels between The Convict's Opera and Our Country's Good, but in fact the two pieces are very different. It’s another bite at convict life - I found the early history of Australia so fascinating in Our Country’s Good that I was really keen to give it another go. The Beggar’s Opera, on which Convict's is based, was something I directed in the 70s at Nottingham Playhouse for Richard Eyre and I quite enjoyed it, but the thing is those 18th-century plays are so tricky. It's an extraordinary century because it's pre everything – it’s pre-Marxist but there are libertarian movements, it’s pre-feminist yet women are beginning to, as it were, think for themselves, it’s pre-Freud yet obviously it’s very sexy. It has everything there and I just thought 'yes I’d love to have another crack at The Beggar’s Opera'.

It’s extraordinary the number of plays written in that vein in the 18th century; The Beggar’s Banquet, The Beggar’s Wedding, The Beggar’s practically everything except the Beggar’s Bar Mitzvah. And then of course subsequently there’s The Threepenny Opera and so on. The idea of parroting the play is quite a familiar one.

I thought about who we could do a co-production with - Liverpool, Sheffield etc - and suddenly Australia came to mind. I thought 'I bet those buggers haven't seen it in a while!' If Hamlet is a play you see eight times in a lifetime, Uncle Vanya or The Seagull maybe three of four times, then Beggar's Opera is one you should probably see twice. I phoned a friend of mine who's a stage manager in Australia and, sure enough, he said it hadn't been seen there for fifteen years, and actually he was wrong, it hadn't been there for thirty years! So I proposed it as a co-production to Robyn Nevin at the Sydney Theatre Company and she was delighted by the idea – she embraced it and we went from there. The whole Anglo-Australian thing is great, it's meant I've got to work with a group of Australian actors who I've never seen or had any acquaintance with in their careers. It's a completely new experience.

- Max Stafford-Clark was speaking to Theo Bosanquet


The Convict's Opera opens on 22 January at the Salisbury Playhouse (previews from 15 January). It then tours to Cheltenham, Manchester, Oxford, Southampton Leeds, Warwick, Liverpool and Kingston.