"Ian McKellen came up to me and said, 'Saddam Hussein - it's got to be,'" says Henry Goodman, who is just about to unveil his eagerly awaited portrayal of Richard III at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, in Stratford. McKellen - who, at the National, played Richard as the leader of a Fascist coup in an alternative history of 1930s' England - is not the only person who has told him now is the time to give the hunchbacked king a makeover as the toppled Iraqi dictator.
"You could do a production like that, especially with somebody who looks like me - I could easily be an Arab with a thick black moustache," says Goodman, a Jewish actor who recently gave us the best Shylock in living memory. "I looked at the idea, but it's sort of too easy." Quite apart from the fact that, as Goodman comments, "the play is riddled with class in a uniquely English way", such a version would doubtless be accused of imitating Nicholas Hytner's invasion-of-Iraq take on Henry V at the Nat- ional. And the ending would be undercut by a ludicrous irony: Henry, Earl of Richmond, the glowingly idealised liberator of England, now reimagined as... Bush and Blair?
Goodman and I meet for lunch on a Sunday after the first two previews and some gruelling 16-hour work-stints. When I ask him if he finds it easy to relax, he's right to treat the question as tongue-in-cheek. Relaxing would come as easily to the people he tends to play as euphoria to the characters in Beckett. One has always assumed he shares some of the frenetic drive and nervous energy of his theatrical creations. And certainly, the tiredness he complains of is soon dismissed by downing a cappuccino along with the soup. Renowned for giving his all to his electric stage performances, this actor is evidently not going to settle for fatigued autopilot as off-stage interviewee.
He's in a bit of a cleft stick, though. Without resorting to opportunistic topicality, the production will, it seems, present the drama from an ingeniousand revealing perspective. In the press release, its talented young director Sean Holmes makes the tantalising statement that Richard III is "one of Shakespeare's most self-consciously theatrical plays" and that "this new production aims to highlight this in an unexpected way". So Goodman's desire to talk about the piece is kept in check by the obligation not to let slip the Big Idea.
That's not the only problem. Just as Kenneth Tynan used to wonder whether he'd be remembered as the first man to say a four-letter word on television, so Goodman must worry that he will go down in history as the British actor who landed the Broadway job to die for (replacing Nathan Lane as Max Bialystock in the mega-hit musical, The Producers) and then got the sack before the opening night.
Goodman is sick of raking over this story of mistakes made on both sides and of an actor who finds himself fired for adding the very qualities of depth and credibility he'd been hired to bring to the role in the first place. "I said before I started 'Are you sure you want me to go in this direction instead of padding up and going down the other path?' And they said, 'No, no, no, we don't want John Goodman or other famous film stars; we've brought you here to do what you do.' Partly, of course, because I was cheaper, though it was a wonderful salary."
But when you experience a public blow of that magnitude, it's bound to have a profound effect on your thinking in general. So, despite endeavours to avoid the topic, discussion of Richard III gravitates back to the issue of The Producers. Take, for example, the pattern of Shakespeare's play in which, the moment he ascends the throne, Richard starts to disintegrate and make terrible tactical errors. "I'm very happy to acknowledge," says Goodman, "that this man gets what he wants and then finds the getting of it was much, much more fun than the having it. And what happened to me perhaps does give me insight into someone who wants something very, very badly but who is better equipped to fight for it than have it."
It's also helped him notice an intriguing oddity in a role that is famous for those seductive soliloquies that make the audience complicit in the hero's crimes. "Richard never tells the audience he wants to be king - never. To me, that's exciting. They can smell what he means, but he doesn't want to say it outright. He doesn't want to say 'this deformed thing you are looking at could be number one'". So, in Goodman's view, does Richard fail to cut the mustard as king because, deep down, he felt unworthy of reaching that peak? "That's it, absolutely, and I've concentrated on things that try to heighten that." So the production, broadly relocated to the Victorian era, looks set to dwell on the devastating psychological cost to the hero of being rejected by a mother who regrets she didn't pre-empt his monstrosities by strangling him in the womb.
Goodman is a byword for versatility: he's equally at home in American musicals (Chicago, Guys and Dolls, Assassins); searing straight plays (Arthur Miller's Broken Glass); intellectual farce (Terry Johnson's Hysteria); and Shakespeare (he won the Olivier Award for his Shylock in Trevor Nunn's Merchant of Venice).
When it comes to Richard III, he talks about the difficulty of "finding the balance between levity and intensity, pleasure and pain, brazenness and subtlety in a role that is a myth and a man in one". Because of the play's tradition (iconic Richards from actors such as Olivier, Sher and McKellen), "you can't just hide behind the character". We're back with The Producers when he says, "Maybe because of recent experiences, I've become a little wary of 'personality acting'," - of the kind where "a love affair with the audience" is established by the performer as well as the character. I doubt, though, that the Broadway ordeal will make him distrust his instincts. Goodman's vivid and promiscuous talents - the showmanship in musicals; the dynamism in comedy; the darkness in tragedies - are just what you need to create the volatile compound that is Richard III.
'Richard III' opens on 23 July at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon (0870 6091110) and runs to 8 NovemberReuse content