You Ask The Questions: Michael Boyd, artistic director, Royal Shakespeare Company

Should it cost less to see an understudy, and how young is too young for the bard?
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Is there a danger that an audience that comes to see Patrick Stewart or David Tennant at the RSC isn't really interested in Shakespeare? Carla Murray, Walthamstow, East London

To the extent that that's true, it's a good thing. We probably have expanded our young audience because David has become so famous in Doctor Who. But he was just as well thought of by us when he was in Romeo And Juliet and The Comedy Of Errors before Doctor Who sent him stratospheric.

Shouldn't audiences get a discount if they are seeing an understudy instead of the advertised star? Jonathan Heaton, Leeds West Yorkshire

We put so much investment into the whole company and the ethos of ensemble and we really are ready for such an eventuality, so in our case I would say the audience is getting full "value for money". And on Hamlet we have been vindicated by the small number of returns and requests for refunds that we've had.

What do you do to prepare understudies before a production? Miles Laird, London

One thing we do often is give them a public understudy run before they may have to go on, so instead of playing to two men, a dog and the casting director, the understudy plays to a full house. These runs sell out because the public want to invest in the next generation of talent. And it's quite fun: sometimes people are playing three parts in a scene.

Is there a difference between how an understudy plays a role and how an actor focusing on that part from the start would do it? Harry Lucas, Dundee

It's like three-dimensional chess. You can't screw up the production. You have to be roughly in the same place at the same time. But you also have to inhabit the role. Edward Bennett, for instance, is completely different to David Tennant – he has a different metabolism and he has been doing brilliantly as Hamlet.

When a big-name actor comes to do Shakespeare after they have been on television or in the movies, do they ever have a problem getting used to being on stage again? Rosemary Williams, Winchester, Hampshire

Sometimes it's tricky. Theatre is real time, real space, sculptural. It involves physical and vocal fitness, and instead of sucking a lens into your eyes, you're talking to people in a room. It is a totally different thing, and we are lucky having amphibian actors who can do both.

Have you ever had to stop famous actors being prima donnas as part of an ensemble? Charlotte Horn, Sudbury, Suffolk

Very rarely. You don't have to be famous to lack humility. The reason why the RSC is finding it easier to attract more established actors is because they are drawn towards a renewal of faith in the idealism of ensemble acting. Even if they can only sign a shorter contract themselves, they love the idea of being a part of it.

How badly will the theatre suffer in a recession? Kim Walters, Harrow, Middlesex

I think the worst thing that could happen would be for it to become more conservative – especially the subsidised theatre, if it mistook its role as being merely entertainment. I'm sure it will happen in some cases. There are ways that we could do it: we could retreat from ensemble and go for famous people all the time instead of when it suits us, we could do 20 productions of Hamlet and A Midsummer Night's Dream and Macbeth, and not explore the outer reaches of the English renaissance repertoire. We could reduce our commitment to contemporary work and to internationalism. We won't.

Should the Government be subsidising theatre when we're in the middle of a financial crisis? Annie Renshaw, Bolton, Lancashire

It has never been more important to learn the tools of collaborative conversation, of sociability, of mutual interdependence, than now. Theatre is the art form that teaches this more than any other. . I think it will be tough to make that case, and artists will have to come out and fight their corner. But I don't think that is necessarily a bad thing.

Which is your favourite Shakespeare play? And what is your favourite production you have worked on? Peter Day, Stratford, East London

King Lear has Shakespeare testing humanity further than anywhere else. My favourite memory is the History Cycle, where we performed all eight history plays with the same cast over two years. The length of time we had to marinade it was unusual for English-speaking theatre. The project was an opportunity to seek out deep structure in the work and we bumped into some beautiful insights.

When you did the complete works of Shakespeare in a year, were there any plays that you thought just weren't very good? Maria Booth, Lymm, Cheshire

Two Noble Kinsmen is probably more interesting as a play that illuminates other works than it is in itself. Henry VIII is a play that shows a writer in some senses at the height of his powers, but in others you feel they are waning. But most of them have something very interesting to say.

Shouldn't the RSC leave new work to other theatres and concentrate on the Bard? Beth Ditmore, Exeter, Devon

The RSC was established to do both. The logical conclusion of not doing justice to contemporary story-tellers is ending up as bardic Jehovah's witnesses slavishly clinging to ancient unchallengeable texts, or at best complacent archaeologists lost in bones. The lively dialogue between now and then is what matters: the renewal of our understanding of Shakespeare which is offered by stories told now in contemporary language. And our contemporary dramatists badly need to reread Shakespeare. Shakespeare embraces the complexity of what it is like to be alive – not a dry old debate or a confined observation of human behaviour. They're still in the shadow of Shaw or Cathy Come Home – the posh debating society or gritty realism.

Many people in the arts say preparations for the 2012 Olympics have swallowed up much of their funding. Do you think Britain getting the Games was a good thing? Jamie Rice, Canterbury, Kent

Funding of 2012 is in difficulty and there will be pain for the arts and for other charities. Hopefully, we will look back on the Cultural Olympiad as a triumph and forget the rest.

What can teachers do to get children interested in Shakespeare if they find it too hard? Dean Carter, Bristol

They can put the desks aside, as we recommend in our "Stand Up For Shakespeare" manifesto. Get the kids on their feet. Give them ownership of Shakespeare by getting them to say it and play it out loud. Don't think that kids are too young for it – and don't think they are too stupid. Take them to the theatre. Our experience is that conquering Shakespeare has an effect way beyond English and gives kids confidence that actually they are not daft, and they can do this stuff.

Is casting plays by means of a television competition a bad thing? Lorna Perrin, Godalming, Surrey

I was upset when Jessie didn't get the part of Nancy in I'd Do Anything, but my faith in the British public was restored by Alexandra winning The X Factor.

Did you know Harold Pinter? How did you feel when you heard about his death? Frank Tully, London

I met him once or twice. Sometimes mistaken for a gritty English realist, he carved out a strange lyricism and, like Shakespeare, he was steeped in paradox and contradiction and mystery.

Have you ever directed a pantomime? Would you like to? Fiona Walton, Durham

I used to direct a pantomime every year at the Tron Theatre in Glasgow. I miss it, and I feel like it is a cruelty to my youngest daughter: my elder children got a panto every year, and she never gets one.