Soon after graduating from Bristol Old Vic in the 1960s, Jane Lapotaire became a member of Laurence Olivier's National Theatre Company at the Old Vic, appearing over four years in a host of roles, including Jessica to Olivier's Shylock in Jonathan Miller's production of The Merchant of Venice.

From there, Lapotaire went on to establish a reputation as one of the leading stage actresses of her generation, with wide-ranging credits in both plays and musicals for, amongst others, the Royal Shakespeare Company, the National Theatre, in the West End and on Broadway.

Amongst Lapotaire's most memorable stage appearances have been: playing Edith Piaf in Piaf for which she won a Tony Award, opera diva Maria Callas in Terence McNally's Masterclass, and Gertrude to Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet. Her many other stage credits have included Shadowlands, Dear Anyone, Antigone, Venice Preserved, Ghosts, Henry VIII and her one-woman show, Shakespeare As I Knew Her.

On the small screen, Lapotaire has appeared in Marie Curie, Blind Justice, The Dark Angel, Ain't Misbehavin' and Midsomer Murders, while her film work includes To Catch a King, Surviving Picasso, Shooting Fish and There's Only One Jimmy Grimble.

In January 2001, at the age of 57, Lapotaire's career was cut short when she suffered a brain haemorrhage, which left her with side effects like fatigue and dizziness and a difficulty in dealing with loud noise and crowds. The actress' new memoir, Time Out of Mind, recounts her difficult road of recovery.

Date & place of birth
Born 26 December 1944 in Ipswich, Suffolk.

Trained at...
At the Old Vic School in Bristol under Nat Brenner, a great theatre visionary. He was a cloth-caped, self-educated socialist who saw theatre as absolutely essential to a community's understanding of itself. I did the two-year classical training, and spent most of my time staying up till two in the morning drinking more than I should. But being a classical actor is damn hard work - it's eight shows a week, and sometimes two or three different shows. It's nothing to do with seeing your name in neon lights and huge bank balances. But the life of an actor is now misunderstood and diminished. At best, the actor is the channel through which the playwright speaks, and it's nothing to do with ego or cleverness. I caught the theatre bug early, and it became my passion: I lived, breathed, walked, talked and dreamt theatre.

Lives now in...
I have a home in Putney where I've lived for 20 years, and which is the only home I've ever owned. It's a little terrace house in a street of great variety. There are yuppie city couples, housing association people, and I like it. It's not Chelsea and it's not Clapham, but very distinctive. There's also a park at the bottom of the street that overlooks the river. And it's on the Tube line to my son's school, and he can cycle to his father!

I also rent a cottage in Warwickshire, where I live when I work for the RSC in Stratford. I've struggled to keep it on financially, but it's been an absolutely essential bolthole for me during this illness. I can't cope with London for more than three or four days. It's hard travelling on the District Line when it's 97 degrees without brain damage. Travelling with brain damage when it's 97 degrees ... I now know what hell must be like, it's the District Line in July! Being in the countryside is life and breath to me. I have to have trees and space and quietness.

First big break
It came as soon as I left drama school. Two students a year are taken into the Bristol Old Vic Company, and I was one of them. We did a different play every three weeks - Shaw, Coward, Shakespeare, Congreve, you name it. It was the most wonderful challenge and variety, and it provided a taste of the classical repertory that's simply not available to actors nowadays. Then I got seen by a scout from the National Theatre and went to audition for Laurence Olivier, which was an utterly terrifying experience, but I got the job and joined his National Theatre company at the Old Vic, where I stayed for four years. So I spent my first six years in the theatre without a day out of work. I was very privileged, but also very tired and very poor!

Career highlights to date
It's not for me to say, but I suppose the things that I won awards for are the things that other people think are my career highlights. Those include Marie Curie for the BBC; the play Piaf, of course, for the RSC; the television series Blind Justice with Jack Shepard; Shadowlands in the West End with Nigel Hawthorne; and Catherine of Aragon in Henry VIII for the RSC.

Favourite productions you've ever worked on
Piaf was a very happy company, thanks to director Howard Davies. Henry VIII, which we also took to New York and Washington DC, was also very happy, thanks to director Gregory Doran and Paul Jesson who played Henry.

Favourite co-stars
There are two actors I love, both now dead: my darling Maurice Denham, who played Nigel Hawthorne's father in the Marie Curie series; and dear Nigel, who I played opposite three times, in Marie Curie on TV, in Shadowlands on stage and also when I played Rosalind for Peter Gill at the Riverside Studios and Nigel played Touchstone, in As You Like It. I also love Paul Jesson. If you don't get on with your leading man, you shouldn't say yes to doing the part in the first place. And Edward Petherbridge, because he's hysterical. I've never laughed so much as when I've worked with him. He's extremely wicked!

Favourite directors
Peter Gill, a master who I've worked with four times, must come top of the list. Also Howard Davies, Jack Gold on television, Jonathan Miller, my ex-husband Roland Joffe, who is a wonderful director, and Gregory Doran. They all provide a rehearsal room where you can make a fool of yourself and it doesn't matter. If you don't get it wrong in the rehearsal room, there's something wrong with the rehearsal.

Favourite playwrights
My favourite has to be Shakespeare, followed very closely by Ibsen, followed very closely indeed by Arthur Miller. With Shakespeare, I've spent my working life having my entire life enriched by his work and his understanding of human nature. And his words are such great stuff to speak! Now in my dotage, he helps pay my bills, because I teach Shakespearean masterclasses! I love Ibsen, because of what he doesn't say; and Miller because he's such a wonderful craftsman, and because of his politics. Miller came into rehearsals for a week when I appeared in his play The Archbishop's Ceiling. Stella Gonet and I (who were the only women in the play) were going up in the lift and we said, "We've met Mr Right - we're in love!" You're aware when you're in his presence that he's a very great human being indeed, but he's deeply modest, a man of few words. I also admire Caryl Churchill enormously. Top Girls was the first play I ever directed, for a production at the Oxford School of Drama, and the more I got to know the play, the more admiration I had for her writing. And I like Timberlake Wertenbaker's work, though I've sadly not done any of her plays.

What roles would you most like to play still?
The biggest part of that question is "if I'm able". If I were able to, I'd like to go back and be re-acquainted with Maria Callas. I was midway through playing her in a tour of Master Class when my brain injury occurred. I'd also like to play the Countess in All's Well that Ends Well. But at the moment, I'm writing my first novel, because my brain injury has wiped out any stamina I once had. It's my fourth book but my first novel.

What's the last thing you saw on stage that you really enjoyed?
Fallout by Roy Williams at the Royal Court was astonishingly well acted and very powerful and very brave, but it made me worry, because there's so little hope in it. It's so easy to tell it like it is. We all know, or have a rough idea, about what's wrong with a society where Stephen Lawrence and Damilola Taylor get killed. But I really do think it's a playwright's job, not just to expose the bare bones and rotting flesh, but also to at least give some indication of which direction healing can come from. It's asking a lot, I know, because writing a play is the most difficult form of literature there is. I would never dream of attempting it in a zillion years, and I take my hat off to people who do.

What would you advise the government to secure the future of British theatre?
After our national monuments and the Royal Family, theatre is up there at the top of list of reasons why tourists come to this country. So I want the government to remind themselves about what a cultural treasure they have, and to pat people like Nicholas Hytner on back for doing the £10 season at the National, which stops theatre becoming so elitist.

If you hadn't become an actor, what would you have done professionally?
I wanted to be a writer. It was only because my mother and stepfather said I'd never make it as an actor that I decided I would show them and do it! Now I have a chance to go back to my first love.

If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
Mary Magdalene or Eleanor of Aquitane. I want to know the truth about Mary and Jesus - there's lot more to it, I think, than the Vatican have ever allowed out! And I'd like to be Eleanor because I fancy myself as Duchess of three-quarters of France and Queen of England. Eleanor lived till she was 86 - no mean feat in the 12th century - and was married to two of the most powerful men of the time. I once played her in a mediocre TV series, The Devil's Crown, which didn't work so we called it The Devil's Groan! But I feel I was robbed of her; if ever I was tempted to write a play, it would be about her.

Favourite holiday destinations
I have to go and have a yearly dose of France. I feel sometimes more at home there than in England. I love France, but I hate the French - I'm allowed to say that, being French myself! They're such arrogant bastards. It's a bit like going home, though I don't have one there anymore so I stay with friends in a village instead. For a real holiday treat, it has to be Italy. You've got to be a cardboard box not to love Italy! The food is wonderful, and the Italians are so lovely and chaotic - the opposite of the French!

Favourite books
I never open one of my own after it's published, so it wouldn't be one of them! It's like watching yourself on film or telly - there's nothing you can do to change it if you don't like it, so it's like sticking your finger in a scar! I was a total bookworm as a child. My local library was my sanctuary, and I used to come back with five or six books a week. So I read a lot. My favourite authors are Virginia Woolf, Margaret Foster, Marion Milner and George Eliot - she was gutsy and lived a brave life and wrote about working-class people. Adam Bede is my favourite. I fell in love with it the first time I read it.

What books have you written?
My first book was called Grace and Favour, about a little girl growing up illegitimate after the war and trying to piece together the jigsaw of who she was and where she belonged. I was one of thousands of war babies who never knew who their father was. Then came Out of Order, a haphazard journey through one woman's year. It was a collection of journalism I did originally for the Glasgow Herald and, as a way of earning some more money from it, I turned it into a book. Now, there's Time Out of Mind, which has just spent three weeks in the best seller list and is going into paperback in February!

How & when did your brain aneurysm occur?
I was teaching a Shakespearean masterclass for an International School in Paris. I don't normally teach 16- to 18-year-olds, because you've got to work like mad to get them to the starting line, and I've been spoilt by working with undergraduates or young professionals at the Actors' Centre, but these seemed a pretty enthusiastic bunch. I never got to give the class, though, because the floor buckled under me and the walls went wavy and I found myself in intensive care. It's important that people know that what happened to me is the third biggest killer in the world, but no one knows anything about it if you've suffered it, because the scars can't be seen once your hair grows back. Unlike a stroke, where the brain is robbed of oxygen by a clot, with a brain aneurysm, an artery bursts and floods the brain with blood. One in four people die where they fall, so I'm a very lucky lady indeed.

In the first chapter of my book, I say that nearly dying was the easy bit. The struggle to get through an ordinary day as you recover is huge, as your brain is left sensitive to noise, to colour, to movement. You can't cope with traffic or television or radio, never mind dealing with the VAT or income tax! You're going to spend two, three, four or ten years trying to learn to live again, and the big problem is that you look the same as you always did, so people don't make allowances for you. Because your brain is left swollen and full of the chemicals they pump into you to keep you alive on the operating table, you're liable, as I was, to be irritable, aggressive, confrontational, emotional and overwhelmed, by the simplest things. I couldn't walk to the village shop and back without feeling utterly exhausted.

So they tip you out of hospital with 'no impairments', and that's when the real struggle begins. I have no speech impairments and I'm not in a wheelchair, but I can still end up completely overwhelmed by getting through an ordinary day of living and I am not unique. Travelling is a nightmare - the brain doesn't like being moved - and you can feel it inside your head, it's quite alarming. I'm lucky, because I've had very good but very tired guardian angels, working overtime. I've also had an incredible amount of mail and it's been very moving: people saying to me, how did you know how I felt?

What's been the scariest part of your recovery?
I had no idea what had happened to me for a long time. The brain is in shock, but your brain is you, and the essential you has been operated on so you have no idea what's going on. I don't think I understood what had happened to me for about 18 months. It's only because, thank God, I got some help from the National Hospital of Neurology and Neuro Surgery, that I now know. They teach you how to cope with your new brain. I lost a lot of friends, because my injury is in the part of the brain that deals with social behaviour, and I would come out with exactly what I thought. Now I know that, when I'm suffering from acute brain fatigue, I need to shut my mouth, get out of room and stay quiet. The scariest thing was not being responsible for my own behaviour - and not knowing why people were running in the opposite direction every time I opened my mouth.

Why did you want to write Time Out of Mind?
I wrote it for two reasons. One, there's a limit to how many scarves you can crochet or knit without going completely up the wall, and two, I realised as my convalescence went on that there were thousands of people in my position who had been tipped out of hospital supposedly okay, but were having a nightmare trying to adjust to the world with a new brain and having no help at all. I was lucky enough to get help thanks to Mr Neil Kitchen at the National Hospital of Neurology.

No one had written about this before. I want to raise consciousness of brain haemorrhages, so that those who have suffered it and their relatives can find out that they're not unique in their crankiness, tearfulness or irritability. It's part and parcel of their recovery, if they are lucky enough to survive the initial collapse.

Do you think you'll return to the stage at some point?
I can't give up hoping I will. But I'm also very lucky to be able to teach and write. I have to live within what I'm capable of doing at the moment, but I'm hoping that one day that will extend to being in the theatre again. I do miss it dreadfully - I miss the comradeship. There's nothing like all of you going through that hoop together every night. You build such trust; if you screw up, you've only got your mates to rely on. And I've had tears rolling down my face listening to people like Richard Griffiths, Ian Charleson, Edward Petherbridge and Malcolm Tierney tell jokes after the show.

- Jane Lapotaire was speaking to Mark Shenton

Jane Lapotaire will be talking about her memoir, Time Out of Mind, in a National Theatre Platform discussion, which takes place at 6.00pm on Friday 8 August 2003 in NT Cottesloe.

You can also enter our competition to WIN one of ten copies of the book in our competition. Click here to enter. Competition ends 12 September 2003.