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Shakespeare Unlimited podcast

Adrian Lester

On Playing Rosalind, Henry V, Othello, and Hamlet

Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 213

We could listen to Adrian Lester talk about acting all  day… but we’ll settle for this 37 minute episode. The actor joins us to discuss some of his most famous performances, including Rosalind in Cheek by Jowl’s acclaimed 1991 all-male As You Like It, Hamlet with Peter Brook, and Henry V and Othello with Nicholas Hytner. Plus, Lester takes us back to his childhood in Birmingham and tells us about his patronage of the Everything to Everybody project and the Birmingham Shakespeare Library. Lester is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

Listen to Shakespeare Unlimited on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Soundcloud, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Lester, a Birmingham native, is the project patron of Everything to Everybodya joint project of The University of Birmingham and Birmingham City Council to revive the city’s Birmingham Shakespeare Memorial Library.  Housed in the iconic Library of Birmingham, the Shakespeare Memorial Library is world’s first great public Shakespeare library; From its very beginning, its collection belonged to all the people of its city. Birmingham’s copy of the First Folio is currently on a year-long tour of Birmingham community spaces.

From our Shakespeare Unlimited podcast. Published July 4, 2023. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This episode was produced by Matt Frassica. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer. Leonor Fernandez edits our transcripts. We had technical help from Voice Trax West in Studio City, California. Final mixing services provided by Clean Cuts at Three Seas, Inc.

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Watch a documentary featuring footage of Cheek by Jowl’s famous production of As You Like It, with Lester as Rosalind.


MICHAEL WITMORE: Today, one of the great contemporary Shakespeareans looks back at some of his signature roles, including his breakout as Rosalind.

From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Whitmore, the Folger Director. Adrian Lester performed the role of Rosalind in an all-male 1991 production of As You Like It by the company Cheek by Jowl.

[CLIP from Cheek by Jowl’s 1991 production of As You Like It. Adrian Lester is Rosalind and Scott Handy is Orlando.]

He that will divide a minute into a thousand parts and break but a part of the thousand part of a minute in the affairs of love, it may be said of him that Cupid hath clapped him o’ th’ shoulder, but I’ll warrant him heart-whole.

ORLANDO: Pardon me, dear Rosalind.

Nay, an you be so tardy, come no more in my sight. I had as lief be wooed of a snail.

ORLANDO: Of a snail?

ROASLIND: Ay, of a snail. For though he comes slowly, he carries his house on his head.

WITMORE: That production toured the world and was revived a couple years later for another world tour. His performance as Rosalind won Lester international praise and prepared him well for the role of Oliver in Kenneth Branagh’s film adaptation a decade later.

In between, Lester appeared in the first British production of Six Degrees of Separation, won an Olivier Award for the lead role in Sondheim’s Company, and played Hamlet under the direction of Peter Brook.

Lester is also working to make sure more young people have access to Shakespeare’s plays. His native city of Birmingham, England holds the world’s earliest public Shakespeare collection at its library, a fantastic resource for the people of that city.

Birmingham is in the midst of a multiyear initiative called Everything to Everybody to make the collection come alive for new audiences, with Lester as the project’s patron.

Here’s Adrian Lester in conversation with Barbara Bogaev.


BARBARA BOGAEV: You performed Hamlet with Peter Brook in 2002. So I’d like to listen to your “To Be” soliloquy.


[CLIP from the 2002 production of Hamlet, directed by Peter Brook. Adrian Lester is Hamlet.]

To be or not to be—that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And, by opposing, end them. To die, to sleep—
No more—and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to—’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep—
To sleep, perchance to dream. Ay, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause.

BOGAEV: And now 14 years later, in 2016, The Guardian did a series called Shakespeare Solos, and they invited actors to perform key speeches. You got the biggie: “To Be”.

[CLIP from The Guardian’s Shakespeare Solos. Adrian Lester is Hamlet.]

To be or not to be—that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And, by opposing, end them. To die, to sleep—
No more—and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to—’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep—
To sleep, perchance to dream. Ay, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause.

BOGAEV: It’s so great to hear those back-to-back. How did you think about that speech for The Guardian series 14 years later? I mean, did you have a whole different take on it because you’re a different person after all that time?

I ask that because as a reader of Shakespeare and seeing the plays, I always react differently as life goes on.

LESTER: Yeah, you have a different view on life as you do the same speeches. The speeches don’t change, the words don’t change, but we do.

As I came back to do the speech again, the idea of mortality just rang out louder in my head, you know, because you’re getting older.

I also remembered that when I did the speech on stage in the production, I would take my pulse at that point in the play. And I would, whatever the meter of my—whatever the rhythm of my pulse was, the meter of it, that’s how I began the first few words.

BOGAEV: So when you came back to do the Guardian version, were you… you’re completely out of that production, it’s long in the past, and you were approaching it how?

LESTER: The camera is very different. In a theater, there’s a technical side in which you have to introduce an idea of heft, if you like: projection. That whatever you are feeling has to be lifted gently across the stage to the audience. Because it’s a big space, you have to just give it a slight assist. But while you give it that kind of assist, you can’t destroy the honesty and the truth of what you’re actually truly feeling.

But with the Guardian piece, I didn’t have to do that. I could be as introverted and as quiet as I liked because I was mic’d and the camera was on close up.

BOGAEV: What interests me with your Hamlet, especially way back when with Peter Brook, was that the whole production seemed to be so intensely internal. As if really we’re visiting—we’re dwelling in Hamlet’s mind the whole time.

LESTER: Yeah, yes, Peter wanted that. And I remember we played in some theaters on our yearlong tour. We played in some theaters that were so big, Peter would ask that a curtain be dropped after a certain section of seats. So that they did not sell, you know, the back rows of these big theaters. They only sold the first, like, I don’t know, eight rows or something because he wanted to keep that intimacy.

He said that he felt that if you introduce actors to a big space, their instinct is to fill it. Sometimes, when you fill a huge house, some of the intimacy and the detail can be lost. He was determined that that wouldn’t happen with this play.

BOGAEV: I read somewhere that he had concepts for this Hamlet that he was playing with, and one is very clear when you watch it: That it’s a play of questions. Brook begins and ends the play with, “Who’s there?”


BOGAEV: So how did that overarching concept influence you in your choices with the character?

LESTER: It taught me a lot, really. Because even the idea of, “Who’s there,” it’s, “Who’s there,” as in, “Who’s out there? Can I see you? I don’t know what’s out there. Is that a ghost? Make yourself known to me.” But also, “Who’s there,” if you’re on your own in a quiet room and you say, “Who’s there?”

It’s a question for self-discovery, because we don’t know who we are, none of us do. We attach ourselves to objects and to faiths and to other people as much or as little as we want to, and they may, in some sense, help us define who we are. But, one of the things that Shakespeare does brilliantly is he allows the character to reveal itself to itself, live, in front of the audience.

Every one of Shakespeare’s major characters, in their major soliloquies, they don’t know who they are. They are actually in that process of discovery as they speak to the audience in that moment.

And, it is always pushed up. There’s, like, a three point—there’s, like, a triangle. There’s who they think they are, that they hold on to. There is the problem or the dilemma they’re trying to solve. And they’re trying to work out what that means, then. What does that mean: “I am?” “Am I evil? Am I good? Can I trust the ghost? Can I not? Maybe it’s there to test me, but maybe it’s not. Maybe I’m overthinking this. Maybe—”

It’s a wonderful way of creating character. The character isn’t fixed and chooses to reveal itself to the audience via the situations on stage as it goes through the play—that isn’t Shakespeare. What Shakespeare does is the character has an idea of who it thinks it is. As the process of the play, as the situations test the person and shape the person and push the person, just like life, the character starts to shift and change and become something else.

The wonderful thing is, if major characters in his plays can be a different people at the end than they were at the beginning. That’s the best journey.

BOGAEV: This is so vivid to you, all these years later. That’s wonderful.

LESTER: Yeah, it’s all still there, yeah. People said to me, “Oh you’ll play Hamlet again though. You’ll play Hamlet again.” And I looked at it and I thought, “No I won’t.”

BOGAEV: Never say never!

LESTER: I’m far too old.

BOGAEV: Let’s talk about another great one: Henry V with Nicholas Hytner. This is also back when—this was during the Iraq war, or right before it, I understand you started rehearsals. Then, it became an anti-Iraq war, of sorts, Henry V. How do you think about a production speaking to modern day politics and the Iraq War and Tony Blair and all that, without making it an overt political statement?

LESTER: If you can be honest about what Shakespeare says in the plays, if you can be honest about it, then the truth of that will live with us for years. If you try to dress it up and give it a style or a thing or an idea, the style will die. The idea will die and sometimes they take the play with it. But, if you just stick to the truth of what’s being said, if you stick to the fear that Henry has when he begs, he gets on his knees and he begs God to forget about the sins of his father and what he did to his dad, did to get the crown, you know. All that—What he’s desperately trying to say, “Please don’t let the sins visit me now and kill me in the morning.” It’s just this absolute fear of this young man who thinks he’s going to die.

And, he wants to know if his soldiers are okay, and if they’re fully behind him. Because he doesn’t want their deaths on his head. It’s so important because when they say, “No, we follow the king. And if the king’s wrong, then it’s on his head,” and Henry as this other character just goes, “What?”

BOGAEV: Right, he gets angry.

LESTER: Yeah, it’s really important for him. In our production, as Henry is saying this to these men, he’s coming up with reasons and, you know, similes and metaphors and ideas. And, you know, he’s doing all of that. And they look at each other like, “What the hell is wrong with this guy?” They simply walk away to another part of the stage and leave him almost talking to himself. Then he realizes that they’re not there and he crosses again and tries to push the argument until they agree to just, “Mate. Calm down, calm down, it’s okay.”

They look at this soldier whose face they can’t really see and just realize, “Look. Yeah, it’s a big day tomorrow, just calm down. Let’s just get some sleep,” you know? And that’s quite real. That’s quite guttural, if you like.

I wanted to hold on to that. I just don’t want to let go of the real ideas behind the poetry. I don’t want to get lost in the poetry. I want to get a good solid fist full of the ideas behind the poetry. From the moment I walk out on that stage to the moment I walk off, I do not want to let go of those ideas. Because it’s always about something that’s very, very, very powerful.

It’s true. It’s absolutely true, for every actor, that you will walk out on stage pretending to be in a situation that people in the audience who have paid to watch you have really lived through. They’ve really lived what you are pretending to live on stage.

So, you have to—your job, you have to reflect back to them, inside the poetry. the reality of what they felt. Or you’re not doing your job. I don’t care how many sit-ups you’ve done. I don’t care how many movies you’ve done. I don’t care. If you don’t do that, you’re not doing your job.

BOGAEV: Wow, that’s such a window into—

LESTER: I’ll get off my soapbox now.

BOGAEV: But that’s such a window into the urgency with which you imbue your acting.

Henry is really different from a lot of Shakespeare leading men because you have a backstory you can consult, actually. You have the other Henrys and you have Henry IV, Part II, where you see Hal’s evolution and at the end, he renounces his old self to Falstaff. I imagine you make use of all that history in your interpretation.

LESTER: Yes. Yeah.

BOGAEV: But do you also go through a research process? Do you have a consistent research process for, at least, for these Shakespeare plays, or does it change for every role?

LESTER: It changes for every role. Like, when I played Rosalind, there was no history to look at really. Because it’s a tale of lovers that takes place in the woods in a sort of never-never-land where there are lions. And, you know, it has that sort of magical quality to it. What was more important was what was being said and what was being felt.

When I played that role—at first, I didn’t want to play that role. At first, I just thought, “This is one of the best parts ever written for a woman. Why should I do it?” And do it in the sort of panto production where, you know, there’s lots of men pretending to be women.

And I just looked at it and thought the only reference I had was a kind of a pantomime thing, and I just went, “I don’t want to do that kind of performance.”

BOGAEV: Right. We should say for people who didn’t see it that you were in As You Like It and you were Rosalind. It was an all-male cast—I don’t know why.

LESTER: I didn’t know why to start with either. I thought, “Well, I don’t want to do that.”

So, the director asked if I would come and read for Orlando. He said, “Read for Orlando. We don’t know if we’re going to do a cross cast or, you know, single-sex cast. I mean, we don’t know. I’m just exploring the ideas.”

I said, “Okay, I’ll come and read for Orlando.”

And then I went to meet Declan Donnellan and then Nick Ormerod, and Cheek by Jowl. I sat and I read for Orlando, and we talked about the character of Orlando. We talked about Rosalind. We talked about love. We talked about perception. We talked about identity. We talked about perceptions of gender in many ways, way before it became a sort of hot topic of conversation.

I was going back home on the train and I thought, “This is going to be brilliant.” I thought, “This is—whatever he does is going to be fantastic.”

I got back to Coventry, because I was performing in Coventry. And I just called my agent and I said, “Listen, if they haven’t found a Rosalind, please tell them that I would love to be seen for Rosalind.” Declan agreed and I came back down the weekend after and auditioned again

At that point, I thought, “Let me just be in this production.” So, I was taking two swings.

BOGAEV: Here, the big question, what kind of insights did playing Rosalind give you into how the play might have come across in Shakespeare’s time with men playing the women’s roles? Boys playing the women’s roles?

LESTER: He said that there is an idea, behind the idea of love, that can get lost in our perceptions of what we look like, what we sound like, how pretty or beautiful or manly or masculine or whatever we think we are. There is an idea running through this play that somehow your external self is nothing. What matters is your perception of what you can reach in the other person and what that person reaches in you. You see two people learning how to do that. Trying to do that in a world that is hostile to both of them.

I thought, “Yeah, I’m in.” It’s about decluttering a human being of those elements that society says belongs to this gender or that gender. It’s about taking those elements off and making yourself almost more purely human in your vulnerable connection to another person.

When they’re in those wooing scenes, you just, you just forget. You just don’t see gender at all. You don’t see biological sex. You just see two young people trying to, work out what love is.

[CLIP from the Cheek by Jowl 1991 production of As You Like It. Adrian Lester is Rosalind and Scott Handy is Orlando.]

ROSALIND: What would you say to me now an I were your very, very Rosalind?

ORLANDO: I would kiss before I spoke.

ROSALIND: Nay, you were better speak first, and when you were gravelled for lack of matter, you might take occasion to kiss. Very good orators, when they are out, they will spit; and for lovers lacking—God warn us—matter, the cleanliest shift is to kiss.

BOGAEV: Okay, bear with me. I want to talk about two of your parts kind of mushed together, because we just had your wife, your lovely wife, Lolita Chakrabarty, here, talking about the play that she wrote about Ira Aldridge, Red Velvet. And you played Ira Aldridge.


BOGAEV: She was delightful talking about that. Just to remind everyone, Ira Aldridge was an African American classical actor who came to Britain in the early 1800s. He took over the role of Othello from Edmund Keene and in London’s Covent Garden. So, big debut.

He got some startling reviews and upsetting ones. Then he went—he did go on to become one of the most lauded actors in Europe. It’s this amazing story. And I understand you brought the idea to her and said, “Have you ever heard of this guy? Because…” So that’s wonderful.

But, then what’s so odd for you, you go from playing Ira Aldridge performing Othello, to performing Othello yourself for the National Theater again with Nick Hytner. So how did you translate that to performing Othello and how did you just solve that conundrum?

LESTER: That, again, was a real journey of discovery. I think what draws me to my jobs is that I really… I want to be a better actor after I finished the job than I was before I started it. It’s a lot of work. It’s hard. As far as I’m concerned, there’s no point doing it if you’re not going to feel like a better actor at the end. There’s got to be a takeaway that is positive for you.

So, I did Ira at what was then the Tricycle Theatre. It’s now The Kiln. Ira’s acting had to be—it had to have an old style to it, but it had to be more modern than the style of the actors he was rehearsing with. He had to bring something fresh, something different.

BOGAEV: Right, because he was just the dawn of being more natural as an actor.

LESTER: Yes, he was at the dawn of being more natural. What I did was I looked at the… it was very much an idea that the actors of the Georgian style. The actors of that time would create moving paintings. Sometimes they would adopt a pose of a painting and speak elements of text and then move and adopt another pose.

The audience would comment on the pose: turn of the leg, the angle of the head, the elocution, the roll of the vowel. They’d comment on all of these things, the critics. Looking at how the actor looked and sounded in the role and how beautiful. It was always to do with taking the story, taking the art form, and making it beautiful. It was beautiful sorrow, beautiful tears, beautiful anger. It was always beautiful.

I wanted to bring into that a very immediate and felt, kind of, silent movie acting. So that there was no stillness in Ira’s movement. He kept moving. It was the concentration, the focus of his gaze had to be heightened. If you look at some silent movie stars, the horror stories, Nosferatu, you know that kind of thing. The gestures and the style to depict what I’m feeling was all there, but there was also a real immediacy of connection between the characters. Because the camera came right into to their thought process.

There’s a moment in Nosferatu where the character is just creeping very slowly towards the prey. I remember watching that and thinking, “That is wonderful,” because in silence there’s nothing going on, it’s just silent. But you only have your gaze, your focus, and your physicality to represent, you know, your intention and drive that through.

That style of movement became central to his performance. It was so scary to do when doing Red Velvet, because if you ask any actor to show you some bad acting, what they will do is a mimicry of that kind of acting that we were doing through the whole production, which is wide knees—

BOGAEV: Oh, yeah, that’s the knife edge you were walking on.

LESTER: Yeah, it’s wide knees, big gestures, big vowel sounds, big eyes, you know? And that’s bad acting. But we had to live right inside that physical art form and yet deliver something that was honest and visceral and true.

BOGAEV: And transcendent. And then to go to Othello, who has this very stately way of speaking in which—who can sound bombastic or stiff. Often, I see plenty of productions where Othello sounds that way, and it doesn’t quite hit me right. How did you approach his speaking style, especially coming off of this challenge of Ira?

LESTER: I realized while doing the production, I was trying to sound like the idea of an Othello that I believed people were expecting to hear. I tried to do this, and I thought, “I didn’t know what am I doing. What am I doing? What am I doing?”

It was only… it really was doing my head in and about just over a week into rehearsal, I realized that Othello is engaged in the act of playing Othello. And the reason Othello is playing Othello: playing this idea of this great warrior, the idea of this man who’s come from nothing to everything.

The idea of that is because he’s trapped in a world where his deep insecurity is that everyone looks down on him, everyone sees him as something else. He’s involved in the act of playing this kind of great person. If you get underneath that, you’ll find a mess of emotions of a man who’s—of a kid who’s been fighting since he was seven. He’s been on a battlefield.

For me, someone in a modern dress production, someone who’s been fighting since the age of seven is a child soldier. My research went straight into what those kids have been through, and how they get, if you like, rescued. And what they’ve seen, and the trauma that they have with them.

Here’s someone who’s come—sort of come to terms with that and then carried on fighting. Carried on using skills on battlefields and bloodshed and has become this great general.

It’s very, very important for me that he tells his story of, “Oh, I traveled here. I did this. And then I was sold into slavery, and then…” The images of what happens to child soldiers, that’s all very true: getting sold to the other camp, getting chained to a post, told to prepare meals or wash up or wash clothes or clean boots. That happens to them and they don’t know if, on any given day, they’re going to be shot because they’re an enemy combatant.

So, having been through all of that, he tells the story to Desdemona. For me, it’s the most important moment in the play. When, for the first time in his life, he’s telling this story, and rather than go, “Ooh, oh gosh. Oh, wow. Oh my goodness, how many were there?” Rather than do that, Desdemona looks at him and she asks him, “You must have been scared. Were you alright?” She weeps for him.

[CLIP from Othello at the National Theatre. Adrian Lester is Othello.]

My story being done,
She gave me for my pains a world of sighs.
She swore, in faith, ’twas strange, ’twas passing strange,
’Twas pitiful, ’twas wondrous pitiful.
She wished she had not heard it, yet she wished
That heaven had made her such a man. She thanked me,
And bade me, if I had a friend that loved her,
I should but teach him how to tell my story,
And that would woo her. Upon this hint I spake.
She loved me for the dangers I had passed,
And I loved her that she did pity them.

LESTER: For the first time in his life, Othello, you know, that reaction goes right through all of his armor. It goes right through all of the skillful pretense that he has around him. It goes right to his heart and it breaks his heart. From that moment, he’s in love and he can’t do anything about it.

Iago plays around with Othello’s idea of a person that exists right underneath all of his armor. And that’s what pushes him over the edge.

BOGAEV: That’s the big challenge with Othello, I think. Which is, why does Othello immediately trust Iago and believe him and turn on a dime on Desdemona? That can be hard to understand; why he gets jealous so quickly.

I understand in Shakespeare’s time, audiences would just accept that. This is what characters—stock characters did. But, we’re not in Shakespeare’s time. You’re playing to a modern audience. I thought it was interesting that Hytner hired this 30-year army veteran as an advisor. What kind of insights did he give you into Othello and Iago’s relationship?

LESTER: They advised us for the military aspects: how to hold your weapon, the marching, the orders, the… you know, everything.

General Jonathan David Shaw. He watched a run of the production. He and a couple of his colleagues were in tears at the end. We thought, “Oh, great, it works.” But also, “Wow, the story of Desdemona, it moves him so much.”

They began to talk about that moment when Iago starts to lie. The three of them just started to well up and cry because they said, “You have to understand that the person who stands beside you on a battlefield is the most important person in your life at that point. You have to be able to trust them. You repeatedly trust that person with your life.”

And he said, “And, so, to watch someone who knew they were in that position of trust, gently turn around and lie to their general. And drive the general along a path of untruths”—They said it was just it made their skin crawl and they were in tears.

I suddenly thought, “Yeah, I don’t… it’s really good that we have them in the room—in the rehearsal room. Because a civilian wouldn’t understand that. They wouldn’t understand it.”

BOGAEV: I want to leave some time for you to talk about the project that you’re involved in and have been for years, so let’s talk about it. Everything to Everybody. It concerns a Shakespeare collection at the Birmingham Public Library and bringing it to a much wider audience. You’re from Birmingham. Did you even know that collection was there when you were growing up?

LESTER: I didn’t even know the collection was there. I was born and raised in Birmingham. I joined the youth theater. I performed at the Birmingham Rep.

BOGAEV: Yeah, you were a theater kid from way back.

LESTER: I was a theater kid from, yeah, from way back. And opera and, you know, lots of dancing.

BOGAEV: Breakdancing.

LESTER: Yeah, yeah.

BOGAEV: Does this mean you were a cool theater kid or a geeky theater kid?

LESTER: I had a foot in both camps. I think it was very… I had a foot in both camps, but I did everything. I’m grateful to the Midlands Art Center in Birmingham for allowing me to walk through its doors and just, you know, take advantage of everything they had going on there.

Yeah, that the Everything to Everybody project is—the city doesn’t know that there’s the oldest and largest Shakespeare collection in any public library in the world in Birmingham, and it belongs to the city of Birmingham. It belongs to the people of Birmingham.

The amount of languages that Shakespeare’s have been translated into, in the library—something like 90 languages—I think, exist up there. There are pamphlets and programs and, you know, pictures and etchings and gifts from all over the world have become part of the collection.

But, the collection has never really truly been on full display for the public. One of the founders of the of the Shakespeare Library was a lecturer called George Dawson, and he lived from 1821 to 1876. He, sort of, formulated this “everything to everybody” ethos, where he wanted the people of Birmingham to participate in—freely, to participate in the best that British culture had to offer at that time and claim it as their own. It was someone who was looking out and saying, “There’s no class system. There’s no ‘them,’ there’s no ‘us,’ there’s no… you don’t have a right to this, or a right to that. Everybody must take part in this because it is ours.” It was, sort of, a major stimulus to developing this modern civic culture. And Birmingham then was a new big city. It was a bright city.

So, Professor Ewan Fernie has found this collection, been attached to it, learned about it. He knows so much about Shakespeare. He thought, “Let’s tell the whole city that they are connected to an idea, that the city belongs to them, and the best the city has to offer belongs to them.”

That chimed in perfectly with me. That’s why I jumped on board and became an ambassador, because that’s what I think about culture, in Britain anyway. I think that there should be no door. There should be no barrier. I don’t think children should be charged a penny for accessing any culture in the country because it’s theirs. They should be able to access it understand it and reinvent it and play with it. And, in that way, that particular art form will live for another generation.

BOGAEV: Well, I’m thinking as you talk about all of the guests we have on the show who come in and say, you know—and they’re some of the best Shakespearean actors ever. They come in, and they say they didn’t think they were good enough or smart enough or white enough or whatever enough for Shakespeare growing up.

Was that the kind of elitism, something you had to overcome?

LESTER: I think I’m just really willful and determined. But I did see that the people that I admired as actors could do something quite simple and yet make it mean something incredible. They always had a classical basis to them. They always understood the deeper meaning behind words. They could always play with elements of expression that I just thought was wonderful.

I thought, “If I’m going to act, I want to be able to do that.” There were barriers in terms of people’s perception of what I could achieve. But I just sort of either worked with them and convinced them otherwise, or I just went around them.

BOGAEV: So—are you in the market for Lear now? Too soon, too early.

LESTER: It’s a bit… slightly too early, but it is a part I really want to play.

BOGAEV: Let it be known.

LESTER: I really want to have a part, have a crack at the Scottish guy. But you have to wait for the right moment. And the right, you know, director and the right place.

BOGAEV: Well, I can’t wait. It’s such a pleasure to talk with you. I really appreciate it.

LESTER: Thank you. Thank you very much.


WITMORE: That was Adrian Lester talking to Barbara Bogaev.

You can find a link to Everything to Everybody in Birmingham, as well as some of Lester’s performances, at

This episode was produced by Matt Frassica. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer, with help from Leonor Fernandez. We had technical help from Voice Trax West in Studio City, California. Final mixing services provided by Clean Cuts at Three Seas, Inc.

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Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. Our building in Washington, DC, has been under renovation for the past three years. But this fall, we’ll be opening our doors again. Come visit us on Capitol Hill, beginning November 17, 2023. Take in a performance in our Elizabethan Theatre and check out the world’s largest collection of First Folios — all 82, on display together for the very first time. You can find more about the Folger at our website,

Thanks for listening. For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.