Following critical acclaim for a succession of productions with his theatre company Headlong, and two bold versions of Shakespearean classics, director Rupert Goold finds himself a Laurence Olivier Award-winner with a multitude of projects on the go. Caroline Bishop grabbed a chat with the director du jour as his new production, The Last Days Of Judas Iscariot, prepares to open at the Almeida.
Rupert Goold has always enjoyed spending time with actors. But, though he tried his hand at acting at school, he says he has never been very good at it. Instead, the schoolboy that Goold himself describes as “the quiet kid who hung around kind of sniggering,” found another way to hang out with the “brilliant and funny and entertaining” people that he considers actors to be – directing.
Now, at 36, the quiet kid has become the man of the moment in British theatre. Fresh from Laurence Olivier Award-winning success for his ecstatically-received production of Macbeth, Goold finds himself with offers on the table across the pond, as Macbeth runs on Broadway, while he remains in London rehearsing his latest show at the Almeida and preparing the forthcoming season with Headlong, the theatre company of which he is Artistic Director. Oh, and after we speak, he is announced as the director for the forthcoming revival of Cameron Mackintosh’s reality-cast Oliver! at the prestigious Theatre Royal Drury Lane.
Still, he is not too busy to give up a snatched half hour between rehearsals for The Last Days Of Judas Iscariot at Islington’s Almeida theatre to have a chat. Actually, he probably is – he has already crowbarred a production meeting into the first half of his lunch hour – but he did it anyway, to talk about Headlong’s new production of Stephen Adly Guirgis’s fantasy courtroom drama, which marks the UK premiere of the American playwright’s latest work.
Set in purgatory, The Last Days Of Judas Iscariot imagines the trial of the treacherous apostle, whose betrayal of Jesus is put to a jury after testimonies from witnesses including Pontius Pilate, Mother Teresa, Sigmund Freud and Satan. Proceedings are ruled over by a judge whose entry to Heaven is still pending. “It’s a kind of a mixture of 70s American courtroom drama, a big spiritual, biblical piece and then also a sort of Naked Gun-style comedy,” explains Goold.
Adly Guigis, whose previous plays include Jesus Hopped The A Train (which transferred to the Arts after a sell-out short run at the Donmar Warehouse in 2002) and In Arabia We’d All Be Kings (produced at the Hampstead in 2003), is a native New Yorker and founder member of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s LABryinth theatre company who has also written for US television shows NYPD Blue, The Wire and The Sopranos. His is a distinct voice, says Goold. “It’s very sort of New York street language I suppose, very colourful. It’s all the energy you get from David Mamet but a bit more urban.
"It’s a kind of a mixture of 70s American courtroom drama, a big spiritual, biblical piece and a sort of Naked Gun-style comedy "
“I’d loved Stephen’s work, but it had always been naturalistic and street-level and suddenly he’d written this play which was this mad, heavenly fantasy and that seemed to fit very much with what we were doing at Headlong,” he adds. “It seemed to be a similar tradition to Angels In America, which we did last year.”
In addition to Tony Kushner’s epic, which ran at the Lyric Hammersmith in June 2007, previous, similarly spiritual productions under Goold’s tenure of Headlong, which started in 2005, include Ben Power’s adaptation of Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost and an adaptation of Marlowe’s Faustus, also a collaboration with Power, which intertwined the 16th century story of the man who sold himself to the devil with a contemporary-set thread based around the work of controversial modern artists Jake and Dinos Chapman.
“I suppose what’s similar about Faustus and Paradise Lost and this is that we tried to look at questions of faith and spirituality through modern secular forms or characterisation,” says Goold. “This is very emotional and moving but it’s not as dark as that at all. Although it’s got some really big ideas in there and some great discussion ideas, it’s maybe not so cerebral as Faustus.”
Certainly, The Last Days Of Judas Iscariot is a bold, inventive play, which suits Goold’s penchant for realising bold, inventive concepts, as seen most recently in Shakespearean outings The Tempest and Macbeth, which ran in the West End last year, both starring Patrick Stewart. In The Tempest, Prospero’s island became the Artic tundra, while his Macbeth was transposed to a grimy concrete bunker in a Stalin-era Eastern bloc country.
Working on his vision for Macbeth, Goold had an “almost cinematic sense of how it was going to develop”. But this is not always the case. He is happy to admit that he often has concerns about whether his ideas will actually work. “Oh God, yeah. It’s often quite late, often not until it’s on the stage that you go, ‘oh, we mucked that up’.” Recently, he has “been lucky that way”, he says self-effacingly, in not having made any big mistakes – which is surely down to his own skill rather than simply luck. Nevertheless, he says he knows all too well the feeling of having made a big mistake. “If it’s design, it’s often too late [to change it]. It’s rarely casting but if it is then that’s pretty late as well. It’s particularly hard on classical work because if you’ve gone out on a limb and tried to do something different with it and you realise that it’s not going to work then it is normally too late.”
But going out on a limb seems to be what Goold is best at, even if, sometimes, it means it takes longer for those around him to come on board. He says the first time he worked with Stewart, who played Prospero in The Tempest, the actor took some convincing to come round to Goold’s vision. “We did a pretty radical, weird production of The Tempest and I could see he was a little concerned about whether it would work, initially. But when we came to Macbeth, because he knew The Tempest had been a hit, everything I suggested he was like, ‘fine, yep great!’”
Both The Tempest and Macbeth – plus his production of Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie in January 2007 – were not Headlong shows; his contract with the company allows him to do one freelance production a year. Though this adds to his increasing pile of plates to juggle, it gives Goold the opportunity to pursue different strands of work, both classical and new writing. “What I’m trying to do with Headlong is to make it more and more distinctive about what it stands for, because we’re still relatively young. Headlong just wouldn’t do that production of Macbeth, nor would they have done The Glass Menagerie. We are trying to do something a bit more formally inventive; we want to focus on new work a bit more, new ways of making work. So I like to feel that Headlong is – certainly for me anyway as an artist – at the cutting edge of what I’m interested in. But sometimes that involves more risk obviously, because if you’re going to try and develop things often you put your neck on the line, whereas if you’re doing a Shakespeare or a Tennessee Williams, in some ways there is less at stake or you’re working in a different way.”
Combining freelance with a company season also provides a happy balance of being able to “meet loads of new people all the time because you’ve got a new company three or four times a year” and also maintain an ongoing relationship with his Headlong friends and colleagues, “the people who keep you real”.
"Everybody in whatever walk of life they do, they want validation, I suppose, don’t they? They want to feel they belong in some way"
As a touring company, Headlong also maintains Goold’s relationship with regional theatre, where he has spent a good deal of his career to date. For three years, from 2002-05, he was Artistic Director of Northampton’s Royal and Derngate theatres, staging productions including Hamlet (with Tobias Menzies, an experience he would like to repeat again some day), Othello, Waiting For Godot, Betrayal and Arcadia. The hardest challenge for a touring company such as Headlong, he says, is to develop a relationship with audiences, particularly if the company can’t visit venues more than once a year. “Because venue managers and schedules change, it’s often quite hard for us to do that. In an ideal world we’d have maybe eight regional venues we’d visit twice a year, so we’d really build audiences up there. We try and do that but we’re not always successful.”
Nevertheless, Goold likes the freedom that comes with not having a permanent base – the company can concentrate on the work and leave “the loos and the box office and stuff” to the hosting theatre. It also allows the company to offer what amounts to a bespoke service to chosen playwrights. “What we try and do with Headlong, particularly with writers, is to say, you give us the piece of work and we will find the perfect team for it at the perfect space, and the perfect scenario for it. That might be a site-specific run of three nights or it might be a tour of a year.”
As a result, Headlong’s forthcoming oeuvre is a balance of London and regional-based productions: a 10-venue regional tour of Richard Bean’s play The English Game, a small-scale experimental adaptation of Chekhov’s Three Sisters at the Gate by Chris Goode, the winner of the Gate/Headlong directing prize, and a new collaboration with Power back at Chichester’s Minerva Theatre, where Macbeth originated. These all follow The Last Days Of Judas Iscariot, which, with a cast of 15, is too big and expensive to tour but, essentially, has helped Headlong establish a relationship with the Almeida.
What is sure now, also, is that Goold’s reputation in the capital is secure. In an interview with Prompt magazine in 2006, he said part of the reason he had moved to Northampton was “I just hadn’t got into the London thing. I’d done some well reviewed stuff and I wrote all the letters, but for one reason or another I just felt that I wasn’t making any progress – except in regional theatre.”
How things have changed. The last few years, and particularly the last six months, have made Goold the name to watch in the capital. He swept the boards during the awards season, picking up Best Director gongs in the Critics’ Circle, Evening Standard and Laurence Olivier Awards, which, Goold implies, went some way to make him feel accepted in the London theatre industry. “I felt great, you know, it surprised me how pleased I was!” he says of winning the Laurence Olivier Award in March. “Everybody in whatever walk of life they do, they want validation, I suppose, don’t they? They want to feel they belong in some way. I’d spent a lot of time doing regional theatre and you know, it began as quite a small production, Macbeth, and then suddenly it felt like we’d earned it because we’d worked so hard at it. Do I think I was the best director last year? Not at all. I only think that the stars fell right for people being interested in my work and it probably came to London at the right time.”
It has also boosted his profile nicely among the general public; Headlong’s forthcoming Chichester production, an adaptation of Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters In Search Of An Author, is, says Goold, selling really well, even though “it’s not the most obvious title and our production is going to be pretty weird!”. Evidently, like Stewart, the theatregoing public now trusts Goold’s particular brand of weirdness. “It’s much more like Faustus that one, and I’m really, really excited about it actually. It could be a complete mess but I think we’re doing something really different with it.”
With all these projects in the pipeline – nine or 10 at his last count – life in the Goold household must be fairly hectic. Certainly, with Goold’s wife and Lady Macbeth, Kate Fleetwood, in New York with their two-and-a-half-year-old son, he says he is using the time to knuckle down. “I’ve been working very, very long hours at home like a dull bachelor at the moment, trying to get on top of it all!” he laughs.
But that’s the pay off. After finding it hard to get his career going during his 20s, struggling to make ends meet but still “having a really great time”, Goold is finally reaping the rewards of building up his career, which means perhaps he has to forgo some of the fun to cope with the workload. “You hit your 30s and that’s fine, you’ve got to work!”, he says simply.
"I’ve been working very, very long hours at home like a dull bachelor at the moment"
After Judas opens on 3 April, he will be popping off to New York to check that Macbeth is still ticking over nicely and the actors aren’t getting bored with all that murdering – “If you’ve done 140 performances and you go on stage and say, ‘I can’t believe it, they’ve killed the King!’, to keep that fresh is tricky,” he chuckles.
Then no doubt he’ll be back again, juggling his various plates, which now extend to December, when he will recreate the direction of former mentor Sam Mendes for one of the year’s biggest musical openings, Oliver!, no doubt increasing his public profile even further. Meanwhile, those who already know him and his imaginative brand of theatre, will be heading to the Almeida. “I know that audiences at Judas Iscariot will have a real blast,” Goold reassures. “They might quibble about things, they might find some things odd or weird, but they will have fun. It’s a great night in the theatre, and I think that hopefully word of mouth will deliver that.” I think it just might – because that sounds like Goold all over.
The Last Days Of Judas Iscariot plays at the Almeida until 10 May.