No holds bard: Why Shakespeare needs to be PC
Critics say it's squeezing out white actors, but RSC head Gregory Doran just wants to 'reflect the nation'
Gregory Doran, artistic director of the UK’s Royal Shakespeare Company, is pondering a dark moment in the life of William Shakespeare.
It’s the early years of the 17th century, the playwright’s mother and younger brother have just died, the playhouses have closed because of the plague and he has to publish his sonnets to stay afloat. There is also evidence that he's picked up a dose of the clap.
The reason Doran is thinking about this is because he believes that, to a degree, it informs Troilus and Cressida, Shakespeare’s most problematic problem play, which Doran is directing and which will go to Stratford upon Avon next month.
“He is showing how life really is in Troilus and Cressida. He doesn’t provide catharsis, he doesn’t tie up the loose ends or give you some kind of access to wisdom in the final moments. It’s as if he has recognised that the first decade of the 17th century has been erratic for him and that you can’t provide logic to a world where all the lords and ecclesiastical men could have been blown up [in the Gunpowder Plot].”
Troilus and Cressida, set in the final years of the Trojan war, is notorious for lurching unevenly between extreme tragedy and boisterous comedy. Doran believes you have to embrace this, that to generalise the tone distorts Shakespeare’s message of how messy human life can be.
His production has a 50/50 gender split (there are only four female characters in the play). Lovers remain male and female, but key players such as Agamemnon have changed sex because, says Doran, “many women have been responsible for war and I don’t want to relegate them to simply being behind the throne”.
The RSC has been at the forefront of cross-casting for years, although in terms of race and disability, Doran says, it has some way to go. I ask what he intends to do.
“I would like us to reflect the nation. As Hamlet says, ‘the purpose of playing ... is to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature’. If, as a young Asian kid in Coventry or a black kid in Tottenham, you can’t see your image in the mirror, why should you engage?”
Doran’s solution is to cast the company for each season, rather than the requirements of individual plays. “There has been some resistance from the audiences to this [diversity casting] and from some agents, who have said: ‘Oh, so you are not going to be casting my actors any more.’ But you think: ‘Well, you have had these opportunities for quite some time.’ But I don’t want us to go the way of America in terms of authentication. Can you play a gay character if you’re not gay? Yes, I think you can. Can you play Othello if you’re white? Well, not until black actors have had the opportunity to play other roles.”
The other casting issue is star power. Doran doesn’t believe in it.
“I don't agree with taking on a big star who will only give you a certain amount of their time and then you have to put on the tour without them. There needs to be a natural logic as to why they come here. When David Tennant played Hamlet, he had already played Touchstone and Romeo here, he had earned his Stratford chops. It was the same with Patrick Stewart.
“Christopher Eccleston felt it was his right to play Macbeth but was sort of presuming I would say no – but he was completely great.”
Eccleston may have proved the lucrative appeal of star power: Macbeth sold out earlier this year. But then, so did Romeo and Juliet, which, unlike Macbeth, had an unknown cast.
Doran favours balancing the big hitters and the more recherché works. As he says, for every five As You Like Its there should be a Bartholomew Fair (Ben Jonson’s unloved satire).
Stratford’s second venue, The Swan, has exceeded financial targets despite a programme of unknown plays. But it is not all good news. Doran says he is taking on the chin the 3% cut from the UK’s Arts Council. I assume, wrongly, that the wild success of Matilda the Musical (which has just celebrated 6,000 performances worldwide) goes some way to stabilising the RSC’s finances.
“It doesn’t affect the core budget, although it does allow us to do other things, such as the RSC Live Schools’ Broadcasts. We have to think about our programming in the light of the cut. We are at a standstill against inflation, so it’s going to get worse and worse.”
There must be a temptation to find another Matilda.
“The next Matilda won’t be anything like Matilda,” says Doran. “We have already been outed by David Walliams: it’s true that we are looking at a musical version of The Boy in the Dress. It is a brilliant, relevant piece about a subject that is more and more in the ether.”
Doran, 59, is an affable presence, propelled by an energy that seems both academic and socially minded. He has been at the helm of the RSC since 2012, and big hits on his watch include a lauded King Lear, featuring his husband Antony Sher, and a hi-tech version of The Tempest with Simon Russell Beale as Prospero.
His 2019 season continues his commitment to community theatre with the Shakespeare Nation project launching two initiatives – one for adults new to theatre and the other for young people. Two anniversaries will be marked, with John Kani’s new play Kunene and the King commemorating 25 years since the end of apartheid, and the plays featuring David Garrick’s most famous roles (John Vanbrugh’s The Provoked Wife and Thomas Otway’s Venice Preserv’d ) marking 250 years since his (disastrous) 1769 jubilee launched Stratford as the centre of the Shakespeare industry.
Three productions in the main house (As You Like It, The Taming of the Shrew and Measure for Measure) will then tour. Doran believes the last of these, with its cruel subjugation of women, is the ultimate #MeToo play.
“‘To whom should I complain?’ [asks Isabella]. I can’t think of anything more resonant. The abuse of power and sexuality is deeply ingrained in the DNA of that play and that is what excites me.”
Doran is doing his best to eradicate the perennial issue of elitism with his Next Generation initiative, which seeks out talent all over the country, regardless of background. “The expectation with Shakespeare is that you have to do it in a posh voice; you don’t. The live cinema screenings are good for showing that you don’t have to dress up [to go to see Shakespeare] and if you want to leave halfway through, you can. If you want to watch it as somebody did who tweeted, ‘Loving Richard II in UCI Whiteleys with my chicken korma’, that’s great.
“I wouldn’t have wanted to sit next to him, but it’s great.”
– © The Daily Telegraph