Since directing a string of hits at the Young Vic, Joe Hill-Gibbins has gained notoriety for mud and blood-spattered versions of Shakespeare. As The Marriage of Figaro opens in London, he tells Lyn Gardner about learning to love the classics, directing opera with no preconceptions and why the British are so out of touch with European theatre
Director Joe Hill-Gibbins thinks that Hamlet is probably the greatest play ever written, but he has no desire to direct it himself. “I’ve just seen it too many bloody times. What could I bring to it that hasn’t already been done?”
He makes this admission when we meet at the Jerwood Space in London, where he is rehearsing The Marriage of Figaro, which opens at English National Opera this month. Figaro is a co-production with Oper Wuppertal, where it premiered to acclaim last year with several commentators remarking on the distinctiveness of Hill-Gibbins’ approach to Mozart’s opera.
For all his reluctance about taking on Hamlet, Hill-Gibbins is probably one of the few directors who could bring a radically new vision to the Danish prince. He has already proved himself a director of such boldness that he makes audiences see frequently revived plays in an entirely new light. He is, as the former Times critic Ann Treneman once observed, a director who is “the opposite of risk-averse”. His productions often have a thrillingly reckless, ‘look, no hands’ quality. And they are never dull.
Hill-Gibbins’ 2017 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Young Vic was played out with actors ankle-deep in mud as it forensically interrogated the idea that the play is as much driven by cruelty as it is by love. The Tragedy of King Richard the Second, a lean 100-minute version with Simon Russell Beale at the Almeida in 2018, was a stiletto-sharp comment on the chaos and anarchy of British politics and its lack of leadership. It was staged with buckets of blood and soil.
What was your first non-theatre job?
In the children’s department of Russell and Bromley shoe shop in Guildford. I worked there alongside Lucy Prebble. Years later when I was at the Royal Court, I saw her name on a play called The Sugar Syndrome and said: “I know that woman.” Now the whole world knows Lucy Prebble.
What was your first professional theatre job?
Directing A Thought in Three Parts at Battersea Arts Centre in 2002.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
Trust the process. The nature of rehearsing a play means it is always in a state of incompletion. That is what a rehearsal is: hopefully making it better every time but constantly dealing with something unfinished. If you don’t accept that, the anxiety levels rise and rise. But if you trust the process you will get there in the end.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
I come from a pre-internet generation, so a lot of my childhood was spent in front of the TV and I think that was an influence. Quite how The Muppet Show was an influence on my directing is yet to reveal itself, but it probably was in some way.
What’s your best advice for auditions?
Have something honest to say about your reaction to the script. Don’t say something to impress but respond in a way that allows us to get a sense of your personality.
If you hadn’t been a director, what would you have been?
If I had to leave the profession tomorrow, I’d retrain as a psychologist.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
In the UK I never go to press night because by the time you get to that point you will have done maybe six previews with an audience. I’m not the best audience member at my own shows. I sit there freaking out, so on press night I think it is best to leave everyone else to get on with it. But when you direct in Europe the press night – or what they call the premiere – is your first chance to see it in front of a full audience, so I do go.
The laundry bills for Hill-Gibbins’ productions must be a massive drain on the budget: if it’s not mud or blood, it’s jelly and custard in a memorably wild and stimulating The Changeling at the Young Vic in 2012, or mayonnaise and baked beans in his much-admired 2017 revival of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s modern opera Greek at the Edinburgh International Festival that subsequently travelled to the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York.
This may sound gimmicky, and some critics have repeatedly described Hill-Gibbins as a provocateur – not always in a complimentary fashion. But there are few directors working in British theatre who are capable of dusting off a classic with quite such a mix of intellectual authority, visual bravura, mordant wit and emotional intensity. It is a pity that, as yet, he has not directed at either the Royal Shakespeare Company or Shakespeare’s Globe. He was in early conversations about putting something on at the latter venue with then artistic director Emma Rice when her sudden departure was announced.
But at the start of his career Hill-Gibbins had no interest in the classics at all. “When I was a young director in London at the turn of the century, I thought new writing was where it was at. I didn’t enjoy the classics. It took me a while to realise that the reason I thought the classics were boring was because of the productions. The plays were interesting – it was the productions that were the problem.”
Hill-Gibbins credits an inspirational drama teacher, Jenny Haynes, who taught him at George Abbott comprehensive in Guildford, for getting him interested in theatre. “She took me to see plays like Mojo at [London’s] Royal Court, and I saw how she worked as a director in the plays at school,” he says. “I was an okay actor, not a great one, although I think I did a good John Proctor in The Crucible when I was in the sixth form. But even then, when I was on stage, I was always more interested in what other people were doing, the bigger picture, not just my own performance.”
‘It took me a while to realise that the reason I thought the classics were boring was because of the productions’
He started his drama course at the University of Manchester in 1996 – in the heady days of Britpop and during an explosion in new writing at London’s Royal Court and the Bush Theatre – already knowing that he wanted to be a director. Interviewing Ian Rickson for his dissertation confirmed Hill-Gibbins’ opinion that the Royal Court was where the action was and where he wanted to work. Winning the influential James Menzies-Kitchin Award for young directors helped him on his way.
The play he chose to direct as a result of winning the award at Battersea Arts Centre in 2002 was a bold choice: a revival of Wallace Shawn’s A Thought in Three Parts. Dealing with themes of sex, erotic desire and lust, the play’s explicitness had caused outrage when it had premiered at the ICA in 1977. It led to police raids and questions in the House of Lords. Looking back, it’s clear that his first foray into professional theatre reflected what would become two of Hill-Gibbins’ ongoing theatrical interests: a total lack of fear about challenging authority and how we are in thrall to sexual desire.
“If people have sometimes described what I do as being provocative, that’s only because I’m drawn to plays that are outrageous in form and content. To me plays like A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Measure for Measure are really provocative. They are shocking in the way they examine the brutality of interpersonal relationships. What excites me in theatre is desire and love and the complexities of romantic and sexual relationships. It’s 100% what I’m interested in.”
Hill-Gibbins’ preferred themes should make him a perfect fit for The Marriage of Figaro, but he is upfront about his lack of experience with the form.
“I’m still a new explorer in the world of opera. It’s entirely new to me and I only really have part of the map. My knowledge of the canon and repertoire is not that great,” he says, pointing to the fact that he listened to La Bohème for the first time only 18 months ago. “When I went to see Peter Grimes at ENO I had no idea what was going to happen. I was a bit like someone with no knowledge of King Lear going back into the second half saying: ‘I hope it all works out for Lear and he gets back together with his daughter.’ ”
That should make it a daunting task to tackle a great opera like Figaro – Hill-Gibbins’ main stage ENO debut – particularly one with such a long and celebrated performance history. But Hill-Gibbins, who made his ENO debut with a site-responsive production of Thomas Adès’ Powder Her Face in 2014, thinks it can also bring new perspectives.
“It can be kind of exciting because I’m not fatigued by Figaro in the way someone who approaches it as an opera buff might be,” he says. “I have the opposite problem in that I don’t have enough knowledge and I have to do a lot of work to get to know Figaro. But that’s fun. Because I’m an outsider and don’t know what a cliché is and what is a new idea I don’t feel as if I’m approaching the production through a minefield of what has already been done before. I can come at it with a degree of naivety and without self-consciousness.” Although he has, of course, done his homework.
If Figaro and Hill-Gibbins seem like an obvious match, the relationship with the ENO began six years ago when the organisation was canny enough to get him on board for Powder Her Face, in the wake of his productions of The Changeling and Edward II. He had just directed the latter at the National, with John Heffernan as the king giddy in love and a swaggering, leather-jacketed Kyle Soller as the object of his desire. Like both those plays, Adès’ opera about the notorious 1963 divorce case of Margaret, Duchess of Argyll, whose sexual voraciousness scandalised society, was a sex tragedy that explored how people are destroyed not only by society but their own desires and behaviours.
‘The things that elevate people to the heights and dash them to the depths of despair are not politics and power but sex and desire’
“Edward is a character destroyed by a desire that society judges to be obscene and punishes him for it. But his desire and the choices he makes because of it are what drive him to self-destruction. In Powder Her Face, the Duchess is destroyed by a conservative society that judges her, but she is not just a victim. She is also vain, greedy and lacking in self-knowledge.”
Figaro may not be as dark as those pieces, but it has a musical and emotional complexity as it explores desire. Hill-Gibbins believes that desire ultimately drives people. “Figaro asks all sorts of questions about relationships and how they work,” he says. “It explores fundamental questions about whether you can trust someone else when you are in a relationship and whether you can trust yourself and what happens when you desire someone outside the relationship.
“Figaro is often seen as being about power and money, and of course it is, but it’s at the point where the two intersect that makes for the drama, and I think that while money and class define people’s lives, the things that really elevate people to the heights and dash them to the depths of despair are not politics and power but sex and desire.”
When Hill-Gibbins went to London’s Royal Court in the early 2000s he worked under Graham Whybrow in the literary department and assisted Dominic Cooke, Ian Rickson and James Macdonald. He went on to direct Alecky Blythe’s The Girlfriend Experience at the Royal Court in 2008 and Penelope Skinner’s The Village Bike in 2011. Unsurprisingly, both are about sex, sexual power-play and frustrated desire.
But in the meantime, his eyes were opened about European approaches to the classics through his friendship with director Maria Aberg and a grant from the Goethe Institute that allowed them to go to Germany to see theatre. It was the start of a lifelong love affair with European theatre, and German theatre in particular.
“We tend to think of the Germans as having no sense of humour, but their theatre is very humorous and ironic and iconoclastic. With the British it’s the opposite. We’re much more sarcastic and ironical in real life but our theatre is often very earnest and takes itself very seriously. Whereas German theatre often displays very hot emotion within a tough, ironical framework. It’s very theatrical and very contemporary.”
At Theatertreffen in 2005, Hill-Gibbins saw a production of Othello directed by Stefan Pucher that changed how he viewed classical texts. “It blew my mind. I’d never seen anything like it. I remember thinking that not only did I not know how they had made it and rehearsed it, but I had absolutely no framework for what they were doing. It was very wild and very performative, and it had an abstract set design. It was brilliant. It was one of the big bangs in my creative life.”
As a result of that, and conversations with David Lan at the Young Vic, who was trying to do for directors what the Royal Court had done for writers, Hill-Gibbins made the journey across town to the Young Vic where he made a slew of eye-catching and heart-bruising productions. He eventually became deputy artistic director and was part of the dynamic that made the Young Vic the most exciting and outward-looking theatre in London. He did not apply for the artistic directorship when it became vacant and remains ambivalent about whether or not he would like to run a building.
He is set, however, to run a company. A few weeks after we meet, Hill-Gibbins is announced as the new artistic director of Headlong, succeeding Jeremy Herrin. “What does the name Headlong mean to me?” he said at the announcement. “Fearlessness, velocity, and abandon. I can’t wait to lead one of the country’s most exciting companies and drive its mission to ask daring questions about who we are today; to provoke and thrill in equal measure.”
He is also busy expanding into opera and directing in Europe. Both pay considerably better than the UK subsidised theatre fees that freelance directors like Hill-Gibbins still scramble along on even after they have secured significant reputations. Why wouldn’t these directors choose to work in Europe where their productions are less likely to encounter the wariness sometimes expressed by British critics, are better resourced and they are better remunerated?
Hill-Gibbins doesn’t think anyone should have to choose one over the other. He thinks there is a disconnect between the way most people working in British theatre voted to remain in the EU, and talk passionately about being European, and yet that doesn’t extend to getting on a plane to see work in Europe.
“So, for all the passion of calling themselves European, their attitude to European work is steeped in prejudice or ignorance. There is still a fear and suspicion of European theatre and the idea of what is dismissed as ‘directors’ theatre’ in some quarters of British theatre and an element of disdain, as if German theatre represents the worst kinds of aesthetic excess. But you can be a European both politically and aesthetically. I find the Little Englander ‘we do theatre best over here’ attitude embarrassing. Why can’t we all be in conversation with each other?”
‘We think of the Germans as having no sense of humour, but their theatre is very humorous, ironic and iconoclastic’
The director points to the fact that Bertolt Brecht, still often reviled in the UK, was heavily influenced by Shakespeare and Elizabethan theatre. It’s no surprise that one of Hill-Gibbins’ earliest productions to alert many to his talent was a rumbustious modern version of Brecht’s A Respectable Wedding at the Young Vic in 2007 with Lloyd Hutchinson and James Corden.
“One of the reasons I love Brecht and Shakespeare is that they offer an opportunity to escape from the confines of naturalism and create something in which you are playing with the fictions of the story but also the physical reality of the performers,” Hill-Gibbins says.
“It’s that tension that creates what we call theatricality. It’s inherent to the operatic form too and I think that’s why I’m drawn to it. It is inherently poetic and hyperreal. Opera isn’t just about singing to an audience but creating an experience where the liveness means you are singing with the audience. I find that endlessly exciting.”
Born: 1977, Epsom
Training: BA (hons) in drama, University of Manchester
• The Girlfriend Experience, Royal Court, London (2008)
• The Beauty Queen of Leenane, Young Vic, London (2010)
• The Glass Menagerie, Young Vic (2010)
• The Village Bike, Royal Court (2011)
• The Changeling, Young Vic (2012)
• Edward II, National Theatre, London (2013)
• Powder Her Face, English National Opera (2014)
• Measure for Measure, Young Vic (2015)
• A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Young Vic (2017)
• Greek, Edinburgh International Festival (2017)
• Absolute Hell, National Theatre (2018)
• The Tragedy of King Richard the Second, Almeida, London (2018)
• Sommergäste, Residenz Theater Munich (2019)
• JMK Award (2002)
Agent: Judy Daish Associates
The Marriage of Figaro runs at the London Coliseum from March 14 to April 18