Patrick Stewart can't wait for Chichester role

Some would have us believe the world begins and ends in Hollywood, but don't try telling Patrick Stewart that.

'The past five or six years since I returned to the UK have been the best of my life,' he says.

'When I made the decision to try to revive my classical stage career here, I never allowed myself to expect it would turn out as well as it has.

'It has been both challenging and totally rewarding. It has been all I ever wanted to do since I was 14 – to be on stage doing great plays with great actors and directors in wonderful theatres.'

He is now approaching 70 and is returning to Chichester as Sir Patrick, having been knighted in the New Year Honours for services to drama.

But he is relaxed about whether we call him Sir Patrick or just plain Patrick.

'I'm still a little bit dazzled by the whole experience,' he says, 'but delighted. And I'm very much looking forward to the ceremony in June.'

That will be just after he has appeared as William Shakespeare in Edward Bond's play, Bingo, in the Minerva Theatre.

He has established himself at the forefront of his profession since returning home to do those great plays with great actors.

'England is the best place to do that if you are an English-speaking actor, and to find a sequence of productions – five Shakespeares, an Ibsen and a Beckett (Waiting For Godot with Sir Ian McKellen) – this is the kind of experience I always longed to have.

'I had come to realise I wasn't going to get that in Hollywood, despite the success and excitement of all my work there.'

He admits his fame in Star Trek (as Jean-Luc Picard) and in X-Men gave him a higher public profile, but says it also became an albatross.

'One distinguished Hollywood director I wanted to work for said to me "Why would I want Captain Picard in my movie?" That was painful.

'I'm not saying that's all over. On the contrary, next year I hope to be active in film again. But I'm hoping in a way to go in through the back door rather than wearing the Star Trek spacesuit.'

And for now he is more than happy to be back on stage in Chichester, where in 2007 he played not only the title role in a multi-award-winning modern-dress Macbeth but Malvolio in Twelfth Night.

Patrick speaks in the rich though not fruity tones of the classical actor, but he grew up in working-class West Yorkshire, dropped out of school with no qualifications and began his working career at 15 as a reporter on his local newspaper.

But his heart was so little in it that he invented stories, he says.

And now he is engaged in a different kind of storytelling with deeper truths? 'I think you do your profession a disservice,' he responds smoothly.

'Journalists tell deep and important truths. Very often it tries and very often it fails but what responsible journalism does is try to illuminate and transform lives, and I think the same applies to my job as an actor.

'I'm now old enough not to be embarrassed to say I act because I want to change the way people live and the way they view society, and I hope Bingo will do that.'

The Chichester production is the fruition of what he calls 'a personal campaign' lasting nearly 20 years,

'Originally I was going to do another project in Chichester but that fell through. Then Jonathan Church, the theatre's artistic director, said: "Is there anything else you really, really want to do that might interest us?"

'And this was the first play I mentioned. So Jonathan read it again and then said: "You're on."

'It's a very, very great play and hasn't been seen in a major revival for a long time.

'Edward Bond wrote many wonderful plays and this is not only outstanding but unique and I'm thrilled that audiences who may not even know his work will come to see it. It was written about 40 years ago and is truly brilliant.'

Pressed for more specific reasons for audiences to see it, Patrick says: 'The most obvious marketable point is that it's about one of England's great heroes, a literary giant who was arguably the greatest writer in the English language in the history of the world, but a man about whom we know so little. We have some documentary evidence about contracts and lawsuits but very little else.

'For two hours, audiences can have Shakespeare alive in front of them. They will get to know him very, very well and I think that's fascinating.'

Patrick says the play shows not only the artist but the businessman who obsessively bought property, 'a Shakespeare who has stopped writing and turned his back on the theatre and London to retire to a little Warwickshire market town to sit in his garden.'

And Bond provides his own personal answers to the questions arising from that.

'But also it's a play that's massively appropriate for today,' Patrick says. 'We'll be performing it when one of the most important elections in the history of modern Britain takes place, dealing with social and economic responsibility, class selfishness and how the need of the individual is abandoned for the self-interests of the few.'

He breaks off with a smile. 'There,' he says, 'you weren't expecting a political tirade, were you?'

Well, actually his sympathies are well-known, though some may be unaware that he first campaigned as a five-year-old in the 1945 election.

'I committed my first act of civil disobedience then, walking up and down with a placard. A policeman told me to stop but I didn't – and this was at a time when the police were a lot more frightening than they are now!'

He explains that his father was a trade unionist and those were the principles all around him as he grew up.

'I have seen no reason to falter from those beliefs,' he adds.