This summer is a season of firsts for Patrick Stewart. Not only is he making his debut at Chichester at the centre of this year's festival theatre programme in two Shakespeare productions, he is also set to tackle one of the Bard's great works for the first time ever.

"Macbeth really scared me because of its reputation," says the actor, who is most famous on television as Star Trek's captain Jean-Luc Picard but earned his theatrical stripes with the Royal Shakespeare Company.

"Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet have avoided me all my career. I was apprehensive about playing Macbeth - I had no starting point at all. It is a real graveyard of a play for actors and directors. Macbeth is unknown territory."

This is not the case with his other starring role this summer. In July, the same 18-strong company of actors will be tackling Twelfth Night, with Patrick as the put-upon Malvolio.

"I have been in Twelfth Night quite a lot, though not for many decades," says Patrick. "The play feels familiar although it is going to have a certain re-examination."

In the director's chair for Twelfth Night is former Darling Buds Of May star Philip Franks, who was also behind the last festival's runaway success, Nicholas Nickleby.

Meanwhile Macbeth reunites Patrick with director Rupert Goold, who last worked with Patrick in the RSC's 2006 production of The Tempest.

The play itself is being given a stark treatment, in a timeless location, examining the tensions and paranoia surrounding Macbeth's rise to power.

"I was always interested in Macbeth being written at the time of great espionage," says Rupert. "You had the public executions after the Gunpowder Plot and the development of the first secret service. There is a line that Macbeth has about a spy in every house in Scotland.

"You have got that paranoia and Big Brother state - it was something I was interested in more than the blood, guts and sporrans."

It was Shakespeare which turned Patrick onto acting, and where he finds himself putting a lot of his post-Star Trek energy.

He says: "I was 12 and my English teacher put a copy of The Merchant Of Venice in my hand and said, Read it'. It came absolutely naturally. I can't explain it. I was a secondary modern schoolboy. I wasn't academic, I wasn't brought up in a literary household. We didn't have books, we only had the radio.

"I just took to it, like being thrown into water and finding you can swim. All I ever wanted to do was Shakespeare, the other things were just happy accidents."

He's carrying on that association with the Bard with his next film project, producing and starring in a film version of The Merchant Of Venice, set in the Las Vegas of the 20th century. The screenplay was written by John Logan, the man behind Hollywood successes such as The Last Samurai and The Aviator.

The idea came out of an argument the two had after Logan described it as a "loathsome play".

"I spent half an hour arguing the contrary," says Patrick. "He said, Would you like it if I started working on a screen project for nothing?' He earns about $2 million a project, so I thought it was a decent offer.

"It is a startling way of doing the play; it is about money and sex and love and corruption."

It will be a return to Hollywood for the actor, who recently moved back to Britain.

"I didn't like living in Los Angeles any more. I was terribly homesick for everything you see outside and everything that is going on in this theatre. The fun part about LA is I will be going back as a visitor, not a resident."

He doesn't regret his time spent in America though, or his time spent as the commander of the USS Enterprise.

"One of the great things is people do come and will come here to see Jean-Luc Picard," says Patrick.

"There are hundreds who will have never been to a theatre in their lives before. They may be monumentally disappointed, but the great thing is they came."

  • Macbeth starts 7pm tonight, with performances at 7.45pm and 2.15pm over the next three months. Tickets cost £19 tonight, and £25 for the rest of the run.
  • Twelfth Night starts at the Chichester Festival Theatre from Saturday, July 14, with performances at 2pm and 7.30pm. Tickets start at £10. Call 01243 781312.