Shakespeare Alive

5. Directing Shakespeare, with Gregory Doran

December 15, 2020 Gregory Doran Episode 5
Shakespeare Alive
5. Directing Shakespeare, with Gregory Doran
Shakespeare Alive
5. Directing Shakespeare, with Gregory Doran
Dec 15, 2020 Episode 5
Gregory Doran

Paul talks to Gregory Doran, the artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, about what made him a Shakespearian and what that means to him personally, and to the company. They also discuss cross-gendered casting, and how theatrical performance brings Shakespeare to life in our own time and culture.

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Show Notes Transcript

Paul talks to Gregory Doran, the artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, about what made him a Shakespearian and what that means to him personally, and to the company. They also discuss cross-gendered casting, and how theatrical performance brings Shakespeare to life in our own time and culture.

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Paul Edmondson: Hello everybody, and welcome to Shakespeare Alive a podcast of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.  My name's Paul Edmondson. Shakespeare Alive hosts conversations with people who work with Shakespeare throughout the world.

It gives me great pleasure to introduce today's guest who has been described as one of the greatest Shakespearians of his generation. Gregory Doran became Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare company in 2012, and has enjoyed many successes often with some of the finest actors of our time, especially with Shakespeare and his contemporary playwrights. I first became aware of Greg's work in 1996 with his splendid production of Shakespeare and John Fletcher's All Is True (Henry VIII), and I'm pretty certain I've seen everything Greg has directed since then. He's also published several books, including the beautiful and insightful Shakespeare Almanac.  He's an honorary fellow of the Shakespeare Birthplace trust, and he holds at the latest count seven honorary doctorates. Dear Greg: welcome.

Gregory Doran: Nice to hear you.

Paul Edmondson: How did you first become a Shakespearian?  

Gregory Doran: Well, you know, I've been pondering this because I've been thinking: 'what is a Shakespearian'? You know, it sounds rather like Hyperion, or some kind of Titanic master-race, or, or maybe more Valkyrian, you know, a sort of handmaiden to, you know, elite cohort, crusading, handmaidens protecting their God Shakespeare or, well, maybe it's just sort of more tribal. Maybe it's more like being, I dunno. So I, or maybe it's a simple faith. It's like being Presbyterian.

Paul Edmondson: So from what you said, it might be in the blood, it might be something that you're elected to and hold for life, or it might be something that you believe. 

Gregory Doran: Well, yes. I mean, I suppose, I always describe it as just being a Shakespeare-nut. I did study it at school, in Preston, I was brought up by the Jesuits. My dad used to get these box ed-sets of records and  one of the accompanying desks was the incidental music to A Midsummer Night's Dream, which I listened to. And it had extracts in between the pieces of music, uh, from the play itself. And I just thought it was such an extraordinary story and such an amazing world to be taken into. So it was while I was at school that we did an annual Shakespeare play. So I was able really, I was looking at Shakespeare to, to see which parts I could play, not, not to answer exam questions. And I suppose it's because it just, every single play takes you into a completely different world. They, they, they have different temperatures, different sort of mental landscape. And I, it just became, to me, it became a passport through my, through my life from, from having done them at school. And I started, I started getting my mates together and, and doing them in, you know, doing productions in various stately-piles around Lancashire, it became kind of all-consuming and nothing else would, would, would fit.

Paul Edmondson: It sounds like you had a wonderful mixture of friendship along with adventures in these stately -piles, as well as the commitment to the theatre from a very early age, of course. 

Gregory Doran: Part of that was inspired by my, uh, my English teacher's name was Jock Malone, because he directed the Shakespeare play every year. So, you know, I mean he saw whatever potential I had. So I, you know, I missed out on Ophelia in 2R, but  I did get Lady Anne the following year and then, you know, Lady Macbeth and, and then Malvolio and Richard II. And what have you. And he used to, he used to take us on trips to  Stratford. My mate Richard and I became members. And we started hitch-hiking down the M6 to queue outside the theatre to get tickets for... I remember getting tickets in '75 for the Henry IV Part One with Alan Howard. And we went back to see Henry IV Part Two, but realized we'd got the time and the dates wrong, so we saw Henry IV Part One part one again, and thought it was a very strange that it seemed to be very similar to the first part.

And the following year, we camped on the racecourse and we queued to see the musical of, of, of The Comedy of Errors. And my teens became full of theatre and Shakespeare. You were grabbed first by the stories. And then literally by, by those words, and by, by being able to speak those words, which I found empowering and, and somehow then the, the psychological insight, and then the political insight, and the sort of life experiences as, as he seemed to know all about being in love, or being ambitious, or being jealous. So I mean, extraordinary, but he, he just seemed to, as Pope said, say what 'oft was thought, but ne'er so well express'd.' 

Paul Edmondson: We never forget our very first time in Stratford-upon-Avon. What did you happen to see on that occasion? 

Gregory Doran: I know exactly because I know I've got my schoolboy diary, which for 1973, the poster of Eileen Atkins in As You Like It sits on my wall today. I just came dancing out of the theatre on, in my mum's little beige mini, as we jumped back up, uh, the M6, I apparently turned to her and said, 'That's what I want to do when I grow up'. And I don't think I really knew what that meant. I just wanted to be part of whatever that was, um, because it seems to be so magical.

Paul Edmondson:  As it were, we all continue to grow up as Shakespearians. What does being a Shakespearian mean for you now that you're doing what you do?

Gregory Doran: Do you know? I joked about this before, but it is a kind of faith. And it has a kind of responsibility to it. That for me as an artistic director, I want everybody to have access to Shakespeare, but, but my Shakespeare is not necessarily going to be your Shakespeare and we're all going to have different, we're going to see different things in that extraordinary omnibus. I don't think it's as, as sort of infinitely necessarily as, as, as infinitely flexible as some people would like it to suggest it is, but maybe the reason we continue with him certainly in the theatre is that there always seems to be a new interpretation, a new inflection, and it's my job as Artistic Director to, to balance, a whole series of things about how, how people get Shakespeare. In the new extraordinary world of digital suggests even greater possibilities of, of, of, of engagement in performance. Um, and I think it's, it's my job to be open to what, what those possibilities are.

Paul Edmondson: You're almost completing your canon, aren't you, yourself? I'm trying to remember if there's any play that you've directed more than once. And I can't easily think of one. 

Gregory Doran: When I, I, I directed The Merchant of Venice, uh, obviously in Stratford and, uh, I have directed in Japan, in Japanese. So I think that's the only one. And I did start my career while I was still at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School after university. Um, I got a job, uh, directing A Midsummer Night's Dream in a, in a community college in upstate New York. Couldn't quite remember how that happened now. So I, I have done Dream twice and revived one production twice, but no, you're absolutely right. I, there were so many of them, but I think I don't want to repeat them. I want to get onto the next one. On the day we are talking, today or tomorrow would be the first preview of The Wars of the Roses. Once I finally get to do those, I think I've got three more to do...

Paul Edmondson:  Which are...?

Gregory Doran:  Romeo and Juliet, I have directed, but not for Stratford, Cymbeline, and The Two Gentlemen of Verona.

Paul Edmondson: Ah, well, there must've been something in the force, Greg, because last week I listened to George Rylands's Wars of the Roses: Parts One, Two, and Three, and Richard III and, oh my goodness: what an explosion of sound and - 

Gregory Doran: isn't it extraordinary? 

Paul Edmondson: - complexity of narratives. I really, really, truly admire how Shakespeare decided to tell the story.

Gregory Doran: You can see him growing, even through those three plays, in sophistication of character, of language, of theatrical convention. Um, you know, he sort of discovers the soliloquy. It's fantastic. Yeah, but I, there they are. They're brilliant plays. I can't wait to finally get to work on them. 

Paul Edmondson: Whenever that turns out to be, from your own point of view, as a director, how would you characterize the developments in bodying-forth Shakespeare on stage over the last 20 years when you look, you know, elsewhere?

Yeah. Yeah. 

Gregory Doran: Well, it's a very interesting question, I think. I was thinking back to what was I doing 20, 20 years ago: Macbeth with Harriet Walter and Tony Sher, Timon of Athens, Winter's Tale. But in The Other Place I directed Oronooko. And so that company... a quarter of the company that year was black - for the first time ever. Leaping forward to a Julius Caesar I did a few years ago, which we set in contemporary Africa, it was very interesting to see just how the development of acting companies had changed, and how diversity had become a crucial issue in that. And, you know, indeed that, and the reason I did Julius Caesar in that way was because there were an astonishing number - and are astonishing number - of great black actors with great classical jobs, you know, and I think so I think diversity has been an issue. David Oyelowo then of course played Henry VI. And it was an out, there was an outcry from certain quarters of audience, or population, who, who felt that, you know, that you couldn't possibly have an English king who was black.

 Do you know, 

Paul Edmondson: I remember my heart sinking on the streets of Stratford when I bumped into people whom I thought would have better opinions in that. And they were, you know, sharing that outcry with me. And I remember my heart just sinking.

Gregory Doran: Yeah. Hasn't entirely gone away, one has to say, and that is still a challenge, but I think there's a greater diversity, you know. I think that with Bali Gill as Romeo winning the Ian Charleson award, we, we should have, we should have won some of those arguments, but we still haven't. But I think..  So there is great much greater diversity, certainly within our acting companies. Um, we've got more work to do in terms of doing that across the board, but I think it's also... it's not just the diversity, the ethnic diversity, I think there's a sense of both social class and regionality, uh, and, and indeed disability. And of course, gender is a, is a, is another in terms of disability. We, we are realizing that there's a fantastic resource there and a different interpretation. I know when Charlotte Arrowsmith came in to, uh, audition for me, for Cassandra in Troilus and Cressida how her ability to attempt to express this terrible prophecy that nobody's going to listen to. She reached into years of her own experience of, because she was deaf people thinking she was stupid, or that they all, that they wouldn't find the time to listen to her. And that to me was so entirely fused with who Cassandra was, that even though she didn't speak the words, they were interpreted for her, her attempt to express those prophecies, brought something completely new.

And then completely differently when she came back last season, um, and played Audrey in, As You Like It, and we discovered that the person interpreting for her was actually was, was, was, was William her, her jilted lover. Actually, I thought that was the best Audrey and William I'd ever seen because it was so touching. So trying to discover the potential of those new voices and those, those who have the right to speak it, and I think that's also goes to.... as to how we want to hear it. And regionality is a really interesting one in that. And, you know, I was talking to Patrick Stewart about his time at the RSC in the very early days, you know, he's a, uh, a working-class kid from West Yorkshire. Yeah. He felt he was given the right to speak. And of course he played, to begin with, played a lot  of, sort of your Grumios and Stefanos, and things, um, uh, using his, his Yorkshire roots, but that somehow we had to get beyond the fact that if you've got a regional accent, you have to play a lower-class character as it, as it were.

So, so class, I think that there have been huge leaps in the last 20 years, to answer your question.

Paul Edmondson:  We've been becoming more aware of, of cross-gender casting in recent times, in the last five years. How do you feel about that, Greg? And what represents best-practice for you, would you say, in that area? 

Gregory Doran: Well, I think we are still discovering what best practice is. If there is such a thing. And I suspect there are lots of different approaches. I think the most prominent regendering as clear in recent times and the most significant, was first Phyllida Lloyd at the Donmar Warehouse in the trilogy with Harriet Walter, and indeed, then at the, at the Sam Wanamaker, when Adjoa Andoh did the Richard II. But in a way to, to do an all-female or all-male production, doesn't quite tackle the gender issue, um, of, of regendering, if  everybody is regendered. So in a way, part of the reason I decided to do Troilus and Cressida, a couple of  years ago, and regendered that play, which seems the most testosterone-fuelled of plays - perhaps, was possibly because that was the most challenging. And, in a way, I would discover what best practice was for me. And that's not necessarily what it will be for other people. Uh, and I found a great opportunity in thinking of Ulysses and Agamemon and Aeneus being female, and, and yet retaining the male homoeroticism of Achilles and Patroclus, the battles between Ajax, et cetera, and Hector, um, that you could have both worlds.

But it's interesting, if you look at, for instance, what Kimberly Sykes did with As You Like it by casting Sophie Stanton as Jacques, and choosing to, to change the language, so to change the pronouns, but also in the famous, 'Al l the world's a stage' -  to, to, to change some of the words. Now I think that's, that's a trickier area, more controversial, perhaps. Yet when we did, when Eleanor Rhode directed King John in The Swan with the vulnerable Rosie Sheehy as John, she played it just as a character. And the pronouns were kept the same, which is what Glenda Jackson did when she played King Lear. It wasn't Queen Lear, and none of the pronouns were, were, were changed. So I think with, I think there are different tastes in that, you know, and then Justin  Audibert doing, uh, Taming of the Shrew, and thinking what, you know, as we all know people that so much direct Taming of the Shrew  as try to solve it, and I'm as guilty as anybody else, but he flipped the genders, so it was not a patriarchy, but a matriarchy and therefore Kate was played by a man and Petruccio by, by, by, by a woman, and yeah, by flipping it on its head, somehow, it's a slightly strange thing of, of, and maybe not entirely right, that you, you could laugh at this abusive relationship. But I know that some men found that profoundly disturbing, but maybe that's okay. Maybe that's a provocation vacation that makes us go,'it's not the play that's wrong. It's the societal attitudes it's describing that are challenging'. 

Paul Edmondson: So, I mean, what you've just described is the flipping of the audience's expectations, isn't it? So that, you know, we're changed by it when we see cross-gender casting.

Gregory Doran: Yeah. Some of the stuff that Michelle has done with The Globe, some of the decisions - well, for instance, Helena in Midsummer Night's Dream is played by a man as, as, as, as a gay man, uh, desperately in love with Demetrius and - so many resonances there for a modern audience. Or indeed, uh, Simon Godwin at The National making, um, Malvolia, as played by Tamsin Greig, a woman and, and her passion for Olivia being, being lesbian passion. Well, that seems to me to articulate, um, Shakespeare in a, in a very vivid way. And to address issues that he himself writes about, you know, whether it's in the Sonnets, which you know all about, Paul, delightfully, because of your new book, but also in plays like The Merchant of Venice. You know, I, I feel now that anybody doing The Merchant of Venice  and not playing Antonio, Antonio's passion for Bassanio, even if it's not requited as, as gay is a dereliction of duty, frankly, of responsibility because it, it, it, that is clearly what he is, what he is talking about. 


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Paul Edmondson: So imagining ourselves back to Shakespeare's time, it's difficult to think that he didn't want us to think about gender and sexuality because it crops up so often, especially in the comedies - and just with the stage convention of women played by boys. So it arises out of what you had to work with, but it also, it's obviously there in the language, in the stories and bisexuality is, is absolutely there in The Merchant of Venice when you think about the, well, let's call it the menage-a-trois between Portia, Bassanio, and Antonio. And I know it's, you know, sometimes been the case that Antonio has been left out of that marriage at the end of productions, but the text makes it quite clear that actually she's inviting him back in.

Gregory Doran: She is. Maybe foolish woman, maybe that's right. Maybe... 

Paul Edmondson: She knows how to keep Bassanio happy. You got to have Antonio around. So what would you say to someone who says that, you know, all of these concerns, the cross-gender concern, for example, it's just using Shakespeare as a mouthpiece for our own concerns rather than interpreting the plays as he wrote them?

Gregory Doran: Well, I see, I think it's probably, I would flip it up the other way round. I, I, I think that Shakespeare's brilliance is his interpretability, if you like, and the fact that there are so many ways of, of doing him, you know, I don't want Shakespeare to be like the Kabuki. I actually, I love the Kabuki. I have to, um, be honest about that, but you know, a 400-year-old traditional where the point is to do it exactly as it has always been done. We don't do that with Shakespeare. And if we did, I think that would be, uh, I think it would have, um, calcified by now, and it wouldn't have the broad popular appeal that it, that it obviously has.

Paul Edmondson: A phrase I remember from when I first moved to Stratford was, um, 'Oh, Shakespeare is the greatest living playwright'.

Gregory Doran: Yes. Brilliant, brilliant. I will... I directed, um, my other-half, Antony Sher, the first time I ever directed him was in Titus Andronicus in the Market Theatre in Johannesburg, just at the end of apartheid. And we played it with a very mixed company. So, um, Aaron the Moor was, was Sello Maake ka Ncube, a very popular, famous black actor in South Africa. And um, Chiron and Demetrius were Cape-colored and  Tony played Titus as a, as a sort of, reactionary old Boer General. So everybody played it in their accents. So when, when they came to audition for me, every single one of them, without exception put on an English accent or what they thought of was an English accent. And I said, why are you doing, why are you doing that? You know, Shakespeare didn't sound like that, but it was their first instinct. And it definitely took a quite a long time to get cut through that, if you like. And then the audiences...  some of the critical reaction was as if what they wanted in a Shakespeare play in South Africa was wrinkly tights and starched vowels. And I think that's, to be honest, I think there's, that is that there's still a residual, not even a residual - I think that's still quite a part of our audiences who sort of want it to be in RP and in a rather posh RP at that. And I think that's a challenge.

When you listen to Shakespeare as he was pronounced in those days, then the language is so rich, and so... and the, the impacts of.. the physical impact of the language is so guttural. When you hear the word, 'WOWER'. 'War' sounds so much more like 'war' if it's  pronounced 'WOWER'. Not that I want to go back to original pronunciation. I'm sorry. Both David and Ben Crystal have done fantastic, fantastic work on that. And I think it's an interesting exercise, but I don't think it's, um, how I want to receive my Shakespeare.

Paul Edmondson: So to use a Shakespearian example, or illustration of perhaps that we're talking about with these different explorations and these different possibilities, it's Viola being washed ashore on Illyria and saying, ''What country friends is this'? And really not knowing the answer to that question until she explores further, works away - 'Brave new world' is another one, you know, going into the Arden.

Gregory Doran: Well, and indeed, when we did The Tempest with Simon Russell Beale in 2016 and 2017, you know, the opportunities that are now there from a digital perspective to have Ariel actually right on the curled clouds and dive into the fire and, and all those things, um, that you could actually create him as a, as an avatar. And you could create extraordinary sort of magic that Shakespeare felt as though we'd waited for 400 years for, for Shakespeare's imagination to be realized in that particular way. Actually, I feel the same about the sonnets that we've been recording in solitude with the RSC company that aren't able to be on stage at the moment and which you can get, you know, you get on your mobile phone and what's extraordinary is you get this, what they convey, is this confidential, intimate, personal, direct quality that the sonnets have. And you, in terms of how you perform the sonnets, that's, you know, that seems to me to be a form that has found its perfect format.

Paul Edmondson: It's as says in Julius Caesar, 'in states unborn and accents yet unknown'.  

Gregory Doran: Well that was echoed strongly when we did the African, um, Julius Caesar, that line could not have described that production more succinctly.

Paul Edmondson: Coming back to Stratford-upon-Avon, and thinking about Shakespeare in the town and thinking about the Birthplace Trust, looking after the five Shakespeare houses. If you were to choose one to live in which one would you choose and why knowing them as you do? And you've known them for many years. 

Gregory Doran: Yeah. Well, I would have to say Hall's Croft. I love Hall's Croft. It's kind of handy for me. It is close to me, certainly was when I lived in Avonside behind Holy Trinity. I love them all for different reasons. I love Mary Arden's Farm. I, I, I grieve for what's happening at the moment, um, and, and what they must be going through, and, and, Anne Hathaway's Cottage, but somehow that's, it's too familiar - to want to live in it, I mean. And the Birthplace is, is just, um, too busy. Whereas Hall's Croft is, is a great haven.

But also because I love gardens, and I love, I love the history of, of, of Susanna's husband, John, Dr. John Hall. And indeed I was looking through when I was thinking about your question, uh, looking through, um, his published now papers and, and there's, there are wonderful descriptions. Um, my favorite one was for the Lord of Northampton who was vexed with a desperate quinsy, but he's treated with, uh, a number of -  a concoction, which includes among other things, a cataplasm of swallows' nests, straw, dirt, and all to which was added white dog's, turd. And then the way that it's just ricochets you back to, to the Elizabethan period, just read - and the Jacobean period - just reading some of those descriptions is, is great.

And also I love the house, so I suspect Hall's Croft would be.. well, I'd happily take up residence. 

Paul Edmondson: We'll we'll, we'll pop by for tea at some point, some scones, perhaps. And if you were able to take something from the collections at the Shakespeare Centre, papers, books, or objects, if you were able to take something away with you and, and keep. Well, I wonder, I wonder what you take. And this is, this of course includes potentially the RSC's own archive, which we look after for you.

Gregory Doran: Yes. Well, I sort of feel a bit of that's mine anyway, as Artistic Director,.

Paul Edmondson: All of that, all of that's a given.

Gregory Doran:  I've got that anyway. No, I think I was very taken when thinking about this. So there's an absolutely beautiful early 19th-century waistcoat made of rainbow-ribbon, which is really, really beautiful. Um, and I would happily, but I guess it's because of, um, Garrick's Jubilee, uh, the origin of the rainbow ribbon. And it's now of course it's taken on a other significance, but there's beautiful waistcoat, but then I decided, no, I that's, that's that's - I wouldn't be able to wear it. Be too difficult. 

Paul Edmondson: Sorry, why would it be too difficult? 

Gregory Doran: Oh, really? Okay. Let's do that then. Uh, no, I, uh, it seriously, I think that would, you know, I, I would outgrow it so, you know, whatever. The one, I think, I think you have two copies, so you wouldn't miss it, I'd like, um, Gerard's Herbal. 

Paul Edmondson: Ah, yes. John Hall again. 

Gregory Doran: Yes. Just, I mean, the, the, I, what I love about  Gerard's Herbal is not just the descriptions of the of the plants and herbs and what they could be used for, but the anecdotes that bring John, bring John Gerrard to life. In, in for instance, there's a wonderful description where he's walking along with a friend, uh, along the seashore at Leigh in Essex, and he finds some sea-spurge and he goes, 'Oh, I don't know what this is' because he was a very curious man, obviously. So he tastes a tiny little bit of this, sea-spurge and his mouth just blows up. And he and his friend jump onto their horses and gallop to the nearest farmhouse, burst into the farmhouse, grab the milk jug that's on the table and down it. And immediately the swelling is, is, um, is relieved, but you just get a, such a vivid picture of, of the curiosity and the practice that went into that extraordinary book. Um, so I would, uh, I would vote for them for Gerard's Herbal with the, with the painted-

Paul Edmondson: Yes, there's a colour version, a many coloured version, which takes us back to the rainbow waistcoat and, and all the things we were saying about, you know, different opportunities and different ways of exploring Shakespeare. An image pops into my head of the RSC wearing glorious motley. You know, and the, and that the, you know, the figure of theatre for our time, and perhaps always has been, is the kind of Shakespearian fool speaking the truth and doing it in many different ways. And I think the rainbow is a, is a great metaphor, Greg, for the conversation we've just had, if I may, and, you know, I wish that the RSC continues to be an organization of many colours and, and, and for many different kinds of reasons.

So, so thank you ever so much for, for joining us.

Gregory Doran:  I guess, to have a rainbow, you have to have a storm and I guess we're going through the storm at the moment, but hopefully the rainbow will appear. 

Paul Edmondson: Well, look, we're after the same 'rainbow's end'. Alright, Gregory, Doran: thank you very much, indeed.

Gregory Doran: Thank you, Paul. It's been a pleasure.

Anjna Chouhan: Thank you for listening to this week's episode of Shakespeare alive with Paul. In the final episode of this series, I'll be speaking with Nathan and Simon Dowling, the faces and masterminds of the YouTube channel 'Break-a-leggers'. We'll be talking about their experiences of reviewing theatre and their expectations of watching Shakespeare live in the modern world.