Andrew Hilton gestures around Bristol Old Vic, where we meet. “Bristol has transformed since I came here in 1978,” he says. “This building was a repertory theatre and the company were imported – they got a train to Bristol and at the end of the season they got back on the train to London.”
Hilton joined the Bristol Old Vic company in 1978, where he played in more than 20 productions. He didn’t leave at the end of his first contract and has made his home in Bristol ever since. He now runs an ensemble company of his own as artistic director of Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory, which does two shows a year at Tobacco Factory Theatres.
Before moving to Bristol, Hilton read English at Churchill College, Cambridge, and knew that he wanted to direct. His first foray into professional theatre was as a trainee director at the Mermaid Theatre in London. In 1975, he joined the Greenwich Company as an actor for Jonathan Miller, followed by three years at the National Theatre.
In 1989, having been working in Bristol for a decade, Hilton joined a group of actors, writers and directors to start the first pub theatre in Bristol, dedicated largely to new writing. The company, Show of Strength, started at the Hen and Chickens pub and moved to Tobacco Factory Theatres in the late 1990s.
“I went along to see their first production at TFT,” Hilton tells me, “and thought, ‘I’d like to do Shakespeare here.’ So I contacted George [Ferguson, recently ex-Mayor of Bristol, who owns the building] and he laughed quite a bit, thought we were crazy, but then said, ‘Give it a go.’ We did our first season in the spring of 2000.”
Now planning for its 2017 season, STF has done a lot of Shakespeare. Hilton laughs: “We’ve done some of them twice, three Chekhovs, a Tom Stoppard, a Sheridan, a Middleton and Rowley… but there are still a few Shakespeare plays we haven’t done.
“There are one or two I just don’t want to do – try as I might, I cannot learn to love Cymbeline, and I don’t dare do Timon of Athens, which is a play that fascinates me. It pursues all those ideas of identity that are probably better pursued in Coriolanus, but it is an extraordinary idea of this man who at the centre is absolutely nothing. I don’t think it’s a crowd-pleaser. I am fascinated by it, but without a Simon Russell Beale to bring them in, I don’t think it’s one I will do.
“I’ve got severe problems with The Merchant of Venice. Some of it is extremely silly as well as objectionable. Whether I would forbid a guest director to do it, I don’t know. I will meet that if and when it happens. There are people who want to resolve it, but I don’t really know why people go to extreme lengths to make it acceptable. It’s not just the anti-Semitism; the treatment of the Prince of Morocco is deeply racist.”
What was your first non-theatre job? Woodwork teacher for the Camphill Village Trust in 1967.
What was your first professional theatre job? Literary assistant (to Alan Strachan) at the Mermaid Theatre in 1972.
What’s your next job? Directing the second show in STF’s 2017 season.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? Train. I could have made a much better actor.
Who are your biggest influences? Michael Long (my Shakespeare tutor at Cambridge), Jonathan Miller, and my associate, the playwright Dominic Power.
What’s your best advice for auditions? Listen.
What’s your best advice for directors? Respect your actors.
If you hadn’t been a director, what would you have done? I would have carried on acting.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals? No.
STF is going to be using more guest directors in the future, after the success of Jonathan Miller’s Hamlet in 2008 and Polina Kalinina’s Romeo and Juliet last year. What’s next for Hilton? “I’m in a situation now where I’ve probably done all the Shakespeare plays I want to do, although there are some major ones I haven’t done – Henry IV is always a possibility.
“I think they are great plays, but I’m not as keen on them as many people are. I find elements of the political stuff a little tedious, to be quite honest. I’m not champing at the bit to do those. But they are an option, as is going back through the list. I’m a bit wary of repeating, though – the real reason for repeating would be because you made a complete bollocks of it the first time.”
I ask whether he wants to direct any again. “I do wonder if I dare revisit Macbeth. The witches are a famous problem, and that whole element of the supernatural is very difficult for an audience to grasp now. I think I’d rather read Macbeth than see it – I think it might be the greatest text but not the greatest play.”
The company has come a long way – and survived for a long time under difficult financial circumstances: “I had been the chief form-filler and grant-seeker for Show of Strength, and I wanted to get away from all that, so I got people to invest in the company, and we were a commercial set-up. It turned out to be quite hair-raising – if we hadn’t had a good review for King Lear from the Independent in our first season, I think we would have lost all of our money.”
They didn’t bankrupt themselves, and Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory has thrived, now preparing for its 17th season. In fact, in the past 16 years STF has grown beyond its name – not only does it perform non-Shakespeare plays, but also it increasingly tours to venues other than the Tobacco Factory. “Touring is very much our thing. We’ve started touring internationally – Germany last year, Romania this year. We’re trying to get on to this European Shakespeare festival circuit.
“It’s a bit exhausting, to be honest. It’s proving more difficult than we hoped to build up an audience across the UK but we are clearly deeply wanted in many of these cities – in some theatres they’re looking to us to provide ‘the Shakespeare’ for the season. We’re supported by the Esmee Fairnbairn Foundation to tour, and it does need to be funded.
“This year is strenuous because we’re touring two shows. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do, because we’re an ensemble company, but we’re realising how much more work it is to mount two shows. We’re not a traditional touring company that takes its box set from one similar space to another – we have to reconfigure for every new space.”
Back home in Bristol, plans are well underway for next season at Tobacco Factory Theatres: “We’ve got a fine guest director lined up for next season, to do a major Shakespeare, but I can’t tell you who it is or what they’re doing yet. That will tour, we hope, and I’ll be doing a non-Shakespeare. That might be a pattern, but we can’t commit too far ahead.”
Born: 1947, Bolton
Training: English at Churchill College, Cambridge
Landmark productions: King Lear (Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory’s first production, 2000), Three Sisters (2005), Richard II in (2011), Arcadia (2014)
Awards: Peter Brook Empty Space Award (2001), Honorary doctorate, University of Bristol