Gregory Doran is passionate about Shakespeare. From his schoolteacher’s enthusiasm for the subject to becoming artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Doran is the boy most likely to succeed when it comes to putting on a good show.
He’s been at the RSC helm since 2012, succeeding Sir Michael Boyd who had been there in one guise or another since 1996. Before beginning rehearsals with Dame Eileen Atkins, Doran made it through the wind and rain to talk to Northern Soul about Shakespeare’s Histories, working with his partner of 27 years and why he directs for audiences, not scholars.
“What we’ve done over a number of years is put the Histories together so you get the story over a number of shows. In a way I wanted to work on Richard and Henry IV in their own right before thinking of them building towards a tetralogy. That’s been very exciting so that when put in a cycle, you begin to look for the threads.”
Doran goes on to explain that the “interesting thing about Henry Parts I and II is we couldn’t work out whether he [Shakespeare] began by writing two plays or if he started on one and then discovered he had too much material. What does that mean? That was fascinating to work through.”
Now, he says, “we’ve made up our minds because there’s an arc that goes over the two plays. The first play is about solving the relationship between Hal and his dad who just so happens to be the King and then the second play sort of aches with melancholy. It’s about how the country is seized and full of corruption and, indeed rebellion, and how individuals experience their own mortality.”
Doran was born in Huddersfield in 1958 and his family moved to Preston a few months later. He was educated at Preston Catholic College and went on to study English and Drama at Bristol University. Later, he decided to train as an actor and went to the prestigious Bristol Old Vic School. I spoke to him about his early influences. I’d seen a documentary with Simon Russell Beale the night before where Beale stated he’d been disappointed with his own teachers who’d never encouraged a great love of Shakespeare. Not the case for Doran.
“I was very, very lucky, he says. “I was educated in Preston and had a great teacher called Arthur Malone, who still lives in Preston in fact, who directed a classic play and a Shakespeare every year. So, from the age of 13, I was doing a Shakespeare every year. It meant that I started getting excited about Shakespeare because of the theatrical possibilities. So I would read the texts thinking, which part could I do?
“And so for me it was never an academic exercise. It was being told great stories. It works on many levels; as a kid [there are] stories about fairies and battles, then, as you grow through life, the different plays mean different things to you. Frank McCourt [the writer of Angela’s Ashes] said he was very ill as a child and only had Shakespeare to read and it was ‘like having jewels in your mouth’ and I thought that was great. It becomes a passport through your life because you become engaged with the psychology or the politics or whatever. If you’re in love, ambitious, jealous, he has all that. It’s always been emotional rather than intellectual.”
Doran is keen to praise those who work with him and refuses to take all the credit outside of the rehearsal room.
“I have this great team which means I can go into the rehearsal room knowing that the organisation ticks on. I have a very good deputy in Erica Whyman who used to run Northern Stage and we try not to be in rehearsal at the same time so that there’s always someone around to engage. And Catherine Mallyon my executive director – I’m really very lucky to have those people around me who allow me to do the bit of the job I really want to do [which is] directing the plays.”
Doran’s great passion for being in the rehearsal room is clear and his choices when it comes to casting roles can lead to interesting conversations.
“Falstaff is the biggie and I’d been looking around and thinking of various people and I’d spoken to Ian [McKellen] and asked him why he’d never played this great role and he said why are looking for Falstaff when you live with him. I’d never thought about it. I went back to Tony [Sher] who’s my partner, we’ve been together for 27 years, and I said have you thought of playing Falstaff and he said no, no, it’s not my part. So I said go and re-read it.
“He came back to me and said it’s not a great part, it’s two great parts. It was a revelation to us both. And because Tony had never considered playing it, it came freshly and excitingly. And being able to have alongside him a fantastically versatile actor like Alex Hassell as Hal and the extraordinary Jasper Britton then the whole thing began to take off. For me as a director, it’s all about the casting. There was a great director called Tyrone Guthrie who said, ‘80 per cent of good directing is good casting’. And I think that’s right.”
How much discussion happens in rehearsals?
“As a director, I don’t go into the room with the whole thing mapped out. There are certain decision that have to be made – we’re going to do it modern dress etc – but, once that’s happened, I try to create an environment where those actors can do their best work. That’s the challenge – to create an environment so they do their work. I’m an editor working with the company. In fact Tony and I don’t talk about it much at home. We leave it in the rehearsal room. Everybody gets an investment in the play. I feel that that should happen in a Shakespeare production but quite frequently doesn’t. I don’t think there’s such a thing as a definitive production of a Shakespeare play. They are all as different as that group of people working on that production.”
Doran is keen to come to the North West to see how the show looks at The Lowry but, with a heavy schedule, it may not be possible. He’s keen to bring the RSC here and to put it in front of audiences who want good stories. “I don’t direct for someone who has seen a show 15, 16 times. I direct for the boy I was all those years ago. The first production I saw was with Eileen Atkins as Rosalind in As You Like It and now I’m directing her. It’s delivering the direct shot of Shakespeare in the arm to audiences.”
It’s clear that Doran thinks about his audiences and is passionate that new crowds come to see the work. His message is clear: “I’m very, very lucky to work with Shakespeare every day. It’s a crime, really. It’s an uplifting thing to work with someone who can articulate art and humanity so precisely, wittily and so compassionately and to do that, be around that everyday is a great joy.”
Photos: Kwame Lestrade
Where: The Lowry
When: until October 25, 2014 and touring
More info: www.thelowry.com/event/henry-iv-part-1; www.rsc.org.uk/whats-on/henry-iv/