Interview with Royal Shaskespeare Company Associate Director, Gregg Doran
The Hospital Club Magazine Winter Edition 2009. Theme: London. Gregg Doran explains to Phil Willmott why Shakespeare and the Royal Shakespeare company are intrinsic to London ’s cultural life.
You search in vain for the big London speech in Shakespeare, an epic hymn to the hurly-burly of the teaming city streets, the great port, the awe inspiring towers and palaces. What direct references you find are merely passing geographical references. So did Will even like London ?
It’s the home of the Globe Theatre, of course, where “he”, who ever “he” was, enjoyed his greatest triumphs but the London centric scenes in the history plays depict crime, squalor and rebellion with no hint of the obvious relish for “country matters” we find in the comedies. Yet despite this Shakespeare feels inexplicably linked with London . Greg Doran is a man who may be able to help us understand this paradox.
Associate director of The Royal Shakespeare Company Doran is also the author of a recent Shakespeare almanac and when I posed the question of his hero’s relationship to London he’s bristling with fascinating facts about city life in the reign of Elizabeth and James I that stem directly from passing references in the plays. For instance there’s that mention of a whale swimming up the Thames in the Merry Wives of Windsor – big, big news in its day - Doran’s found evidence of an osprey colony cultivated to provide hunting quarry for the king; there was, he tells me, a busy whaling industry whose whale oil lamps meant the city was one of the best lit in the world. These references litter the plays so perhaps there was no need for any big set piece eulogy, perhaps a sense of London simply runs through these great works with no further explanation necessary.
The Royal Shakespeare Company itself has had a rather troubled relationship with the capital in recent years. When I began my theatre going in the 1980s it was firmly ensconced at the Barbican Theatre, the Barbican was the RSC, just as for the last generation of playgoers the RSC had meant the Aldwych Theatre, it’s home for many years. Since a controversial split with the Barbican the company has struggled to find a London identity moving around a number of West End venues, most notably the Strand Theatre where Doran has directed a number of star led hits, most notably the recent production of David Tennant in Hamlet.
Despite the RSC’s multi-million pound base at Stratford on Avon Doran, tells me he feels it’s important that the company maintains a presence in the capital arguing that there’s an appetite for the company’s work here and a desire amongst the actors to be seen in their home town. That’s certainly true but in my opinion with so much competition these days an RSC production is often only as popular as its star. Doran disagrees, despite the fact that we’re also about to get his production of Twelfth Night starring Richard Wilson. Actors like Wilson and Tennant, he explains, merely head an ensemble and it’s the quality of this ensemble acting that’s key to artistic success.
Doran does concede that casting the right people is central to preparations for his productions, he can’t conceive of planning a revival of one of the great tragedies with out first knowing who’ll be centre stage. In Doran’s case the leading actor is sometimes his partner, the renowned classical actor Sir Anthony Sher, and the two have forged an enduring professional and private relationship since they met in a production of The Merchant of Venice in the 1980s. Doran was an actor back then and not surprisingly those experiences have informed his approach to directing. He compares one production in which the director had failed to engage him with his experience in The Merchant of Venice where he felt so involved and committed that the play felt as if it were about him.
These days he has some fascinating directors techniques to keep his cast engaged. I asked him if he has a “read through” on the first day of his rehearsals – a soul destroying process, often insisted upon by managements, in which the actors must sit in a circle and give a cold reading of the text at the very start of rehearsals. The leading actors are terrified whilst people in small parts are bored and feel undervalued. Doran spices things up by insisting no one reads the role they’ll eventually play, so a spear carrier might get to read the Hamlet lines whilst the star reads in first messenger.
He then begins a long process where the actors divide their time between the very physical rehearsing of fights, dances etc with a very cerebral analysis of the text in which each must interpret the lines in their own words ensuring a very thorough understanding of every scene.
The moments Doran is most interested in are the “crossroads” where a characters’ options could take the action in a number of different ways. He feels it’s important to dramatise these dilemmas in order to make the play seem a fresh and living experience. If characters appear to behave as if they, like the actor, know what’s going to happen it can make for a deadly evening. For instance, he explains, if you play the first three acts of Romeo and Juliet knowing the pair are doomed you miss all the comedy.
So many RSC Shakespeare productions of the eighties and nineties were swamped by a design concept and Doran takes decisions involving set and costumes as late in the process as he can, preferring the ideas to grow organically out of exploratory work with the actors. He began rehearsing his memorable, Sher led, production of Macbeth assuming that it would have a Jacobean setting but rehearsal room discussions on the nature of fear meant he soon swapped to presenting the play in modern dress in a contemporary world.
It’s Doran’s astute casting and this creative flexibility that result in such fluid and exhilarating productions. Many people were surprised that he wasn’t picked to run the Royal Shakespeare Company when former and controversial leader Adrian Noble suddenly resigned. But Doran loves the freedom he has to stage productions with out the added responsibility of running a huge business organisation. And although he admits he’d happily take some time out to direct a blockbuster musical that could make him a fortune his passions remain very definitely for Shakespeare. He’s just finished filming his David Tennant Hamlet, his Twelfth Night has just opened in Stratford before coming to us at Christmas and he’s currently directing an RSC related project in Japan .
I predict his energy and commitment to bringing fine productions of the bard to our West End will ensure Shakespeare and his company remain at London ’s heart for a long time to come.