FOR someone who is about to spend six hours on stage, Michael Pennington is a remarkably relaxed figure.

Dressed in a loose fitting cardigan and trousers the 72-year-old actor has a sparkle in his eye as he talks about bringing one of Shakespeare's most interesting and demanding characters to life.

A cheese salad sandwich lies half eaten as he warms to his topic, his passion for the Bard shining through.

Our interview takes place in the cafe area of the Royal and Derngate Theatre in Northampton where a new production of King Lear is being premiered before heading off to major venues around the country, coming to Manchester Opera House at the end of May.

Michael has a matinee and evening performance to do but is remarkably generous with his time.

"I'm enjoying this," he quips at one point as anxious theatre staff remind him he's on stage in the next half hour.

As the nation celebrates Shakespeare 400, the 400th anniversary of the playwright's death, many people still claim they find his work inaccessible or difficult to comprehend.

"That is a legacy of the way Shakespeare used to be taught," said Michael.

"I was stage struck by Shakespeare when I was 11 but I was bored to death the way I was taught it at school - it was so dreary.

"The only way to teach Shakespeare is to give students the sensation of actually saying the words and likewise to get them to see a production and hope that it's not a bad one."

Michael hopes that by touring King Lear, one of the most famous of the tragedies, a new audience will discover the Bard.

"Certainly it's not A Midsummer Night's Dream or Romeo and Juliet, it is a very adult play," he said.

"But Shakespeare was such as a master of suspense and narrative, I don't think that could possibly be a problem to audiences coming along to see Shakespeare for the first time.

"I was taken to Macbeth when I was 11 under duress. All I cared about at the time was Tottenham Hotspur.

"I sat there in a terrible temper and then the lights went down. There was terrifying blood curdling scream and the lights came up and there was this man, a soldier, completely covered in blood who fell down dead and from behind three boulders three weird sisters appeared.

"I was completely riveted from the start and I did not move all evening

"I even went home afterwards and insisted on finding a copy of Macbeth and doing it all again for my poor parents who didn't know what they'd done.

"I think it was something to do with the blood and the gore and the ghosts, no question of that.

"But there was something in the language I heard that hit me in the guts. It was like discovering rock and roll."

His passion for Shakespeare ignited, Michael has gone on to become one of the leading actors of his generation. He co-founded the English Shakespeare Company and has been a regular performer with the Royal Shakespeare Company.

He is in the perfect position to explain the relevance of King Lear to a modern audience.

From school, audiences may remember the basic story of an ageing king who divides his kingdom between his daughters with disastrous results, lapsing into madness as his world falls apart.

But Michael has a much more engaging synopsis of the play.

"Lear is a very dark fairy tale beginning with the follies of giving away your estate to your children before you die," he said. "It's a morality tale about inheritance tax that it a very modern pre-occupation.

"It is also about the nature of love and then you have Lear himself.

"The impressive thing was that Shakespeare at a time when doctors didn't even understand about circulation of the blood and were attributing things to humours, understood what could happen with the human brain.

"Lear was not mad, now we'd say he had Alzheimer's. Somehow Shakespeare understood what happened to a person as they started to slip slide away; that there are moments of absolute clarity and moments of confusion, sometimes moments of great aggression or catatonic stillness.

"He understood the way Alzheimer's can change a person and make its assault on the brain and yet the condition had not even been contemplated."

Surprisingly this will be the first time that he has played King Lear in the UK - he undertook the role in the States last year.

Many actors might find the role daunting, but it's one which Michael takes in his stride.

He said: "Shakespeare knew what he was at by this stage of his career and as an actor you get on the horse which occasionally bucks and wants to throw you but that's probably your fault for not riding it right.

"By second half of the play, certainly for Lear, you are riding a thoroughbred and you have just got to stay in the saddle."

Playing Lear, Michael has to portray a wide range of emotions which are surly taxing night after night.

"Your main job during performance is to convey that emotion," he said. "It's far better to make the audience cry than cry yourself. That's what's fun about the job. That's acting.

"It's more of a physical challenge and you spend the first half hour pretty much full on and you do have to be reasonably fit.

"Playing Lear really is fun, there is no space to be nervous or anxious.

"With Lear it is a bit like playing the blues, the more tragic and the more heartfelt it is, the more it connects with an audience."

King Lear, Manchester Opera House, Tuesday, May 31 to Saturday, June 4. Details from 0844 871 3018.