What do the playwright Ben Okri and the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst have in common?

Answer: they are both important influences on the Royal Shakespeare Company’s touring production of Othello, which comes to the Oxford Playhouse next week.

It’s directed by the actress Kathryn Hunter, recently appointed as a RSC artistic associate, and stars Patrice Naiambana — a success in the company’s Histories series.

It was actually Patrice who guided Hunter in the direction of the play, she told me. “He came to me a couple of years ago with a project to work on a deconstruction of the play. It wasn’t one I knew well, but I came to love it after Patrice gave me this essay by Okri.”

She explained: “Othello is known as the ‘jealousy’ play, but the way Okri reads it, it’s a play about an outsider — Desdemona does the things she does because Othello is isolated, not part of the culture and coerced and, as he says, ‘perplexed in the extreme’.”

And how did taking the cast to Sandhurst to be lectured at by staff officers help?

“It was research into dealing with the aspects of violence in the play. It was quite fascinating there, in that many of the values extolled — honour, loyalty, the band of brothers ethic, let alone being prepared to die for your country — ticked a lot of the play’s boxes for me; so that, for instance, Othello’s murder of Desdemona — a sort of honour killing — comes as part of his military credo.”

Kathryn Hunter, pictured below, well known for doing in-depth research in both her directorial and acting guises, hesitated only briefly when I suggested that in place of the Sandhurst expedition, she might merely have said to her players — as Olivier famously did to Dustin Hoffman on the set of the film Marathon Man — “why not try acting?”.

“Yes, yes. Well, maybe it works for some people, but I always feel I need to turn up the corners and look underneath. That visit did have concrete results in terms of interpretation.”

To complete the list of production concepts she has brought to the play, Hunter has placed it in the 1950s. (“Elizabethan costume is not my favourite couture.”) And, unbelievably, after some light-hearted discussion about racism in the light of that Thatcher girl event, she mentions that “we have golliwogs in our production, but I’m not sure I should give away the context in advance”. She has also put together an interesting cast: Michael Gould (Iago) recently appeared at both the National and the Royal Court and Desdemona is played by Natalia Tena (with the RSC for the first time and best known for playing Tonks in the Harry Potter films). Hunter’s real-life partner of many years, Marcello Magni, doubles as Roderigo and the company’s movement director.

I asked what she would do if she had to make the choice between directing and performing. An immediate answer: “It would be performing. It’s like swimming — it’s my natural water.”

Hunter famously broke through a barrier in 1997 when she became the first British woman to play the role of King Lear professionally (she has also been Richard III and has her eye on Timon (of Athens).

At school, she’d fallen in love with the play (although it was an A-level set text) and after graduating from RADA in the early 1970s, always regarded the prospect of playing the role of Lear “as an impossible dream” and when, years later, the opportunity came along, she grasped it.

Was there something specific, I asked, that a female actor could bring to the part?

“Although he’s quite male in certain attitudes, there’s something slightly genderless about Lear because in the play he’s slightly past the sexual side of things. He’s like an archetype, isn’t he?”. She pauses, thinking hard. “And somewhere there’s that figure who has total responsibility, but is a rejected one. A person who is frail physically but a powerhouse in their heart.’ “It’s not that I wanted to prove anything. It’s where my imagination goes, and sometimes I click more with the male figures than the female!”

She laughed throatily, then quickly reminded me that she has been asked to play Cleopatra at Stratford the year after next. As a woman, I dared ask? “Yes.”

Starting next month, though, while still overseeing Othello in her directorial capacity, she is due to be a monkey in an adaptation of Franz Kafka’s story A Report to an Academy.

A truly original Hunter in every way.