Over the last seven years, Dominic Dromgoole’s name has become synonymous with the innovative and classy work of the Oxford Stage Company; one of the UK’s most respected touring companies. All that is about to change, however, as Dromgoole is set to assume the hefty mantle of Artistic Director at Shakespeare’s Globe. After a litany of technological hilarities, Tom Bowtell finally gave Dromgoole a call to talk about his time with OSC, and why Sarah Kane’s Cleansed, which opened at the Arcola this week, will provide a particularly fitting farewell.
Dominic Dromgoole made his name as a director amidst the brilliance and body-fluid of the In Yer Face era of British new writing during the 1990s. Working as a director at theatres such as the Bush and the Old Vic, he bore witness to what he called (in his book The Full Room) “a renaissance [in new writing] equivalent to that witnessed during Shakespeare's time”. But then, in 1998, he made the decision to replace the heady world of new writing with the apparently more parochial atmosphere of the Oxford Stage Company. “I wanted to try and get to know a different world, understand a different world: I’d grown up in new writing and small studio theatres and I was keen to see what was out there in the rest of England. The West End and London sometimes feel hermetically sealed – I wanted to see different audiences, different plays and different theatres. It was exciting to walk around in a completely different territory.”
"This isn’t the sort of thing you can footle around with."
During his years with OSC, Dromgoole has certainly fulfilled this ambition, literally exploring more or less every territory that the UK has to offer, and performing in shows at venues from Derby to Barnstable. This journey of exploration with the OSC will, for Dromgoole at least, end at the Arcola theatre in East London. Indeed this valedictory Dromgoolian production can be seen as his journey with the OSC completing a full circle as he returns to a London-based studio theatre with Cleansed, one the greatest plays to emerge from that distinguished mid-nineties era. Dromgoole’s legendary enthusiasm is immediately in evidence when I ask him about the production: “Cleansed has been a great project to work on. First of all we had a very enjoyable time casting it: the commitment of people who wanted to be in it was extraordinary – this isn’t the sort of thing you can footle around with.”
That’s putting it lightly; Sarah Kane’s relatively small body of work (she had written five plays, including Cleansed at the time of her death in 1999), is renowned for being just about the most powerful and visceral theatre written in the last 20 years. However, with this new production of Cleansed (directed by Sean Holmes), the Oxford Stage Company is particularly keen to explore an aspect of Kane’s plays which is somewhat less well known; their innate humanity. “This was something we all felt from the off: when it was first produced it was all saturated in its own cheerlessness, in fact there was a more complex story behind it than simply the fact tat it was gloomy. There’s a humour in it, a warmth and a tenderness which brings all the other colours into sharp relief. There is something affirming about it.”
“We wanted to show Cleansed as a richer collection of colours.”
While, in all their literature for Cleansed, OSC make a point of stressing the “poetic tenderness” of the play, Dromgoole doesn’t for a moment suggest that the passing of a decade has blunted its jagged edges: “It will undoubtedly still be shocking. Some plays will never lose their shock factor, however often you see them, however familiar they become. Oedipus Tyrannos will still fill you with horror, Gloucester having his eyes gouged out will never be seen as normal or acceptable in any way and Titus [Andronicus] will always be disturbing and uncomfortable. Some works of art are built to shock perennially. There’s no sense in which we wanted to water Cleansed down: we merely wanted it to show a richer collection of colours.”
This is an important point: Dromgoole doesn’t feel that the OSC’s production of Cleansed has altered Kane’s original intent, but that it merely highlights an integral part of the play which may have been missed by audiences the first time around. Dromgoole is in no doubt that “this will be a different sort of production” from the legendary first staging of the play in 1994. “The first production was spectacular and operatic whereas ours is going to be more deliberately low-rent. Because of Sarah’s rather gothic stage directions, it is easy for the play to disappear underneath all of the theatrics. Our interpretation will be more deliberately minimalist.”
When I point out the appropriateness of Cleansed as Dromgoole’s farewell show, he insists that this is more serendipity than ceremony: “The play was chosen a while ago, before all this other stuff happened. It’s part of a consistent policy we’ve had of reclaiming great plays from the last 100 years that we think have been willfully misunderstood, or have fallen into neglect: plays like Churchill’s Top Girls which are distinct in nature and share a humanity. Sarah’s work was famously misunderstood when it was first performed: this is a continuation of our attempts to resurrect plays.”
"Kane left behind a vivid, consistent and thought-through body of work"
There is, however, no doubt, that Kane’s writing is of enormous personal importance to Dromgoole: “I knew Sarah very well, she worked with us at the Bush as a literary associate; she was a good friend.” Slipping into his other guise as theatre academic, Dromgoole also confirms that he feels that Kane’s place in the literary canon is assured: “I think her work will continue to be seen as important. She was someone who left behind a very vivid, consistent and thought-through body of work; which, in its brutality and poetry, acquired a consistency of tone.”
A consistency of tone is also something that the work of the OSC has also acquired during Dromgoole’s tenure as Artistic Director. Dromgoole demurely suggests that this clear policy, where the company set out to “reclaim” plays that have been lost or misunderstood, was something which evolved organically: “Our original idea was to present a bold and catholic collection of work. As it happened, policy emerged by accident rather than design: the sort of plays we were doing all walked the tightrope between being rare and accessible.”
One thing that Dominic Dromgoole can unabashedly take credit for (although, inevitably, he won’t) is the legendary spirit and joie de vivre of the Oxford Stage Company: “I will miss the camaraderie – there is amazing spirit in the company. Going on tour certainly helps forge those connections; you’re all there in Barnstable, Newcastle or Stirling, doing everything together, so you all come to feel very comfortable with each other.” Despite his sadness at departing, Dromgoole is confident that the relationships he has developed with the company will continue: “I hope to work with all of them again, relationships continue in other ways – just look at Translations at the National, many of the people working on that were together at OSC.”
"It has been thrilling."
While Dominic Dromgoole may be in his final days at the Oxford Stage Company, it is clear that his focus is not yet wandering across to the South Bank: there’s plenty of time for all that, but first there is Cleansed to think about and then, no doubt, a suitably spectacular leaving party. “I’m proud of every single thing the company has done, we’ve produced an incredible body of work. It has been thrilling.”