It is hard not to be immediately charmed by Gregory Doran, the man in the hot seat at the Royal Shakespeare Company. Whether it is respect for his loyalty to a company he has been part of for more than a quarter of a century, admiration of his flowing mane or childish glee at finding him kitted out in a Trunchbull hoodie – show merchandise from current worldwide RSC hit Matilda The Musical – he wins me over before even a word is spoken.
We meet at the RSC’s London offices; sirens blare in the background and burrito vendors lurk temptingly outside. Inside I have half an hour to grab with the Artistic Director whose diary has more crammed into it than a very good child’s stocking on Christmas morning. He’s just back from New York, has to shoot off to an award presentation after our chat, and then there’s the small matter of bringing Henry IV Parts I & II, which star his partner Antony Sher as Falstaff, to the Barbican.
It is those productions, which garnered a host of four star reviews when they played in Stratford, that we are here to discuss. Yet talk inevitably drifts towards Doran’s plans, the RSC’s presence in London, theatre in cinemas and his own acclaimed directing style:
The idea of looking at the History plays together has always been fascinating to me, but I didn’t want to automatically do them as a tetralogy. I wanted to look at the plays in their own right before putting them together, starting with Richard II and David Tennant. It was a part he wanted to play so it seemed like a very good place to start. I wanted to look at that play as a great verse tragedy, so it wasn’t just a prologue to Henry IV.
Richard is all in verse, it’s a fairly narrow spectrum that you look at; they’re all dukes and duchesses and the court. Henry IV just feels like a completely different play, a panorama of the entire society.
I spent quite a lot of time working out whether Shakespeare wrote a play called Henry IV and then found out he had too much material and added another play or whether it was part of an arc that he had already worked out. There are times when you think in Part II that he’s treading water or he’s repeating stuff.
I had no idea who was going to play Falstaff. I was having a conversation with Ian McKellen about why he’d never played Falstaff. It’s a great role, but people who’ve played Hamlet, Macbeth and Richard III don’t necessarily think that Falstaff is one of their roles. Ian said to me “Why are you looking for Falstaff when you live with him?” Tony Sher said “It’s not my part.” He came back having read it carefully and said “It’s not a great part; it’s two great parts.” Somehow he had never seen the man as he is: deeply alcoholic but a fantastically resilient life force.
I think Jasper Britton [who plays the title role] is one of our great, albeit largely unsung, actors. I think he is a species of genius, I really do. I think he’s got such facility and such profound understanding. When I first directed him in The Taming Of The Shrew he sort of solved the play. The play didn’t seem to be a problem play at all, it seemed to be about two damaged people who found solace in each other and actually put two fingers up at the world. That was largely because of his brilliance.
It’s lovely to see the commitment that people are making to the RSC long term. These plays do require craftsmanship, and craftsmanship takes discipline and time. Some actors want a quicker fix than that; some actors feel that their craft deserves that longer percolation.
I think the RSC wants a London base, not a London home. Our home is Stratford, that’s where we make the work. But I think that we do need a London base. It’s a continuing conundrum, but one that we are tackling vigorously.
It’s going to be great bringing the Henry IVs to the Barbican. It’s a great space for us to be. I just want there to be more opportunity to bring more stuff from Stratford. The conditions have got to be right and we need to make sure that we can really show all the work that we do in Stratford. But London hasn’t got a Swan Theatre. It hasn’t got a really good thrust space. The Barbican is a sensible one-room space, but it doesn’t have that very special thing that we have in Stratford. It’s a completely different dynamic. I just want London to have that same opportunity. I want there to be a space that you can really celebrate those plays in that configuration. If we can get that we’ll be home and dry.
Theatre cinema screenings are not just a second hand experience – if you can’t get to the theatre you can watch it at the cinema – it’s become something else again. I don’t think we’ve yet got the critical vocabulary to quite explore or explain that experience, it seems to me it needs viewing in its own right. I think the work that the team in Stratford have done on Richard II and the Henry IVs and indeed on The Two Gentlemen Of Verona which we’ve just done, has captured something that’s so vivid and gets you right into the centre of the action.
I got one text from a guy sitting in his UCI eating his curry, saying “Really enjoying Richard II eating my chicken korma”. I thought I’m very glad I’m not sitting next to you, but if that’s how you want your Shakespeare that’s great. I think it’s giving people a way in.
I think there are unexpected extra advantages of doing live streaming. The first one we did, for Richard II, we had 461 schools, 31,000 kids, 87% of whom had never seen a Shakespeare play before, seeing it right there in their classrooms and then being able to submit questions online and talk to David Tennant or me or whoever and ask questions about the show.
There are directors who use the plays to present their own agenda or their own obsessions. There are directors who create Shakespeare productions with what Adrian Noble once called “Concept with a capital K and an umlaut”. I’m not that strong on that. I prefer to get a group of actors together. To me the casting is one of the most important things; to work on the play together. What emerges is the result of those people at that particular time engaging with that play. I think Shakespeare is like a magnet that attracts the iron filings of what is going on in the rest of the world.
I’ve always said with this job that if it ever got to “It’s Tuesday it must be As You Like It” then we should just pack up and go home. It must never be that. It must never be a conveyor belt. There has to be a reason to do the plays and there always is.