Lucy Bailey's new RSC production of The Winter's Tale, starring Tara Fitzgerald and Jo Stone-Fewings, opens in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre this week (30 January, previews from 25 January).

Bailey's myriad directing credits include Timon of Athens and Titus Andronicus at the Globe, The Night Season at the National, Julius Ceasar for the RSC and Uncle Vanya at the Print Room, where she recently stepped down as co-artistic director.

The Winter's Tale runs in the RST until 23 February, before touring to Milton Keynes, York, Nottingham, Edinburgh, Hull and Stoke.

You've tackled a number of Shakespeare's plays - how high up your wish list was The Winter's Tale?
I'd say right at the bottom! I have a funny history with the play. I assisted on it years ago when I first started as a young assistant director at the RSC; it was an amazing production but a difficult play. It takes place in the court of Leontes in Sicilia and then at a sheep shearing festival in Bohemia. Every director and designer struggles to make dramatic sense of these utterly contrasting worlds. Mark Rylance then asked me to direct it for the opening of the Globe, which was an extraordinary gesture of trust. I felt too perplexed by the play at that stage in my life, especially in a new space like the Globe. I opted to do the fourth play of the season and chose the Beaumont and Fletcher (The Maid's Tragedy). It was definitely the right thing to do.

So what made you want to tackle it now?
When Michael Boyd asked me this time around, I hesitated again. I was so familiar with the last RSC production which ran in rep with my production of Julius Caesar. The rhythms that David Farr and the company had brought to the play were so embedded in me, I thought 'how am I going to separate myself out from this and come up with a fresh response?'. I re-read it and of course fell in love with it, as if I had never had a problem with it.

Did its status as a legendary 'problem play' add to the appeal?
I'm at that stage in rehearsal when you just want to crawl under the carpet and put a little white flag out and say "I admit defeat". It's really hard to remember back to that moment when you're reading it and think 'yummy, yummy a problem play!' But it's true, when I first read it, I of course relished the challenge. How do you crack the transition from sexy Sicilia to rural Bohemia? I felt my most important task was to create a Bohemia that was gritty, rooted and truly funny.

Not to mention the notorious bear
Indeed.

So what is your approach to the play?
My instinct was that Bohemia and Siciliy are the same place; what separates them is not the difference in country or clime, but the difference in class and means.

Could you expand on that?
Myself and my designer William Dudley took the idea of the Ivory Tower as the central metaphor for the play. Those in Sicilia at the top of the tower are privileged and rich, those at the bottom, in Bohemia are the working poor. We imagined Leontes' court in Sicilia as a community in flight from the harsh realities of the world. The reality is at the bottom of the tower where you find people having to live off next to nothing. So the separation of Bohemia and Sicilia is a separation of means, a way of living, who you are and what you're born into. One has the pleasures of wealth and leisure, the other one creates fun despite having next to nothing. Their fun has enormous meaning because for the rest of the year they're working. So it truly matters.

Did you have full control over the casting?
Yes I did. It also happened with The Taming of the Shrew which I directed last year for the RSC. It's much easier and less compromising than trying to cross-cast with several other directors.

Jo Stone-Fewings and Tara Fitzgerald in rehearsal for The Winter's Tale

What made you cast Tara Fitzgerald?
I've always wanted to work with her. I think she's remarkably instinctive, fresh, and real; all those astonishing qualities. It's been a delight. She's got this amazing ability to bring certain truth to roles and to make the text sound modern and new minted. She's very special and I'm very lucky.

And Jo Stone-Fewings?
I'm very excited about Jo - I've only seen him do really strong comedy and this is such a different role for him to play. Tara and Jo share the ability to make the text sound entirely natural. That's been a real bonus.

You've gone back to working freelance after running the Print Room. What lay behind your decision to leave?
Anda Winters and I had this amazing five-year journey, co-founding the theatre together, and creating a program of work. We didn't have a secure building and that brought a lot of uncertainty to the work. We could rarely forward plan. That meant that the ability to get projects going started to slow down profoundly. Also as two artistic directors, we were not only trying to find a way of working together, but within a situation which was becoming untenable. I found there was so much I wanted to do, but I couldn't get it going. That frustration became deeply difficult. The building really had to be stabilised if we were going to start to rock 'n' roll.

Would you like to run a building again in the future?
Certainly. In a way I am still grieving not having my own space. It was such a joy to have a space, a home. The sense of obligation to your local community and the pleasure of welcoming people through your doors - that was a revelation.

Do you have your hat in the ring for the Almeida job?
It would be an amazing theatre to run - it's an intimate beautiful space and still has such potential. My struggle at the moment is that I'm so immersed in The Winter's Tale which is all consuming - the real question for me is whether I have the space and time to properly pursue it.

How's your relationship with the RSC, in light of the big changes happening there at the moment?
When Michael Boyd invited me to direct Julius Caesar for the RSC it was one of the biggest moments in my career - it had always been my dream to be a director at the RSC. I saw Henry V when I was in my early teens. That was when it all began! So it was a really moving moment for me to be offered a job for the company - this is now my third show and I hope there will be more.

Harriet Walter recently discussed the idea of forming an all-female Shakespeare company - what are your feelings on the issue?
I totally understand where that comes from - it is so frustrating to see all-male companies when already the representation of women is so limited. One way to address it would be to form a company with an equal amount of women and men. We also need more plays written about women. Women are increasingly taking on roles in the world that they haven't previously done. The more this happens, the more they will be written about. So the shift will happen, and is happening.

What's important is to create a more balanced programme, with plays that offer more parts for women. I think that is really achievable.

The Winter's Tale runs in the RST until 23 February