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Stephen Boxer - The Box of Delights Royal Shakespeare Company Interview

This festive season the Royal Shakespeare Company are staging an adaptation John Masefield’s The Box of Delights. The magical production for all the family running in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. 

After a seemingly chance encounter on a train, orphaned schoolboy Kay Harker finds himself the guardian of a small wooden box with powers beyond his wildest dreams. Caught up in a battle between two powerful magicians, Kay fights to save not just the people he loves but also the future of Christmas itself.

Stephen Boxer as Grandad. Photo by Manuel Harlan.

This fantastically festive production is directed by Justin Audibert (The Taming of the Shrew 2019, The Jew of Malta 2015) and designed by RSC Associate Artist Tom Piper. 

We caught up with Stephen Boxer who plays Grandad/Cole Hawlings in the production to chat about the piece. 

Can you please begin by telling me a little more about your characters of Cole Hawlings and Grandad and where they fit into the piece?
Grandad is a great dreamer, and to cheer up his grandson, Kay, he relates to him one of his most vivid and exotic dreams from childhood. In the dream Grandad becomes Cole Hawlings, the current incarnation of a famed ancient magician, Ramon Lully, and Kay becomes the young boy grandad used to be.

What attracted you to being a part of this production?
I knew Justin (Audibert) from playing William Tyndale in David Edgar’s ‘Written on the Heart’ in Stratford and London, and the Cardinal in his production of ‘The Cardinal’ by James Shirley, a 17th Century play we performed at Southwark Playhouse. I took part in both the workshops for ‘The Box of Delights’ run by Justin and enjoyed them immensely, so was very happy to do this Stratford run. 

Additionally, I’m now of an age where grandads come my way - I also seem to specialise in 3000-year-old skeletons in video games - Baldur’s Gate, Elden Ring and Dark Souls III.

When you’re cast in the production (or even when you’re auditioning) do you go back to the source material, the book, to help you develop the character or does that come from the stage script?
Despite being of an age when Box of Delights would have been popular, I wasn’t familiar with it. Having done the workshops, I read the book prior to our rehearsal period. 
It is not unlike Grandad’s attic, a mirror of his mind - a smorgasbord of references and allusions to the Trojan Wars, Alexander the Great, wizardry, religious and pagan ritual, adventure, violence, and the politics (small p) of domestic and village life. 

So, plenty to get your teeth into. It was a revelation to see how the source of so many later writer’s ideas could be traced to the magnificent imaginative anarchy of Box of Delights. 

I’m talking of J.K. Rowling, Enid Blyton, C.S. Lewis, Philip Pullman, Roald Dahl. Add the Brothers Grimm and you have Masefield’s Book of Delightfulness. There is also a darkness which seems to anticipate the breaking out of WWII two years later, and he gives one of his most wild and unconventional characters to a girl, Maria, which is pretty revolutionary for a man of his era. His invented vocabulary - scrobble, bozzle, caroplane, mizzle, rumpage etc. - lends the story an even greater sense of ‘otherness’.

What has been your favourite part of the process so far?
I think seeing the play come together in these later days with all its technical complexity and design wizardry has been the most rewarding part of the process so far. 

The company of The Box of Delights. Photo by Manuel Harlan

How much joy do you get from playing to family audiences especially in the intimate surroundings of the RST?
The sense of wonder that a young audience gives off is almost palpable, and I suspect infects the adults who accompany them. The thrust stage means you have access as an actor to pretty much everyone, but you do have to maintain an awareness of including them all even in more intimate scenes.

If you had your own box of delights, what 3 items would we find in your box?
My Box of Delights would contain a packet of loose tea, a Victoria sponge cake (3-tiered like one they used to do the tea shop in the antiques market in Stratford) and a guitar.

What keeps you inspired as a performer?
What keeps me going as a performer is variety. Playing Benjamin Britten in New York, Denis Thatcher in The Crown, Grandad in Box of Delights as well as all of those skeletons is as varied a workload as I could wish for, and I hope it will continue. For all these characters I can have fun reading background material and digging up research, so it’s like being an eternal student.

What do you hope an audience takes away from seeing The Box of Delights?
I’m already sensing is that the audience can seem spellbound and are taking wonderment away with them, which I think is what Masefield would have wanted.

The Box of Delights plays at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre until Sunday 7th January 2024. Tickets are available from

Stephen Boxer as Cole Hawkings. Photo by Manuel Harlan

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