WILLIAM Shakespeare wrote 38 plays. In the 400 years since he started, they've rarely been far from the stage. They've been rewritten, chopped up, ripped off, and bowdlerised, sometimes they've even been done straight but, give or take the odd censorious zealot, they've been done, over and over again. That's created a particular challenge to the theatre director since the profession emerged somewhere in the middle of the last century. Any director with the slightest ego will want to create theatre that is distinct from what has gone before. And when there are half-a-dozen productions of the same play in living memory, the temptation to do something extreme becomes harder to resist.

Hence the rise of Shakespeare as gimmick. You get Romeo and Juliet with flick-knives, Macbeth set among New Age cultists, The Taming of the Shrew as Wild West showdown . . . who cares about the words as long as the director has made his mark? For this reason, you'd be right to be cautious about English Shakespeare Company's Richard III. This is a play about the bloody ascension to the crown of the villainous Richard, Duke of Gloucester. It's rife with duplicity, murder, and treachery. The English Shakespeare Com-pany has set it in a kindergarten.

Remarkably, it works. In imagining a baldy baby Richard ruling the nursery in his babygro, while brandishing a toy sword, later to take possession of a bouncy castle, director Malachi Bogdanov has found a metaphor that illuminates as much as it entertains. It's a gimmick that makes sense. When it played on the 1998 Edinburgh Fringe we loved it so much we gave it a Herald Angel award. Bolstered by that, the company has revived it for a tour, and will play two nights in Dundee straight after a visit to Australia's Perth Festival.

Using just five performers, plus a supporting cast of dolls, teddy bears, and stuffed toys, it's a playful interpretation that has fun without detracting from the play's darker side. It accepts that the values of Shakespeare's day are no longer our own.

Where, for example, an Elizabethan audience would have taken for granted that women would be shunted around, and brokered like pawns in a political game, to us the same actions are unreasonably callous.

Likewise, we've become used to politicians who prize subtlety over brute force. They don't do things in Richard III like we do them today. Set the same events among children, however, and the immaturity of the relationships, the fickleness of the friendships, the opportunism of the protagonists, all makes perfect sense. As murderous usurpers go, Paul Hunter's Richard is cute and loveable, and all the more chilling for it. Unlike a lot of heavily-themed Shakespeares, this one doesn't run into a brick wall of its own inconsistencies. It's not like those productions where the actors carry sub-machine guns and talk about blades. According to the director, that's a matter of believing in the concept, and not getting bogged down in the detail. ''It's very easy to put different angles on Shakespeare, but very few companies get away with it,'' he says. ''The trick is choosing the context. The idea

of doing Richard III in a nursery might not have come off, but the similarities of that situation and Richard's situation are very close. He and Buckingham are two little scheming bullies, and when Buckingham doesn't want to play Richard's game, off goes Buckingham's head.

''The play suggested the idea, although it didn't take a long time to come round to the thought of putting it in that environment. It seemed very obvious to me.''

He adds: ''The most difficult thing is rehearsing with actors, because there's a tendency to analyse everything, every detail gets scrutinised. If you start doing that, you don't make any progress. The way to approach this kind of work is just do it. I had a very good cast that were willing to take the risks without having to have everything justified.''

The 29-year-old Bogdanov is an associate director with the English Shakespeare Company, established in 1986 by his father, Michael. He has a tough act to follow. Bogdanov senior has been a leading player throughout the seventies, eighties, and into the nineties, directing celebrated productions at the National and the RSC, including the infamous Romans in Britain for which he was unsuccessfully prosecuted. Bogdanov Jr always knew that he too would get involved in theatre, but he did resist following his father's Shakespearean route.

''I think we're very different,'' he says. ''He was well known in the eighties for ground-breaking approaches to Shakespeare, and I'm going a little further than that. It's not about wearing modern dress, I'm changing the whole context of the stories. For years, I didn't want any help from him, I was going to do it on my own. I didn't have a thirst to do any Shakespeare until I was about 25. I thought it was stuffy and conventional, but then I found ways of using it to my advantage, making it my type of theatre.''

His next production will be a Hamlet on the Edinburgh Fringe. His concept is still forming, but concept there certainly will be. ''It won't be a traditional actors-in-tights interpretation,'' he promises. ''I've just done Romeo and Juliet for the English Shakespeare Company, and the Montagues are all aliens. Hamlet won't be a dashing young man, he'll probably be a short, fat woman!''

In the meantime, he has continued to work on Richard III, enthused by the opportunity of a second rehearsal period. ''I don't see the point of being a conventional thinker when it comes to Shakespeare,'' he says. ''This production of Richard III is appealing to our generation rather than trying to replicate a play for an audience that was around 400 years ago. I don't think we're going to please the purists. People either love it or hate it, but they can't ignore it. I'm all up for a good row about the likes and dislikes about my shows!''

n Richard III, Dundee Rep, Monday and Tuesday (March 15 and 16)