Richard Cottrell was born in London. He read English at Cambridge and trained as an actor in Paris under Jean Perimony.

He was Front of House Manager at the Oxford Playhouse and from 1964 – 66 was General Manager of the Hampstead Theatre Club, where he directed his first production: his own translation of Feydeau's 'Monsieur Chasse', The Birdwatcher, starring Prunella Scales and Michael Bates in 1966.

From 1966 – 1969, he was Associate Director of the Prospect Theatre Company for whom his work included The Constant Couple with Robert Hardy and Timothy West which transferred to the Albery ( then the New) Theatre in 1967; his own translation of The Cherry Orchard starring Lila Kedrova and Patrick Wymark which transferred to the Queen's Theatre, also in 1967 and for which Lila Kedrova won the Evening Standard Award for Best Actress of the Year;  and in 1969 he directed Ian McKellen in his legendary Richard II.

In 1970 he became the founder director of the Cambridge Theatre Company. He directed Lila Kedrova in his own translation of The Seagull and, also in 1970, Ian McKellen in The Recruiting Officer and Chips with Everything. In 1972 he directed his first musical, Popkiss, based on Ben Traver's Rookery Nook with Daniel Massey which transferred to the Globe Theatre. In 1973 the company presented the first season of the co-operative The Actors' Company for whom he directed their opening production, his own translation of Feydeau's Le Dindon, Ruling the Roost. In 1973 he formed an ensemble of sixteen actors which  included Zoe Wanamaker, Roger Rees, Oliver Ford-Davies, Dennis Lawson, Pip Donaghy and Diane Fletcher and in 1974 directed a young Ian Charleson as Hamlet.

In 1975 he became director of the Bristol Old Vic. Notable productions included the National Health, Destiny, the Duchess of Malfi, the Provok'd Wife, Cabaret, Edward II and A Midsummer Night's Dream which transferred to the Old Vic in London.

New plays have included Peter Luke's Bloomsbury with Daniel Massey and Penelope Wilton; Paul Eddington and Bill Nighy in Peter Jenkins' Illuminations and Glyn and It with Penelope Keith as the romantic novelist, Elinor Glyn.

He first visited Australia in 1981, to direct The Revenger's Tragedy in Adelaide. The company included Geoffrey Rush, Robert Menzies, Ivar Kants, Simon Burke, Dennis Olsen, Deborah Kennedy and Heather Mitchell.  He became a resident of Australia in 1984, having spent two years directing at the Shakespeare Festival at Stratford, Ontario in Canada. From 1985 -87 he was Director of the Nimrod Theatre Company. In his first season a group of sixteen actors, who included Elizabeth Alexander, Deidre Rubenstein, Simon Burke and John Turnbull with guest appearances by Ruth Cracknell and John Bell,  performed four classical plays in repertoire for which he received a Sydney Critics Award for his direction of the company. The following season he directed Colin Friels and Elizabeth Alexander in The Winter's Tale and Les Liasions Dangereuses with Hugo Weaving and Angela Punch McGregor

In the 1990s, he worked both in Australia and Britain, notably at Chichester and for the Royal Shakespeare Company, directed King Lear for the National Theatre of Portugal and a new play for Playwrights' Horizons in  New York.

Recently he has worked mainly in Australia where his most recent productions have been Ying Tong a Walk with the Goons and Travesties, both for the Sydney theatre Company, for whom he is to direct Loot in 2011.

He has translated Chekhov's four major plays and a number of works from French including works by Racine, Ionesco and Feydeau. He has adapted three of E.M. Forster's novels for the stage: Howards End, A Room with a View and The Longest Journey.

He has taught and directed at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, the University of Boston, the University of California, the Julliard School in New York and at all of Australia's leading theatre schools, notably the National Institute of Dramatic Art in Sydney.