theartsdesk Q&A: Theatre Director Dominic Dromgoole | Theatre reviews, news & interviews
theartsdesk Q&A: Theatre Director Dominic Dromgoole
The Globe's leader on loving the Bard and succeeding without subsidy
Dominic Dromgoole (b. Oct.1963) had directed professionally precisely one Shakespeare play - Troilus and Cressida for the Oxford Stage Company, with a then little-known Matt Lucas as Thersites - when he was appointed artistic director of Shakespeare's Globe, the Thames-side playhouse that has defied nay-sayers to become a London theatrical fixture since opening to the public in 1997. Could the amiably scruffy one-time leader of west London's tiny Bush, a space given over exclusively to new work, gather in the groundlings, and more, across a landscape inevitably defined by the Bard, notwithstanding the presence of original writing from Howard Brenton, Che Walker, or, still to come, Nell Leyshon? As Dromgoole's fifth season gathers pace with the opening 24 May of Henry VIII, directed by Mark Rosenblatt, it made sense to check in with Dromgoole early in his own rehearsals for Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, with Roger Allam as Falstaff and Jamie Parker as Hal.
It's tempting, in context, to see Dromgoole himself as vaguely Falstaffian given an array of appetites that extends outward from his own family (he and wife Sasha have three daughters) to take in directing, producing, and writing, as well. In 2006, he published a supremely affecting account of his own, ongoing love affair with the Bard (Will & Me: How Shakespeare Took Over My Life), dating back to a childhood born in Bristol but raised in a Somerset home steeped in culture. An earlier book, The Full Room, offers an often merciless, always trenchant survey of contemporary dramatists whom Dromgoole dissects with the acumen of the critic one senses he might have been had his career led elsewhere; indeed, he read Classics at Cambridge. (Dromgoole's father's older brother, Nicholas, was for 30 years dance critic of the Sunday Telegraph.) And yet, his energies at present are directed very much toward the Globe, as the playhouse lengthens its summer season, expands both its touring and international prospects (Love's Labour's Lost, twice staged by Dromgoole at the Globe, successfully crossed America last year, pictured below), and prepares for a first-ever West End transfer of a Globe show that, if it happens, may shift the venue's thrusting al fresco aesthetic indoors for the winter.
It was very much within one of the Globe's public areas on a crisp spring night, the lights of the Thames glistening through the window beyond, that Dromgoole could be found in characteristically candid, droll, often self-deprecating form. Here, he talks to theartsdesk about various passions and pursuits, Bardic and otherwise.
MATT WOLF: What's fascinating always about your career is that you worked for years and years in new plays and yet here you were, in 2006, starting your regime at, of all places, Shakespeare's Globe.
DOMINIC DROMGOOLE: It might seem like a long and slightly obscure journey, but I do think there is a degree of consistency in it; there is a line between the doing of new plays and doing Shakespeare here. I sat down with Michael Boyd one night and we were talking about the difference between the RSC and the Globe, trying to define it, and the formula we struck was a very simple one: the RSC is there to reflect and to enhance 400 years of performance history, to be aware of that and discuss it and think about it and be aware of international theatre practice and international Shakespeare practice and in some way synthesise that and comment on it, which is great and it's an interesting role. It's the opposite of what we do here. I mean, we're here to do the play as if it's been given to us and it's a new play and you just say, "This is fantastic: let's get together the best cast we can, let's clothe it and support it with music that is suitable and get it out there."
So it's slightly that George Devine thing about treating a new play like a classic and a classic like a new play.
Exactly, exactly. That's the meaning of this place and why it refreshed the offer so much to come here but that's also why I feel it's still in the Bush tradition. The purpose of doing a new play is always first and foremost to do the play. You're not there to comment on the play or to write an essay on the play or to show off how great you are in front of the play; you're just there to do the play in any way you can.
But when you got the job in 2005 and started in 2006, with only one Shakespeare play to your credit that you have yourself admitted wasn't very good [Troilus and Cressida], were you thinking at the time, "Well, they all think it's surprising, but it's not surprising to me"?
Oh, I never thought it was surprising at all. Even my short understanding of the place from seeing shows had taught me this was a very different offer from the RSC or Shakespeare at the National, and it was a whole different governing idea. It wasn't how can I deconstruct this and reconstruct it or how can I razzle dazzle around it or how can I present this performance, it was how can I do this play? It wasn't only similar to the Bush, it was similar to the Oxford Stage Company when we were doing a Three Sisters or an Easter or a Contractor, that was the idea behind it. And when I started doing new plays at the Bush, Shakespeare was the biggest thing that was coursing through my veins and that I understood, and it was with that in mind that we managed quite early there to fairly substantially widen the offer of new plays. New plays had become thin and querulous and plaintive and deliberately banal and I think that we were able in our time there to go for a much smellier, pongier, richer stew of flavours and allow that on the stage in terms of the texture of the writing.
We had Sebastian Barry's first play, David Harrower's first play, the young Billy Roche, Conor McPherson's first play over here, Philip Ridley. So instead of a rather thin and strained naturalism, we'd say, "Look, you can actually throw quite a lot of language and heart and mess and try a kaleidoscope of different colours on the stage and it sticks and it's rather fun." What we did at the Bush was widen the collection of plays, and that's absolutely from a Shakespearen impulse about saying, "Theatre doesn't just have to be thin and pure and narrow, it can be loose, digressive and smelly and sprawly and rambly."
Yes, his are not well-made plays.
They're terribly made; they're appallingly badly made.
What difference did it make in coming to the Globe that you had spent time working with and for Peter Hall, who of course has devoted his entire life to the Bard?
The thing with Peter, whom I have huge respect for and am incredibly fond of, is that you learn a lot about Shakespeare just listening to him talk about it. There are some things he's done - I think his Antony and Cleopatra [at the National in 1987] will be very rarely if ever bettered: heaven.
And Mark? Did he give you advice when you took over? Was there a passing of the baton?
He did do a lot. He was incredibly generous and very civil and very kind. I think he would possibly have liked more time spent together and more time talking and handing it over than I wanted to do because I've always believed in the virtue of diving in the deep end and really committing yourself to something so that you just have to swim, or you sink. As a very good member of our board, Michael Perry, said: "You should do the Foreign Office system of hand-over, which is minus two weeks, so you have two weeks of absence and silence so the moment you arrive everyone just goes, "Help!", and then you've suddenly got to make decisions and learn very quickly, whereas I think Mark would have liked more of a slow and careful time of doing teacher and pupil stuff. But what he did say, and he said a fair amount, was all gold dust and incredibly useful and very apposite and wise and brilliant, and even though we are essentially very different, I learned a lot just from his attitude toward the place and what he said about technique in working here and what he felt was possible here and what he felt was important here.
I assume, though, that the legacy - the weight - of Shakespeare's writings remains, no matter how much you try to reappraise the plays as if they were somehow brand new.
You can't really take that on board. I'd be lying if I said you can deny it completely and you can empty your brain of it and it never occurs to you, but if you make that part of your contract with the play, then you move into a dishonest and awkward and rather self-conscious and overdeliberate territory. I mean, you have to say, "This is basically brand new and nobody's ever done this before and this it's the most utterly glorious thing I've ever read," and then you judge it by: what are the dynamics of it? What is the rhythm of it? Why is it constructed in this way? What are the tentpoles that the rest of it hangs on, and so on? The other directors that we get here I try to make as fresh as myself, so with Thea [Sharrock] last year, because Thea did suffer a lot of that fear and worry when she did As You Like It, I remember sending her a long text and saying, "Look, basically just think of it as a new play and approach it in the same way you would, except that it's probably the greatest new play you've ever worked on and also the messiest and least well-constructed." I said, "Make the story work, get the relationships right, try and make the acting true and try and bring it to life but don't get freaked out by it." But if you start going, "Oh, I'm part of this great tradition stretching back to there, there and there, Harold Bloom has said this and this one said that, you get into the wrong angle on the work; you get into a very awkward angle with the work."
So why didn't your Troilus work? In retrospect, do you have thoughts on that?
Casting. That, and rehearsal time: I only had about three weeks, which is just ludicrously hubristic and arrogant. But also casting in that you can't replace proper training and, you know, having your proper Shakespearean chops, and on that one I had some fantastic actors - remember the Irish actor, Tom Murphy, who died?
Yes, who won the Tony for The Beauty Queen of Leenane: he must have been no age at all.
36/37. He died of cancer. A lovely actress called Eileen Walsh, glorious, was Cressida. Paul Ritter was Ulysses, magnificent, absolutely clear as a bell. Matt Lucas as Thersites. They were all great, but there were a lot of people who were terrific actors but had no Shakespearean experience, and that was just stupid of me and totally hubristic, and so they got to a good place but they were always striving for it as opposed to being in it.
© Jillian Edelstein
But it must have been fascinating getting a job with a theatre, namely the Globe, where you'd not directed before. You must have wondered, can I do it?
Hmmm. That's an interesting one. It might be humongous smugness or massive complacency but I never quite worried about the directing. I think it's because the terror of it was the producing as well as directing if not slightly more the producing: the terror was - is - the economic construction of the place because there's no subsidy and there's no sponsorship or patronage, so you just suddenly look around and go, "If we fuck up, everybody loses their jobs because there's no cushion and there's nothing to fall back on." The question in everybody's heads, as you can imagine, was how much of the audience is Mark's audience and how much is it the Globe's audience. And there were some very prominent people who said to me, "Oh, I don't know, probably about 40 per cent Mark, 60 per cent Globe," and if that had been the case, this place would have closed down.
I remember my first season our advance was actually quite slow, and you could feel our audience going, "Oooh, I'm not sure, this seems a bit odd, they're kicking off with Titus Andronicus and Coriolanus, two unpopular Shakespeares, they've got two new plays, what's that about? We're not sure we feel happy about this." So you look at the advance and compare it to years gone by and think, um, it's a bit slow. And so that was the terror because if the place didn't work fundamentally economically, not only would I be out of a job but almost everyone else would, and the place would take a massive blow. Also at the time, actually, I had Will & Me coming out and that was in my head, so the directing in a way was a refuge from all of the other worries and seemed like the fun bit of the job. I mean there was a moment when we actually thought, right, fuck it, it's time to get the petrol cans and go out there in the middle of the night and claim the insurance because it was just like [mock shriek].
Once the season was up and running?
No that was before the season was up and running. The moment the season opened [with Jonathan Cake playing Coriolanus, pictured below], Whoosh! And that started desperately slow. Titus Andronicus started desperately slow. But the moment they were opened, suddenly it spiked ludicrously, and it flew, and ever since then really - ever since that year - it's got better and better and better. Last season played to an average 87% cash, which is a much harder figure to massage than attendance; we were very pleased.
You talk in Will & Me about being "ready" for various plays? Would you say you feel ready for the Henrys?
I knew them as we all knew them when you're very young and you sort of know Part 1 fiercely because it's got a great story and you know Part 2 vaguely, because you think, where's this going and why hasn't it got more purpose and why hasn't it got more plot. I had picked them up in France: I was given another copy of the Complete Works by my mother-in-law - this was long before the Globe when I was at the Oxford Stage Company - and I fancied reading some Shakespeare, and I was in France, away from home, which makes these plays even more particular in terms of England and what Englishness is, and they suddenly danced off the page. They became so completely and utterly alive, and I think I had just done The Cherry Orchard for OSC and I had a particular sense of what Chekhovian is, really, rather than it just being elegiac and wistful, and in the same way I just heard the Henrys very simply and very easily.
They also made you feel nostalgic and sentimental about England, and they come alive, and they have that intangible, odd quality that you can never quite put your finger on - you can never quite describe; it's just alive. I mean, when Bardolph talks or when Pistol rages or when the two Carriers come out and talk about the price of oats, it's all those wonderful little culs-de-sac and digressions and tangents that I love most in Shakespeare. They take you into a world that's just simply alive regardless of what the story is or the argument behind it is.
There's also with these plays sort of this connection through English drama: you couldn't have Jerusalem, the play, without the Boar's Head [Tavern] and you couldn't actually have the Royal Court, post-1956, without The Boar's Head, nor could you have The Boar's Head without Mummers' Plays and without the Medieval Mystery Plays, as presented by largely working-class actors who just relished the act of making stuff up and being true to nature and true to their own world. It's that line through to the Court, and I suppose the Bush as well, that I really loved. It is fucking glorious writing, the Henrys: I mean, we had the read-through on Monday above us and I know I'm making a hostage to fortune so I'll touch wood, but it was such a hoot. It was so funny, and Roger [Allam] is so dry. His understanding of the humour and his sense of faded aristocratic grandeur and so on are such that there was a moment where all he said was, "We'll to Sutton Coldfield tonight", and the whole room just fucking pissed themselves for about five minutes.
Did you feel you had to get to a certain point in your own life or career to do these plays?
Ish, but I don't think you're ever ready for some of it. It would be very presumptuous - I mean, awful and pompous - to say, I'm ready for my Lear. You're never really going to be ready for Lear. You know that you couldn't do something like Lear as a kid unless you're just going to do something very heavy and concept-based and argumentative: there's a moment when you understand what being a parent is, you understand what being over the hill is, you know what it means to be down rather more than you are up, or you appreciate what that means to people around you when you can approach plays like Lear and, I suppose, Henry IV Part 1, as well, but I don't think you're ever fully ready.
This play is massively family-based and the impetus behind is massively family-based, but it's very hard to too directly relate it because I think with the Henry IV plays, their focus is so exploded, so shattered and distended, that you can't do that thing of saying, "Oh, I attach that part of me to this and this part of me to that," like with Love's Labour's Lost the bit of you that might be horny and exuberant and noisy or with Romeo and Juliet (pictured below), thinking, "Oh, it's a play about young love, so I'll attach that part of me to that play." There are plays like Three Sisters and this one where you get so many different avenues and alleyways - the wonderfully sexy sudden turn with Kate and Hotspur and Mortimer and the Welsh girl, the politics, dirt and filth, and then that sudden turn with Hotspur toward a sort of tragic ending - so you can't say, "I'll give a part of me to this; I have to try and be wide open in the face of it and include all of me and all of everyone in the room - which makes it much less focused but actually much more enjoyable.
You mention having seen the English Shakespeare Company cycle [in the late 1980s] of all the History plays, directed by Michael Bogdanov? Was that your first experience of the Henrys live?
I think I'd seen them earlier in Bristol, before the ESC ones, which had been much more pure and classical and straight, and I think I'd watched the BBC telly ones, which I've watched again. They're screamingly funny: Anthony Quayle is Falstaff and a very young Tim Pigott-Smith is Hotspur. They're an absolute hoot because they're all made pre-Blackadder and they could not be made in the same way post-Blackadder because they just all look like complete cunts. The boys come on with skirts down to there [gestures], long tights, and the most ridiculous haircuts you have ever seen in your life. So I've seen that, and I think I'd also seen the plays at some point at Stratford.
And then of course there's the legacy of Ralph Richardson as Falstaff.
That was late Forties, wasn't it? It's one of those things, you get such a strong sense of that just from Tynan's prose and you fall in love with that production even when you haven't seen it just from reading Tynan and also understanding and hearing people talk and understanding what it must have meant to people at that moment in their lives post-war. Part of my passion for it is by proxy through Tynan remembering: you get this great sense of balm from it. But I don't think there are any photos of that production, or if there are, I've never seen them.
Now that you're into your fifth season at the Globe, what's changed in terms of your perspective as regards what you feel capable of doing at the Globe or perhaps as regards the Globe itself?
My early sense of the Globe was probably based on a collection of crude abstracts. Initially, I went along with everyone else and thought it was a Disneyland and heritage theatre and all that snobbery, which is not there in the public but is there in the profession. All that, I probably participated in to a degree and then I came and saw it and the first time I really went wild for it, I saw the Measure For Measure that Mark [Rylance] was in and I was so completely ravished and amused and it was all so clear that it suddenly made sense to me as a place where Shakespeare was clear and where the language was available - where instead of it being this funny sort of mist of didacticism between you and the stage, it just bubbled up.
When I came here, I think I thought in directorial terms, this is an actor's theatre, it's all about the actor, and as far as possible, the director should absent himself and not be involved and cast it well and create the right sort of yeasty conditions that should sort of somehow remove the director from making an imprint. I realised that was slightly wrong. You realise as time goes on that, without overdirecting something or restricting it or slamming a major concept on it, you nonetheless do have to give it shape and pulse and rhythm, and directing that way, you can't step back from it. Even that took a while to learn.
Presumably there's a creative tension at this address as to who's in control: does the director guide the space, or the space the director, and where does the actor fit into it all?
You can't really win there. You can't fight with the space and if you do, you get into trouble. But you have to find the right way of celebrating the space and enjoying the space, but if you go to war with it, it will beat you. Or the audience will beat you, because the audience come there with this massive sense of event that you have to participate in and encourage and make part of the evening. And you have to design the audience and factor the audience into what your sense of the shape of the evening is; it takes a lot of doing. It's a challenge but then you have to keep thinking, "This is what Shakespeare wrote for: he didn't write for a proscenium arch, he didn't write for a small black box, he didn't write for lighting and for sound. He wrote for music and for this architecture." You have to keep that in the front of your brain because it's very easy to lose sight of that.
And of course there's been that issue of widening the net - not so much in terms of audiences as of talent that would welcome the chance to work in the space as opposed to shunning it or being scared of it.
I think when I came here the initial sort of sense of mission was to sort of slightly downgrade the "Globiness" of the whole thing and forget a little bit about Shakespeare and history and Queen Elizabeth and downplay that a little bit and siomply celebrate the fact that it's the most exciting theatre space in England and that things can happen in there and fun can be had and your imagination can be released and your heart can be engaged and those stories can unfold in ways they can't anywhere else and simply enjoy it as a theatre and say, "This is a remarkable theatre". I mean, you have those weird inferiority reflexes where you think, we must try and engage, you know, serious Shakespearean actors and serious Shakespearean directors and get them in here and get a little bit of legitimacy and at the time you don't question that impulse: you don't say, "Well, legitimacy in whose eyes?" You just say, "Legitimacy," and it's a sort of cop-out.
I did sweat a bit to find directors who would give it a certain sort of rubber stamp of approval and a certain correctness and that's a nervousness or whatever, and then you start to think about it and look around at other theatre and other Shakespeare and you start to quite profoundly question what that correctness is. It's something that's dictated on the public by a constituency that centers on certain newspapers, certain parts of the profession, certain attitudes to how to make theatre, and they all coalesce together in a sense of what one should do. And actually, you think longer and harder about it, and that's got very little to do with either the audience or the play or the magic that can happen between the audience and the play. It's a construct of what things ought to be, which is very far wide either of what people want or what Shakespeare imagined when he wrote the plays or the immediacy and vivacity and honesty that you yourself want from the theatre but somehow you get sort of educated into this idea of what's good and right.
It took a while to break out of that but once you do break out of it, you just think, well, fuck 'em; fuck those directors, fuck those actors, fuck the Arts Council, fuck the newspapers that preach this idea of what theatre should be. There's a separate thing which is a mixture of writer, actor and audience as event which is much more rich and much more beautiful and interesting than anything else. But it's a long learning curve.
And one achieved without subsidy.
Yes. And that's interesting, as well. We're part of this steering group as part of The International Shakespeare Festival [part of the Olympics' Cultural Olympiad] which has met here and also elsewhere and we'd have these meetings - agony, agony, agony, I mean blind, murderous agony - with everyone sitting around examining their own contexts and value systems and semantics with no one saying what they do or what their ideas were but just examining themselves and each other on the table and the chairs. But there came a moment as if to break through when several theatres there said, "Well, why do a Shakespeare festival? Who on earth would want Shakespeare? Do young people want Shakespeare? Old people? The working-class? We can't get people to come see Shakespeare, why should we do this?" And as they kept saying, "No one wants to see it," there were three of us, and we sat there sort of flabbergasted and, you know, despite the fact that it's called the International Shakespeare Festival, which is not fucking confuisng as to why you might want to do Shakespeare as part of it - I mean, get on with it - eventually after about 20 minutes of Shakespeare-bashing, I just said, "Look, this is a very alien language to us here at the Globe because we present Shakespeare, we open our doors, people rush in, people are happy." And I said this, and it was as if I'd taken my trousers down and done a shit in the middle of the table. Everybody just went, "Oh dear, he doesn't get it, he doesn't see what we're on about."
Then you go home and start thinking, that's odd, because I've been in that world - the subsidised theatre - for about 15 years and you just have to wonder, are these people waking up in the morning thinking, I'm going to a place which is based on a premise that audiences don't want, which is why we need yadda yadda yadda [DD's implication: you fill in the sums] government money to support us?
The philosophical framework for what I feel as if I'm sometimes seeing [in the subsidised sector] is, "Nobody wants us but we carry on and the government gives us lots of money and still nobody wants us," and you just think, that's completely daft. It doesn't add up. And then you suddenly start thinking, well, that's the game that Shakespeare's been stuck in for 120-odd years, since he became very heavily a director's tool, a director's sport, which is, we're going to do Shakespeare in ways that don't necessarily engage the public, that don't pull people, that are ignorant of the audience. That is [those productions'] legitimacy and they can do them to such a degree in that way that very few people are going to come but it's going to be almightily expensive and it's going to need a lot of support.
And, you know, if you were to say that to Shakespeare, he'd be absolutely baffled. Of that I'm sure.
- Shakespeare's Globe continues its Kings & Rogues season through 3 October
- Find Will & Me on Amazon
- Find Dromgoole's 2009 Romeo and Juliet on DVD
Subscribe to theartsdesk.com
Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 7,000 pieces, we're asking for £2.95 per month or £25 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.
To take an annual subscription now simply click here.
And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?
Let the right Mormons in: a bit of everything in theartsdesk's tips
Pigott-Smith is the jewel in the crown of a provocative political comedy
Revived one-man show serves up a smorgasbord of comic treats
Sam Shepard’s tale of sibling rivalry and the sad underbelly of the American Dream prevails against almost too much mayhem
Great war story: on adapting Pat Barker's 'Regeneration' for the theatre
A witty dissection of modern parenthood shies away from real taboos
Royal de Luxe put on gigantic show in City of Culture
A comedy in Scottish Referendum season that fails to cross the border
The face of Nordic noir on The Killing, cancer and playing a queen for two national theatres
A family reunion makes for jolly slapstick in one of the Bard's early works
New verbatim play about the summer riots of 2011 is more tedious than revealing
Introducing Unlimited, the Southbank's festival of work by deaf and disabled artists