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Shakespeare Unlimited podcast

Adrian Noble on How to Direct Shakespeare

Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 196

A director makes a play add up to more than the sum of its parts. That’s something Adrian Noble knows as well as anyone. Noble has directed numerous productions of Shakespeare’s plays, including Kenneth Branagh’s breakout performance as Henry V in 1984 at the Royal Shakespeare Company. He served as artistic director of the RSC from 1991 to 2002, and directed musicals like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang on London’s West End as well as operas like Verdi’s Macbeth, Don Carlo, and Otello.

Now, Noble has written a new book, How to Direct Shakespeare, a no-nonsense guide for directors confronting the challenge of staging Shakespeare’s texts. Noble writes that Shakespeare presents unique challenges for actors and directors — but that his plays also serve as excellent preparation for all other directing work. For those of us who aren’t directors, Noble’s book is full of things we can look out for the next time we read one of Shakespeare’s plays or watch it onstage. Adrian Noble is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

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Adrian Noble

Adrian Noble’s new book, How to Direct Shakespeare, is available now. His previous book is How to Do Shakespeare.

From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast. Published November 8, 2022. © 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 Rob Double at London Broadcast and Andrew Feliciano at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California. Final mixing services provided by Clean Cuts at Three Seas, Inc.

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MICHAEL WITMORE: We all have our favorite Shakespearean actors. But as our guest today demonstrates, it’s the director who’s responsible for making a play add up to more than the sum of its parts.

From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger’s director.

Adrian Noble has directed numerous productions of Shakespeare’s plays, including Kenneth Branagh’s breakout performance as Henry V in 1984 at the Royal Shakespeare Company. Noble served as artistic director of the RSC from 1991 to 2002.

He has also directed musicals, like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang on London’s West End, as well as operas like Verdi’s MacbethDon Carlo, and Otello.

About a decade ago, Noble wrote a book called How to Do Shakespeare. That book focused on the actor’s craft, with a nuts-and-bolts approach to understanding and delivering Shakespeare’s lines.

When the pandemic shut down theaters all over the world, Noble found himself at home with nothing to direct. That’s when he started writing his latest book: How to Direct Shakespeare. The book is a no-nonsense guide for directors confronting the challenge of staging Shakespeare’s texts. Noble writes that Shakespeare presents unique challenges for actors and directors—but that his plays also serve as excellent preparation for all other directing work.

But for those of us who aren’t directors, Noble’s book has lessons that are just as applicable for anyone interested in reading Shakespeare’s texts more closely. He also gives us insights into the crafts of stage design and directing that will prove immensely rewarding for anyone going back to the theater to watch live productions.

Here is Adrian Noble, as interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.


BARBARA BOGAEV: Well, let’s start at the beginning. Where do you start with a new production? With the text or with secondary sources or checking out other versions?

ADRIAN NOBLE: Never with secondary sources. And of course with the text. The thing with a Shakespeare production is that very often, one has read it several times, often seen several productions, sometimes seen movie versions of it. Which means that there’s a lot of information and kind of clutter comes in when you embark upon a production. It’s quite important to clear that all out and get rid of the barnacles and get back to the original architecture and shape of the piece.

But that can be very, very tricky because you encounter something like, let’s say, Henry V, which was one of the very first Shakespeare plays I ever encountered. I encountered it through the Laurence Olivier movie in the cinema. Then I encountered it in a kind of, a very cheap version of Shakespeare that my grandma gave me for my birthday when I was in my mid-teens, with this tiny, tiny, tiny, tiny writing.

So, when I came to want to direct it, my head was full of echoes from the past. Once you rid the… barnacles of Henry V… the barnacles of the kind of patriotic function that Larry Olivier took when he was making the movie during the middle of the second World War… Once you pull those barnacles off, when you challenge the notion that it’s an anti-war play, and you think of it as a Shakespearean humanist document, you find all sorts of extraordinary colors in it.

In fact, as I write in the book, the more I worked on it, my interpretation of the play actually changed. During the course of it, I thought it was a play about war, but it isn’t a play about war—well, it’s partly a play about war, of course it is. But it’s actually more a play about the creation of a nation and the kind of melding together of disparate classes and disparate regions into something that we can now, subsequently, we can call a nation.

I found that through—in a way—through just rooting my investigation of the play in Shakespeare’s humanism.

BOGAEV: Okay, now we’re going to get into the nitty gritty, which is what your book really is about. Because that was your process with that play, and you’ve distilled it into steps that directors and readers really can do to get deeper into Shakespeare.

In the very early stages, you say—and this is all before you ever cast the play. You ask, “What is the world of the play?” And you say that, “The answer to that will govern everything else you do.” So, explain that process for us, because some of these things seem kind of obvious, but they have huge ramifications. Like, you say, “Write down the obvious: the relationships, the genders of the cast.”

NOBLE: That’s correct. Because, I do say—the occasions when I do have students, but I always say to the actors, “Feel free to state the obvious because it’s very often the most revealing thing you can say about a play.”

I will indeed write down the list of characters and who’s a cousin to whom, who’s a brother to whom, who’s a friend. And I will look at the situations that he offers. What are the social situations? What are the religious situations?

Then, you need to bring to bear secondary contextual knowledge. You need to think about, what did religion mean to that audience and those actors and maybe those characters?

I start from the people and then I look at the situations. Once I’ve got a handle on that, I think then, one can start freeing up one’s creativity. I think the danger that a lot of directors fall into—and a lot of young directors, this might sound rather pompous here—is that, if you like, they start from the end result and try and work back from it. They start by saying, “Well, I think Henry is about the need to ban nuclear weapons,” you think, so you start from that and then you kind of work back.

BOGAEV: They start with this big overarching concept.

NOBLE: Yeah, you start with an overarching—and you think, “Hmm, well.” Then you kind of make everything fit in.

And what happens is it isn’t just that you lose the humanity. You lose the really, really interesting revelations about our human situation. And indeed about war, about class, about nationhood, et cetera, if you start from the concept and work inwards rather than the inside and work outwards.

BOGAEV: It’s hard to start fresh, especially with Shakespeare. You have centuries of stuff, as you said, just littered in your head.

You also say—I mean, we’ve only gotten through the list of characters now. Then you say you should read the play and you should do it really fast in one sitting if possible. Why so fast?

NOBLE: Because you want to get a rough cut in your head of the architecture of the play. So that… here’s an example. Try reading Macbeth in one go. It’s very interesting. You suddenly find by the time you’ve actually reached for a cup of coffee or whatever, you’ll find that actually Duncan’s dead, Macbeth is king, and there’s chaos around the world, and you’re only about 25 minutes in.

You  get that from a straight reading. Then you find that suddenly we’re looking at other things. We’re looking at outside perspectives. We’re looking at what it looks like from England. And then you get a denouement. If you hold that dear, it’ll give you some really fantastic tips about how to direct it.

Well, actually the speed of events, there’s a connection to how to direct it and how to act it, and to how it happens politically. How it happens. Because, you know, sometimes in politics—we have it in England at the moment, I think—sometimes in politics, events change at an extraordinarily fast rate.

BOGAEV: Lightning fast. Six weeks.

NOBLE: Lightning fast. And this is what’s what happens in Macbeth and there are all sorts of really useful things. So, read it straight through and then start breaking it down.

BOGAEV: You have very specific advice about breaking it down. You’re a fan of the elevator pitch exercise, it sounds like. You say, “Tell the story in three sentences.” So, why don’t we try this exercise? I’m going to pretend to be a director, which is a real reach. Let’s do Midsummer, say.


BOGAEV: So, I am supposed to summarize Midsummer in three sentences.

So, the lovers runaway, right? That’s where we start from. Athens looking for love.

NOBLE: Yeah, you can have a sub clause. The lovers run away to find happiness or to save their lives. But it’s, at its simplest, “The lovers run away.”

BOGAEV: Okay. And then fairies just make things go all haywire and topsy-turvy in the forest.

NOBLE: Yeah. Just one word will do fine: confusion.

BOGAEV: Confusion. Okay. And I guess the last sentence might be, “Resolution.”

NOBLE: Reconciliation. Resolution, reconciliation, marriage. Marriage. So, you get the kind of shape.

My experience has taught me that that paradigm, that template of crisis leading to some sort of confusion in the middle, sometimes revealed through his use of a forest and then leading to reconciliation, that three-part journey he used right the way through his career.

I find it incredibly useful when I’m directing because it puts each scene in context and it gives you all sorts of tips as to how to direct that scene.

I use the word “journey” a lot. Not just trying to and articulate the journey of a Shakespeare play but articulate the journey of an actor inside that play, a director approaching and executing a production of that play.

So, I use that template of crisis, confusion, reconciliation, that that three-part movement. It’s very relevant to many, if not all of Shakespeare’s plays.

You see, Ben Jonson didn’t do that. He didn’t use that template. Marlowe didn’t use that template. Dekker didn’t use that template. It was something that Shakespeare alit upon early in his career, and he kind of stuck with it.

You’ll see it in King Lear. You can see inside that his use of metaphor. The forest is a metaphor. It’s a real place, but it’s also a metaphor. It’s a real place in the sense that, you can’t walk in a straight line in a forest. Then, you emerge from that, and that forest can be chaos. It can be a war, it can be battlefields of Agincourt. It can be the streets of Vienna in Measure for Measure. It can be all sorts of manifestations.

But if you accept that template, those basic ideas, it opens up all sorts of ways of approaching design, for example. So, you know, instead of saying, “I want you to recreate the streets of Vienna for Measure for Measure.” Okay. You can say, “Try and create chaos: an urban chaos.” And that will release, I think, many more creative juices in your designer and lighting designer than if you just say, you know, find some pictures of the Ringstrasse and stick them up on the on the stage.

BOGAEV: Okay. We haven’t even gotten to your designer yet because you talk about… throughout your book you talk about things called “away days.” I don’t know what an “away day” is, so maybe you can tell us that.

But the first away day you talk about, before you’re even meeting with your designer, your lighting designer, your play designer, you take an away day and you focus on dramatic energy, “how Shakespeare does what he does.” You break the elements of that down into categories, language categories: Apposition, metaphor, meter and pulse line, endings, wordplay, vocabulary, shape, and structure.

Explain to us what is this “away day” concept and why is it important to do this then, now, right in the beginning?

NOBLE: The “away day” concept is really kind of pinched from the world of commerce and business, really. That you’re in KPMG or whatever, and they take all of their young associates away to an expensive hotel somewhere.

BOGAEV: Oh, a retreat.

NOBLE: Yeah, it’s a retreat. Yeah. So, these are three chapters in the book. They’re three explorations of material knowledge that you need to have digested, or it’s helpful if you have digested it.

The first one. I subtitle it, “How does he do it?” How does he create his effects? It’s no good saying, “Oh, it’s poetic. It’s concentrated, et cetera.” That is naturally—it’s much more what one can analyze. Quite precisely how he does it.

Through those seven headings that you just articulated, one can work out how he creates his effects. Not just in terms of dramatic effects, but how he empowers the actor. That’s a probably a better way of putting it. Because, think of your actor standing on the stage, or particularly on the Globe stage with possibly a rowdy audience. His principle tool was language. Nowadays we can help him: we can take the lights down on the audience, we can put the actor in a single spotlight. We can amplify him, if we want to.

BOGAEV: Video screens.

NOBLE: Video screens. All sorts of ways. Then, basically, he had the language. And through Shakespeare’s language, the actor is empowered not only that all the other resonances of meaning of context flow from the, “How does he do it”.

BOGAEV: Okay. This is really good, because you say, “Take a highlighter,” and you mark up your page: rhymes, alliteration, assonances, anything that’s colorful or quirky that appeals to you. This is all in preparation, it seems like, your retreat here as a director, to working with your actors. To getting on this very, very, very nuts and bolts level of the language.

NOBLE: That’s correct. I mean, the first lesson in terms of “How he does it” is actually, I call it apposition, which is the juxtaposition of word on word, idea on idea, sentence on sentence. And it creates a dynamic. “To be or not to be. That is the question. Whether it is nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and so opposing end them to die, to sleep no more.”

Now that’s apposition. It creates energy. It creates a dialectic. Then, within that, it’s muscular. It’s muscular. The moment you approach… for example, there you are, “To be or not to be.” The famous Hamlet monologue. As soon as you start exploring the energy of it, exploring the appositions, the antithesis, it becomes muscular.

Certainly when I did it with Kenneth Branagh, the whole notion of Hamlet as this rather lethargic, sort of lazy chap, gently thinking about the possibility of dying: it’s nonsense. It’s absolute nonsense. It’s dynamic.

Then, within that frame, you can then explore metaphor. You can explore alliteration, explore all the other things that you want to do. But you start with the dynamic.

BOGAEV: Interesting. And then, you say, you start talking to your designer finally. You write that the designer is the first person that you trust to try out your ideas. So how do you start with this key collaborator?

NOBLE: I invariably start by reading the play.

BOGAEV: Out loud?

NOBLE: Out loud. We’re taking alternate speeches. You know, I’m not an actor. The designers aren’t actors, so we don’t read it very well. But then I will start feeding in some of my thoughts and then getting back some of his or her thoughts.

We will start quite early on creating a visual vocabulary. So, just odd images start coming to mind. It isn’t Shakespeare, but I quote in the book an example. I was doing Alcina at the Staatsoper in Vienna, and practically the first image we came up with was this huge hot air balloon landing inside an 18th-century cellar. It seemed to somehow… it echoed with the opera. Somehow it captured the artifice, somehow it captured the period. And we just stuck it on the wall and it sat on the wall and we kept looking back on it for weeks and weeks and weeks, actually.

BOGAEV: This is like a mood board for you?

NOBLE: It’s a mood board. Exactly right. All sorts of things can go up there and nobody sees it.

BOGAEV: You also say, “Make a 3D model, complete with stick, little scale figures of the actors in it.”

NOBLE: Yeah. I find that absolutely vital, I have to say, because I think 3D, I don’t think 2D. And soon as you put a little cardboard person, you can start relating that to the play.

BOGAEV: So, you play with your stick figures.

NOBLE: You play with your stick figures, and you start playing quite specifically with space. So, the floor, let’s think about the floor.

It’s a white floor because they’re going in and it’s winter time, or it’s a green—becomes a green floor. Can I have two floors? That’s rather expensive, isn’t it? How do I do that? Well, maybe it’s just wooden planks. Do I have walls? Am I working in the round? In which case everything’s kind of up for grabs in a rather different way.

BOGAEV: I want to ask you about directing Kenneth Branagh, because he had his breakthrough role of Henry V when he was just 23 with you. I was thinking about something else that you say about working with actors in England, that there’s such a tradition of Shakespeare in acting that your metaphor for it is, it’s like a relay race. Each great actor from Richard Burbage to, say, Ian McKellen or Kenneth Branagh passes the baton on.

My question about Branagh is, did he just spring out of university, just fully-formed, with his Shakespearean thinking cap already on as if he had all the answers? What was it like to collaborate with him?

NOBLE: Well, I think the answer is yes. He did just spring out with all his—I think he did. I could tell you exactly how it happened. It was one of those occasions when I had decided that I wanted to direct the play. Okay.

I was then looking for an actor. I got it down to two actors, both of whom are leading actors, both of whom are very, very famous. Okay, they weren’t then, by the way. They are now.

One actor came in and we sat in the room and went through it and it was, you know, you stopped and started and it was—this was in the director’s office at the Barbican in London.

Then Ken came in, it was number two, and Ken said, “I couldn’t do it on the stage, could I? Could we work on the stage?” I said, “I don’t know, I’ll ring down.” So, I rang down, and I said, “Yeah, we’re clear.” So, we went down to the stage and I went out to the stalls and he did great big bits of Henry V. He just did it. “ Whoa! Whoa! Crickey.”

BOGAEV: “Here’s your play.”

NOBLE: You know, and so it was completely clear that he should play Henry V because he had that kind of… he had, kind of, bags of technique. He had bags of confidence. And he had bags of daring, really. He had the kind of confidence of youth.

The extraordinary thing was, Barbara, but he kept it. You go up to him during—after for the first preview and he’d be sitting in there, chatting to the dress, or chatting to another actor. I said, “How are you feeling, Kenny?” He said, “Oh, I’m actually fine.” Not a sign of nerves, or there didn’t seem to be a sign of nerves at all. He just ate it up.

BOGAEV: Huh? You got to hate him sometimes, I imagine! [LAUGHTER]

Okay, so finally we’re in rehearsals here. Your story has really anticipated my next question, which is how do you get your casts to enter the world of the play as you envision it and have… with a feeling of unity? Because I’ve seen so many productions with, say, famous Shakespearean actors or a number of them maybe, and it can seem like all or some of those cast members are acting in different plays.

NOBLE: Yes. That can be a problem. It’s not always a huge problem. I think one of the great plusses about, certainly in the UK, is that there’s a sort of a—you can find yourself with what could loosely be called an ensemble very quickly, actually.

Just parenthetically, I’ll tell you a little story. The first time I directed a play in France, in Paris, it was enabled for me by Peter Brook. And, I was in Paris before rehearsals. He said, “I’ll give you some advice.” I said, “Oh, great.” So I thought, “Oh, marvelous. What’s he going to tell me?”

BOGAEV: Advice from Peter Brook!

NOBLE: Absolutely. He said, “First thing, and it’s very important, you must ask for a lot of money.” I said, “Oh yeah, okay. Alright, fine.”

BOGAEV: Good advice.

NOBLE: Good advice. And secondly, he said, “You, you will need a long rehearsal period.”

Now I did the first, but not the second. I didn’t get a long rehearsal—I couldn’t get the time out of England. I realized about four-fifths of the way through the rehearsals why. The reason was that the actors I had came from at least three quite different traditions. I mean, really, really different traditions of acting: One came with a beautiful voice. One came from a much more mimetic sort of style of physical theater. One was very, kind of, filmlike and introverted. And I couldn’t get them all in the same show, because their, what they call their formation, their training was profoundly different.

Whereas in England, It’s quite easy actually. I found the same in the States actually, and in Canada. Quite easy to get everybody in the same room, so to speak, on the same page.

But there are ways of working towards that. I mean, and I describe a number of them in the book, that you just, you’ve got to start work. I always start, try and work… I find it quite difficult to sit down. I hate sitting down for a whole week. I get really bored. So we’ll probably read the play, but I’ll get up almost immediately and we’ll do exercises, just moving around exercises. Then, we’ll stop, and we’ll talk about the one or two things about the play.

BOGAEV: You have exercises that go with all of that, correspond to these things. One is a—I think you do group sculptures.

NOBLE: I do group sculptures. I do, kind of, you know… sometimes I do, kind of, status games. There are thousands of those.

BOGAEV: There are, and they usually are called improv, but you say you never use the word “improv.”

NOBLE: No, I’ll tell you why. Because older actors really kind of fight shy of it. They hate—not all of them, but many older actors find the word quite threatening and the process quite threatening.

Because they say to me sometimes, “Listen, X or Y are brilliant at improvising, but I’m a much better actor than they are. I could do Shakespeare’s verse much better than them. So , what does it prove apart from the fact that I’m rubbish at improvising and they’re good at improv? What does it prove?”

And you want to say, “But that isn’t actually….” But you shouldn’t put them in that position. That conversation should never occur.

BOGAEV: It really does sound like your job as a director is half technique and half therapy.

NOBLE: No, no, that’s not really the case. I mean, occasionally one has to be kind of Dad, you know? Because the very process of acting can be, and usually is, a process of self-revelation. Of making yourself open, arguably vulnerable. If you kind of follow the Dionysiac thesis that you become possessed by a character, you will become possessed by the attributes of that character. Now that interplays with your own psyche and your own emotions. So, you’re in a vulnerable place as an actor, and you’ve got to understand that as a director, and you’ve got to respect it.

BOGAEV: Have you ever gotten to previews after all of this work and realized something is way off?

NOBLE: Yes, I have. One I write about in the book with Macbeth, where Jonathan Pryce created this extraordinary vortex of concentration and danger in rehearsals. Looked at the ground for most of the time. We took it into the main stage at Stratford. He did the same thing. And it didn’t penetrate to the audience. We all sat there watching it, but we weren’t involved in it.

BOGAEV: Because he was looking at the ground?

NOBLE: Yeah, it was kind of very, very simple. And, we both lived up in Dover’s Hill up, near Stratford at the time. And we were driving home, and I said to him, “Listen, you got to look up.” He said, “What do you mean?” I said, “Look at the audience.” He said, “Yeah, that’s it. I’ll do that.” And he did. And it was fine. We were there.

BOGAEV: I want to ask you, what are you working on?

NOBLE: In two or three days’ time, I’m off to Venice to direct Falstaff, the Verdi Opera Falstaff at La Fenice in Venice.

BOGAEV: But you haven’t started yet, but you have—so are you blank slating right now? Or where are you…?

NOBLE: No, I’ve got… I’m ready to go. I’m ready to go. The thing is, is because you don’t get that much time in opera, and you have to kind of know what you’re doing.

Particularly don’t get much time with chorus because chorus are very, very, very expensive. You know, if you call people for an hour, you are calling 80 people. At the Metropolitan Opera, you’re calling 110 people for an hour. Now, think, that’s a lot of overtime, if you’ve got to run over. So you’ve got to husband your time very carefully.

BOGAEV: I wish you the best with it. I want to thank you so much for talking today. It’s just been a delight.

NOBLE: What a delight for me as well to revisit all those things that I wrote during lockdown, actually. I wrote the book during lockdown.

BOGAEV: What a great lockdown exercise, and I’m grateful for it.

NOBLE: Thank you. Thank you.


WITMORE: Adrian Noble’s new book is called How to Direct Shakespeare, and it’s out now. His previous book is called How to Do Shakespeare.

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 Rob Double at London Broadcast and Andrew Feliciano at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California. Final mixing services provided by Clean Cuts at Three Seas, Inc.

If you’re a fan of Shakespeare Unlimited, don’t forget to subscribe on your podcast platform of choice, so you never miss an episode. And consider telling a friend about the show.

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. You can find more about the Folger at our website,

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