Richard III and a Russian tale

Born in Belfast and trained in Moscow, I have long found the English soft on Shakespeare's portraits

award This page should be getting Christmassy by now, but my three children's birthdays are 25 November (twins) and 3 December; and I'm in unseasonal rehearsals for Richard III, so I am also in denial about advent calendars. We're good at birthday meals in restaurants: just this side of rowdy, but usually a spirited presence. This is mostly because Danny (just 18) and Rachael (nearly six) are a natural comic duo. They performed an anarchic magic act, and exploded the game of "scissors paper stone" into a new area of competitive verbal violence: "One, two, three - SHARK!/OGRE'S BREATH!" (Ogre's breath wins.) Further elaborations were surreal ("The Sea definitely beats Egg") and even metaphysical - in deference to a child near Christmas we decided Jesus beats Black Hole.

Spinning plates

Meanwhile, paid artists at the RSC are in the middle of staging the complete works of Shakespeare. This undertaking has stretched and inspired us as a company, and caught the public's imagination better than we could have hoped. Over the past week we agreed designs for a £100m capital project to transform our Stratford theatres; we put flesh on the bones of our national Time for Change campaign to help the teaching of Shakespeare become more vivid; and the billboards went up outside the Novello Theatre for Much Ado About Nothing, the first show of our London season.

There are a number of plates to spin as artistic director, so I am grateful for the single-mindedness of our Histories project. After a successful opening of the Henry VI trilogy this summer, we started work two weeks ago on Richard III. One ambition for art is to distil coherence out of the conflicting constituents of human experience, and this past fortnight it has been happening for free. A discarded London Evening Standard on the Tube home included a commentary from Rashid Razaq on how he has taken to introducing himself: "Hi, my name's Rashid, but I'm not a terrorist."

At the time when Shakespeare was writing his "histories" (in truth a portrait of his own time), it was unclear to many, and certainly to the authorities, whether a practising Catholic felt allegiance to their country, or to their faith. I'm reading John Stubbs's biography of John Donne, which reveals the fearful forces our government once brought to bear on members of a suspect faith, and the dilemma faced by an intelligent moderate, who was himself related to violent dissenters and descended from the iconic Thomas More.

Freedom is a fragile thing

Richard III is only one of Shakespeare's kings who exploit fear of the enemy within to strangle freedom for all. Shami Chakrabarti, the director of Liberty, came to our rehearsal room last week and alerted us to the fragility of our freedoms in modern England, especially in the context of war abroad and religious and racial tension at home. Her words have stayed with us as we rehearse Shakespeare's account of England's struggle with tyranny.

Born in Belfast and trained in Moscow, I have long found the English worryingly soft on Shakespeare's portraits of abusive power. I was aware that Catholics weren't enfranchised throughout this country until very recently, and that Russian theatre-makers were recognising the brute power and censorship at work in Shakespeare's world decades before recent revisionist historians of the English Reformation began to be heard at home.

Now London is playing host to a Russian story straight out of Richard III, which reflects in turn on our own historical DNA. Putin, Abramovich, Berezovsky and Litvinenko are all much closer to the world of Good Queen Bess than the English history I was taught at school finds comfortable.

At a press conference I said that I wanted more new plays on the RSC stage that speak to contemporary experience in 21st-century English . But there remains an urgent role for clear-sighted work on our house playwright, who achieved such compassionate coherence out of so much brutal chaos.

Michael Boyd is artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Its London season runs from 7 December to 24 March 2007. The Complete Works Festival runs at Stratford-upon-Avon until April