Giles Woodforde talks to the former head of the Royal Shakespeare Company

The last time our paths nearly crossed, we were kept firmly apart. Oxfordshire theatre director, and former Royal Shakespeare Company boss, Adrian Noble was visiting the Hammersmith Apollo, and I happened to be there, doing some interviews.

We were ordered out, so that Adrian and a VIP could visit the venue under conditions of great secrecy. The VIP turned out to be Kate Bush, who was thinking of using the Apollo for her first live performances in 35 years.

“I remember that day very well,” Adrian laughs when we do finally meet. “To be absolutely honest, I was hugely excited, I’d never done a show like that before. I’d admired her for ages. She’s a friend of Joanne’s [Adrian’s wife, actress Joanne Pearce], that’s the connection. We worked on the comeback together, rather than me acting as her director.

“She must have been extremely nervous, wondering: ‘Are they going to want to see me?’. But she kept her focus right through every one of the 22 performances, which was really remarkable – it was a hugely taxing show, and there was a lot of technical kit to think about too.”

Born in 1950, Adrian grew up in Chichester, and his parallel interests in theatre and classical music were first awakened when he was examined by a local eye specialist, Leslie Evershed-Martin.

“When he was poking around my eyes he would talk about this theatre he was planning to build. It turned out to be the Chichester Festival Theatre, and I saw my first-ever shows there. I was completely undiscerning – I didn’t realise how lucky I was to be seeing great and famous actors like Laurence Olivier and Peggy Ashcroft.

“There were concerts on Sunday nights, so I was also introduced to classical music – I saw a very young Jacqueline du Pré playing the Elgar Cello Concerto, for instance.”

So, I ask, when did Adrian decide that he wanted to go into the theatre as a career?

“When I was 16 or 17 at school, I started to do a bit of acting. I loved it, although I didn’t know if I was any good or not. But I didn’t really know what a director was – as far as I was concerned, he was actually the chemistry teacher. It wasn’t until I went to university that I thought theatre directing might be an interesting thing to do.

“I directed for a couple of years, then stopped. I didn’t really like the culture: theatre people all seemed rather pretentious, grand, and cocky. They believed they knew everything about drama – I certainly knew I didn’t, and I was pretty sure they didn’t either. So I went off and worked with young kids in the pretty dodgy area of St Paul’s in Bristol. Then I applied to Drama Centre, which gave me a wonderful director’s training – but they gave you no indication whatsoever about how to get a job afterwards!”

After a further period working with youngsters, Adrian’s career got under way – with his dislike of theatrical pretentiousness remaining firmly intact.

“I cannot do with opera directors who expect their choruses to wear giant condoms over their heads in order to make some point or other,” he says.

He’s directed several big-budget musicals, including Chitty Chitty Bang Bang in the West End, and opera productions in New York, Lyon, Rome, and Moscow. Adrian directed the current revival of The Importance of Being Earnest, starring David Suchet, in the West End, and he’s off shortly to direct Hansel and Gretel for the Vienna State Opera.

But his most high-profile job to date has been as chief executive and artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) from 1990 to 2003.

This appointment ended controversially, with rows about the rebuilding of Stratford’s Royal Shakespeare Theatre, and future artistic policy. But how does he feel about it now, 12 years later?

“I still have mixed feelings because leaving the RSC was quite unhappy – a bit bloody in fact. I had the most wonderful board chairman, Sir Geoffrey Cass, during most of my time at Stratford, then a guy took over who knew nothing about theatre at all: everything was discussed endlessly in meetings. He is no longer alive, but it was a hopeless way of going about things. The pluses are that the changes I did manage to put through have worked marvellously for the company.”

Adrian’s wife Joanne has also worked extensively for the RSC.

“We actually met during an RSC London production,” Adrian reveals with evident enthusiasm. “She was Olivia when Zoë Wanamaker played Viola in Twelfth Night. Then she came up to Stratford the year I did The Plantagenets, and we worked together for the first time. Then she did one of the greatest performances ever of Hilda Wangel in Ibsen’s The Master Builder – she was absolutely astonishing.”

After first setting up home in Southam, north of Banbury, the couple moved into Oxfordshire.

“We decided early on in our marriage that if we were lucky enough to have children, we would not bring them up in London,” Adrian explains. “Secondly, towards the end of the 1990s we looked into the future, and thought: ‘We’re not going to be at Stratford for ever, but we want to keep in touch with a lot of people up there’. So we started to look for somewhere quite literally halfway between London and Stratford.

“We always had this mock plan that our children, if any, would go to the village school, wherever we ended up, so that they would know local kids, and we would meet their parents. Then we would move them into independent education in Oxford at the age of 10 or 11.

“The children arrived in due course, so it has all worked out very well.

“Rose is now 21, and Jude is just 19. Jude has no theatrical ambitions whatsoever, but Rose wants to become a movie director. While I was directing at the Metropolitan Opera in New York a couple of years ago, she got her money together, came over, and went to the New York Film Academy for five weeks – which she could afford to do because she could live free in my apartment. She made a film there, which was actually rather good!”