Richard McCabe’s work for the Royal Shakespeare Company includes The School of Night, The White Devil, Troilus and Cressida, Three Hours After Marriage, Timon of Athens and Othello. For the National, he has appeared in The Way of the World and The Merry Wives of Windsor.

McCabe played the title role in Hamlet in Birmingham, in a national tour and at Elsinore; Austin in The Beau at the Theatre Royal Bath and Haymarket; Mephistopheles in Doctor Faustus at the Young Vic; Salieri in Amadeus for City of London Sinfonia; and the title role in Scapino at Chichester Festival Theatre.

On television, he has appeared in To the Ends of the Earth, Trial and Retribution, A Prince Amongst Men, Killer Net, Under the Sun and Bramwell. His films include The Constant Gardener, Master and Commander, George IV, Notting Hill and Persuasion.

McCabe is now taking the title role in the RSC’s new production of King John, which runs in rep at Stratford’s Swan Theatre from 3 August to 10 October 2006 (previews from 27 July) as part of the company’s year-long Complete Works Festival. The political play, in which a disputed crown results in a heart-wrenching end to an innocent life, is directed by Josie Rourke, whose production of Philip Massinger’s Believe What You Will for the RSC transferred to the West End’s Trafalgar Studios earlier this year.

O’Rourke’s production of King John marks the fifth time the RSC has staged the play since Sir Peter Hall formed the company in 1961. The first was in 1970 and the most recent was in 2001.

Place of birth
I was born in Glasgow, but I moved down South at a young age.

Lives now in
Between west London and East Sussex. I live with my partner Fotini Dimou, a costume designer.

Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA). I had run away from home when I was 15 and was in the care of social services. It was my social worker who asked me “what are you going to do?”. Because I had enjoyed drama at school, he suggested I audition for drama school. RADA was the only one he had heard of so I applied there – and luckily I got in!

First big break
I’ve never thought of anything as being a big break. I’ve just worked consistently in the theatre and got bigger roles and more responsibility as I went along.

Career highlights to date
Elsinore Castle in Denmark was quite a high, playing Hamlet there. When you’re in the surroundings where the play is set, it’s almost magical. My last job with the RSC was Iago in Othello and that was also a high. These big Shakespearean parts are quite a challenge. If you can do justice to them, it gives you such satisfaction. Scapino at Chichester Festival Theatre was also great.

Favourite productions
The Midsummer Night’s Dream I did years and years ago (in 1989). It was something of a cult production - one woman saw it 40 times and loved it each time! I played Puck. It was one of those rare productions that generate such a feeling of goodwill. Everyone was really beaming and happy and we had standing ovations every night. I got into theatre for many varied reasons, but just to purely entertain was very satisfying.

Favourite co-stars
I’ve enjoyed working with most people I’ve worked with, and with each new production you get a new set of favourites. I know that sounds like a cop-out, but generally actors are some of the nicest people you’re ever likely to meet. I don’t know where this back-biting jealousy and pushy image comes from because I don’t know people like that. Maybe I’ve been lucky.

Favourite directors
Many. I have done a lot of work with Bill Alexander, he’s very good. I like directors who have great integrity and are interested in furthering the play, not their own needs. Michael Attenborough is another one, and I enjoyed working with Gale Edwards as well for the same reasons. When you come across people like that, it’s great because there are some who want to burden you with their concept - they have a pre-conceived idea of what it’s all about and you shouldn’t do that because acting is so subjective. The directors I’ve just mentioned are really refreshing. It’s best to come to a play fresh and open and willing. I’ve always believed great directing is at least 85 percent casting the right people in the right parts, if not more.

Favourite playwrights
Shakespeare - I have done so much of his work. You can spend your lifetime exploring Shakespeare. It’s really alarming that anything you’ve gone through Shakespeare seems to have experienced and writes about it in such an elegant and succinct way. I also have to single out Christopher Marlowe. I did Doctor Faustus with Jude Law and it’s one of my favourite plays. I’d love to have a crack at Faustus myself. Modern playwrights: Howard Barker, I very much like him.

What roles would you like to play still?
Faustus, Richard III is one I’d like to have a go at and it’s something I’ve been told I should play for a long time, also Macbeth and Cyrano. I don’t sit down at home thinking “hmmm I should play such and such”, so I don’t really have a list. Hamlet we did three times - we revived it in Birmingham and on a national tour and then a year later we got the call that they wanted the tour at Elsinore - and I got better each time. It’s extraordinary. When I had to relearn it the second time, I had to really learn it again; but when I had to relearn it for Elsinore, the part had stuck. I had very little I needed to go over. It’s very curious about the memory. I could quote great chunks from it now, it’s still in my head. I also played Mozart a couple of times in Amadeus and a couple of years back I did Salieri with the City of London Sinfonia. We had a full orchestra and choir and all the music in the play was played live. That was a career highlight as well, actually, combining those two loves of acting and music.

What was the last stage production that had a big impact on you? And the first?
Opera is something I’m really keen on. The last show I remember seeing was Götterdammerung, the last bit of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, at Covent Garden. It’s so passionate and beautifully sung and acted. Opera singers are getting so good at acting now. They used to just stand there and deliver the arias, but now they’re really good at acting out the stories and emotions. And Macropolis Case at the Coliseum, that was also wonderful. D’Oyly Carte at Brighton Theatre Royal was probably the first thing I saw. I do have a great love of opera. In acting, often great speeches are like arias. If you look at them closely, you’ll see they have the construction of classical arias, particularly in some of Shakespeare’s soliloquies. So there are correlations between music and drama.

Do you prefer acting on stage or screen?
They’re very different. But you can’t beat the live experience, that really is amazing having people right there. It’s something about the energy: it’s a two-way thing, you can feel the energy coming back to you from the audience as you’re putting it out there. On the best nights, you feel you’ve shared something together. Film is far more technical really. I love it equally, but you can never be certain that the take they’re going to use is the one you like best!

What might you have done professionally if you hadn’t become an actor?
I don’t know. It’s one of those questions you ask yourself from time to time. Acting seems so natural to me now, I just can’t imagine doing anything else in my life. I enjoyed music a lot. When I left RADA, I was in some bands. I answered an ad for a band Glen Matlock that the bass player from the Sex Pistols was starting up. I joined them and toured about. I was also in a band called Tenpole Tudor which had moderate chart success – before I joined! I also used to write music for productions I was in so perhaps that’s what I would do. I don’t know if I would have the technical skill to be a classical musician, but that’s what I would have loved to do other than acting.

What advice would you give the government – or the industry - to secure the future of British theatre?
The arts are chronically under-funded. In any other EU country, they actually value culture, but we don’t and I don’t understand it. This is the home of Shakespeare, people from all over the world come here to worship at the shrine of Shakespeare and we don’t even acknowledge it. Culture enlightens us and has a spiritual element and elevates us above the beasts, as somebody said. Commercial producers have to find the money to put shows on so they’ll always play safe to get the crowds in. In the West End, it’s all run-of-the-mill fare and trashy musicals that are on, not requiring anything of the audience other than to know a few hit Seventies songs.

Favourite books
I read a lot of history. I don’t have favourite books but favourite genres. I particularly enjoy medieval history and books about church architecture.

Favourite holiday destinations
The Greek islands are astonishingly beautiful. Because they’re so tied up with history - they’re basically the cradle of civilisation - it’s glorious to walk around the ruins. It’s a bit like when the Rose was uncovered a few years back at Kingston. We all went down there and though “my God, this was the spot”. There’s that thrill of association with the past.

Favourite websites
I have become a bit hooked on ebay. The great joy is finding those things you’d never find anywhere else. You could be searching for second-hand books all over the place, and it could take you a lifetime searching if you trawl around bookshops. But now you can just type it up on the internet. It’s an absolute joy.

Why did you want to accept your role in King John?
I remember doing it as a finals production at RADA 26 years ago. I only had a small part in it, but I remember being intrigued. It isn’t like most Shakespeare plays. I know it doesn’t fit with the other Histories, which are usually performed in two sets of four. It doesn’t join up with them because it’s an earlier period and it’s very experimental. Shakespeare is playing around with form and creates problems for modern audiences who like neatly packaged prose. I’m still finding out myself who the king is, but what I like most is the challenge of the piece because it is a very hard play. It’s a political play and it compresses the reign of King John so you have the murder of Arthur, ex-communication by the Pope, disagreement with the baron, all this 16-year reign compressed into three hours. And I really like the examination of kingship and kingship under pressure.

How does this production make 13th-century politics accessible to a modern audience?
That’s the curious thing about Shakespeare’s plays: they are all relevant to modern audiences. You find parallels within the play with modern circumstances, such as holy wars for instance and people persuading Philip to fight England on behalf of the church. You can never say all this is deliberate and we’re picking out these things to make them seem modern. The fact is, they are modern and history repeats itself time and time again.

You’ve worked extensively with the RSC. What is it about the company that you enjoy? How do you feel about being part of the Complete Works Festival?
I love the RSC. Coming to Stratford is a bit like coming home really because I have spent the majority of my working life here and grown and matured as an actor. The wonderful thing about Shakespeare is he explores some of the most profound insights into human nature you’re ever likely to come across. It’s spiritually nourishing to you as a person and the way people can find solace from poetry it just great. And you are speaking through the mouth of Shakespeare. It’s a great privilege to work in Stratford, the RSC shrine to Shakespeare, and it’s just glorious to be in the middle of the Complete Works.

What are your future plans?
I’ve been doing bits on telly and film. I like to flit between theatre and film to keep fresh. King John might be coming to London. We don’t know yet about a life in the West End, but it is going to Newcastle.

- Richard McCabe was speaking to Caroline Ansdell

King John runs in rep at Stratford-upon-Avon’s Swan Theatre from 3 August to 10 October 2006 (previews from 27 July) as part of the year-long Complete Works Festival.