The pilgrims travelled from Southwark to Canterbury, but Gregory Doran’s RSC production of The Canterbury Tales Part I and Part II has done that and a lot more besides. After a run in Stratford, a UK tour, a visit to the US and a residency in Spain, the two-part show has arrived on Shaftesbury Avenue. Director Gregory Doran talks to Caroline Bishop about the journey, Chaucer, Shakespeare and farting…
It sounds like Afrikaans or Dutch, or just, frankly, gibberish, but Gregory Doran is extremely good at speaking Chaucerian English. However, I’m not, but luckily Doran is not replying to all my questions in Middle English, he’s simply reciting the beginning of the Prologue of The Canterbury Tales, which he is currently directing at the Gielgud.
“We play a little game,” he explains. “Mark Hadfield as Chaucer begins [in Middle English] and you see at least half the audience go ‘Oh my God it’s all in Middle English, how are we going to get through this? And then he just gently gets into modern English.”
Swynking, swyving and other colourful Chaucerian lingo is retained in Mike Poulton’s adaptation of the tales, giving the production a “flavour of Middle English,” while at the same time Poulton has updated the language enough to ensure that half the audience doesn’t walk out in the interval. The production is visually colourful too; it features singing chickens and a well-spoken fox, shadow play, a rap, a mini-opera, copious amounts of farting and “a lot of bottoms stuck out of windows”. All in all, it’s a lot of fun. “There is naked flesh – do not be afraid,” chuckles Doran.
"I’ve never been afraid of taking on the epics"
He’s enjoying tackling Chaucer. As the Chief Associate Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Doran’s principle body of work as a director is, of course, Shakespeare. He’s been at the RSC since 1987, directed “half the cannon in Stratford,” worked with some of theatre’s leading actors, including Judi Dench, Harriet Walter, Ian McKellen, Tim West and Antony Sher – Doran’s civil partner – and is currently in the midst of the Complete Works Festival in Stratford. However, his non-Shakespeare body of work is equally weighty – including Homer’s The Odyssey, The York Mystery Tales and the Jacobean season at the Gielgud in 2002, for which he picked up a 2003 Laurence Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement. “I’ve never been afraid of taking on the epics,” he says.
Doran chose now to put on a production of The Canterbury Tales partly because the Complete Works meant he felt the RSC might be “a bit Shakespeare’d out,” and also because he was asked to choose something for the annual regional RSC tour that wasn’t Shakespeare. “I thought The Canterbury Tales are after all a series of tales told on tour, so it’s the perfect tour production.”
Chaucer, he feels, is a very appropriate writer for the RSC to look at, given that “he has a very particular relationship with Shakespeare”. He explains: “I think they are very similar in many ways. They are the only English writers – along perhaps with Dickens – that have such a great company of characters. They are incomparable. Also [they have] great fun with stories, and the other thing that makes them similar is the kind of compassion for human frailty. [Chaucer] looks at us in 360 degrees yet he never really criticises.”
Having worked with Poulton (who also adapted the Laurence Olivier Award-winning Don Carlos at the Gielgud last year) on the 30 York Mystery Plays staged in York Minster in 2000, Doran drafted him in to tackle another “great pinnacle of medieval literature”. Keen to retain as many of the tales as possible, they decided to divide them into two separate productions, which can be seen in order on different nights, as a matinee and evening ensemble or treated as entirely separate shows. “We decided that if you did them on only one night you would never get the breadth of story telling and you’d have to lose so much,” says Doran. “When The Canterbury Tales has been done before as a show they tend to use just the bawdy tales. I wanted to have the bawdy tales but alongside that to have some of the rather more spiritual tales, the profound tales or the dark and sinister tales, to give a real view of the overall sense of Chaucer without saying ‘this is Chaucer’s dirty bits’.”
Doran also employed two young directors – Rebecca Gatward and Jonathan Munby – to co-direct this mammoth production, and found that dividing up the tales between them was easy. “I said to them, go away and separately come back and tell me which tales you’d like to do and I’ll arbitrate,” says Doran. “The weird thing was both of them came up with an entirely separate list of tales, absolutely down the line. So it was an amicable discussion really.”
"It’s Chaucer and it’s part of human life – people fart and you find it funny"
After putting on the two-piece show in Stratford the company has been on the road, like the pilgrims themselves, both on the regional tour – performing in a mobile auditorium in sports halls and recreation centres around the UK – and abroad, visiting Washington in the US and Barcelona in Spain. “Over that time, of course tensions spring up between actors here and there and then you kind of go, it’s The Canterbury Tales – people on the road together away from home, sometimes behaving badly, sometimes getting tetchy with each other, sometimes having affairs, and that’s exactly what Chaucer describes in the tales.” Doran may enjoy the comparison but the actors in question don’t always: “They don’t usually see it immediately! When they’re in the middle of it it’s a bit hairy,” he chuckles.
Taking the show on the road also highlighted some cultural differences between countries. Whereas the foundation of British comedy is toilet humour, in the US some audience members were offended by all the farting. “It’s Chaucer and it’s part of human life – people fart and you find it funny,” laughs Doran in response. In Spain the company was due to perform in a monastery at a festival, but was asked to change venue “because there are stories of promiscuous monks and greedy friars and racist nuns and because Chaucer doesn’t have a lot of time for the established church”. Fair enough then.
More serious than an objection to farting, some audiences have been shocked by some of the characters within the tales, who are at times anti-Semitic, homophobic and racist. Doran, however, seems pleased with the production’s ability to provoke a reaction. “What was lovely seeing it just now in Spain was how fresh [the actors] still are because the audience reaction was so great – they are shocked. The Prioress’s tale is a tale of anti-Semitism; she talks about those hateful Jews who murdered a Christian boy, and she’s a terrible racist. I think you have to see it in that context. There are times when you go ‘oh how different we are to the medieval world’ and there are times when you go ‘how shockingly similar we are that racism still exists’.”
One of Doran’s favourite characters is the shockingly modern Wife of Bath. “Is she a proto-feminist? Is he [Chaucer] being anti-feminist in his view of her? She’s had five husbands and is looking for a sixth. She talks absolutely openly and provocatively. She says to her husband in Chaucerian language ‘do you think my ‘queynte’ [c**t] is yours and yours alone?’. It’s absolutely shocking, but she’s saying I have a right to sexual freedom, I have the right to enjoy sex. She talks about her determination to be a free woman. This is the 14th century! It’s astonishing.”
"I’m not going to sit there going ‘damn he got such good reviews for Coriolanus’"
From one wife to another, Doran heads back to Stratford this autumn to direct a musical version of The Merry Wives Of Windsor with Judi Dench and Desmond Barrit, which will be the RSC’s Christmas show. Next year his production of Coriolanus with Janet Suzman, Timothy West and Will Houston in the title role rounds off the Complete Works Festival in March.
Having already directed Antony And Cleopatra earlier in the year, Doran finds himself pitched against Dominic Dromgoole, who is currently directing the same two plays in his inaugural season as Artistic Director of Shakespeare’s Globe. There’s no rivalry between the two though, says Doran, who sent Dromgoole a note wishing him well with his productions. “It’s too small a world to have rivalries. I’m not going to sit there going ‘I hope his [production] is terrible’ and ‘damn he got such good reviews for Coriolanus’. We’re just two different approaches and two different worlds.”
Doran is perfectly happy in the world of the RSC, where, he says, as well as working with the big names, the joy of working with the company is the ensemble. “The group of actors who don’t want to be stars, who want to do good, good work. Someone like Ken Bones who plays Enobarbus [in Antony And Cleopatra], as well as I’ve ever seen Enobarbus played. People like Geoff Freshwater… they are really what makes British theatre great. They continue work of such quality that it gives you strength and depth. I think when you see Shakespeares elsewhere sometimes you just feel that the smaller parts aren’t filled out as much as they might be, but there are times when you get a really good RSC ensemble and you think there’s not a weak link across the board.”
The Merchant's TaleDuring his time at the RSC he’s also worked frequently with his partner, Antony Sher, which he describes as “a very special experience for me,” though they have had to set down a few ground rules to ensure their relationship survives the experience. A decade ago, when the pair went to Sher’s native South Africa to direct/act in Titus Andronicus at Johannesburg’s Market Theatre (about which they wrote a book, Woza Shakespeare), they found it a “very stressful experience”. Doran says: “We were living in the murder capital of the world, and we’d get home to the fortress we were staying in and I just wanted to flop and have a gin and tonic, and he would want to talk about what are we doing with Act Three and what’s going to happen with that scene there. Literally I just threw things at him, and after a few smashed plates we decided that we would not take work home and we would ask permission to discuss things.”
It’s hard to imagine the softly-spoken Doran in a plate-throwing rage. He got his own back anyway, as Sher now knows the stress of being a director – he recently directed his first play, Fraser Grace’s Breakfast With Mugabe, at the Soho and the Duchess. Doran became his “directors helpline”. Doran laughs: “I think he suddenly realised that directing was actually a more difficult job than he thought it was. He would phone me up every now and again and go ‘what happens when an actor won’t do what you tell them to do’?”
They are currently working together again, with Doran directing a new play written by Sher, the details of which are under wraps but which will be put on stage next year. It’s one of the many projects that Doran has on the go – including a book about working with Shakespeare plays, and he’s already got a title in mind: By Bard Alone, taken from a quote by a certain British Shakespearian actor.
“Donald Sinden once said ‘Man cannot live by Bard alone’ and I suppose…” Doran pauses, considering the statement. “No, the honest truth is I never get sick of directing Shakespeare, and I feel very lucky to be able to keep on doing it. There’s always another aspect, like looking at his contemporaries, or exploring one of them in a different form. There’s a lot of variety, every play is so different, it takes you to such different worlds. There are so many actors and so many directors that want to direct it, and of course, many people that want to see it,” he smiles. “So I’m in business for a while.”