Before his first season as artistic director of the Unicorn Theatre opens, Justin Audibert is directing a gender-swapped version of The Taming of the Shrew. He talks to Natasha Tripney about shifting power balances, breaking down class barriers and his debt to the Sooty and Sweep show
Justin Audibert speaks with the zeal of the best kind of teacher – even on the phone, his energy and enthusiasm are palpable. This is fitting, as this year he’s taken over from Purni Morrell as artistic director of the Unicorn Theatre, which specialises in work for children and young people.
Though Audibert was appointed last year, his programming of the venue won’t get underway until May. His first season will include a new adaptation of Gulliver’s Travels by playwright Lulu Raczka and a staging of Emily Hughes’ popular children’s picture book Wild.
Before that, he is returning to the Royal Shakespeare Company to direct a version of The Taming of the Shrew with a difference. His production will flip the gender of the characters, so that a woman – Claire Price – plays Petruchio, or in this case Petruchia, with a man, Joseph Arkley, as Katherine. The production is set in an imagined matriarchal past in which women have the majority of the social, political and economic power. It’s actually one of two productions opening this month to take this approach, the other being Jo Clifford’s new version for the Sherman Theatre in Cardiff.
‘Shakespeare never did his plays the same way twice – he would want to respond to what’s going on in the world today’
“Cicely Berry thought the play was hateful,” Audibert says, and for a long time he felt the same as the RSC’s legendary voice coach. But he was also intrigued by its popularity, and that it continues to be performed with such frequency. On re-reading the play, he became fascinated by the way it explored status, class and social climbing and also by how funny it was.
Yet, Audibert was adamant that he didn’t want to direct a production that depicted women being abused. There was enough of that about. “I didn’t need to see another version of this play,” he says, “or any play for that matter where 67% of the lines are still being said by men.” Flipping the casting solved both these problems. It also felt timely, given what’s going on in the world: “The changing balance of power and the backlash – it’s a great time to explore that.”
It’s also an exciting time to be directing Shakespeare, Audibert thinks, as people are less likely to say “you can’t do that” because the text is part of the canon. Besides, he adds: “Shakespeare never did his plays the same way twice. He cut and slashed and added. He was a practical person. He would want to respond to what’s going on in the world today.”
He and his company spent a long time working out the rules of this society. “The key thing is that no man can hold power in a conventional sense,” Audibert says. They also explored the way language was used in the world of the play, questioning whether to flip the words ‘wife’ and ‘husband’, though ultimately deciding to “reclaim ‘wife’ as the more powerful word”.
What was your first non-theatre job?
I worked selling ladies’ shoes when I was 16 in the now-bankrupt department store Allders of Croydon. I loved it. I learnt a lot about life from conversations on my lunch break – things that I didn’t have a clue about at 16.
What was your first professional theatre job?
Directing Company Along the Mile by Tom Bidwell – now a very successful TV screenwriter – in Leeds. Producer Milan Govedarica took a chance on a young, eager director. I am eternally grateful to him.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
That it is not a competition or a race and that you should always be yourself and don’t try to be what you think other people want you to be because you will probably get it wrong – and you will make yourself unhappy trying to do so. The authentic you is the best you to be an artist.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
Not especially, but I find the 35 minutes before the show when you are in previews the most painful time emotionally because you are still really worrying about everything but there is nothing you can do. I am fine once the show starts but that bit from 6.55pm is agony. Often people will come and talk to me in the foyer at this time and I seem to act a bit strangely or say weird things.
Audibert says he got the theatre bug young after a visit to see the Sooty and Sweep show in Ilford, when he got “to make my own birthday cake on stage with the words: ‘Izzy wizzy, let’s get busy’ ”. That’s the Freudian explanation, anyway, he jokes.
He talks with great fondness and appreciation for all the people who supported, inspired and championed him over the years, starting with the teacher who got him into the Classics – Euripides and Aristophanes. Then at Sheffield University, “I went from being a Croydon boy to being subjected to all this culture – it was like being in a movie montage”.
At the end of his first year, Audibert joined the Sheffield University Theatre Company and found himself surrounded by people who were passionate about theatre, including Slung Low’s Alan Lane, Paines Plough’s outgoing artistic directors James Grieve and George Perrin, and playwright Lucy Prebble.
After graduating, Audibert worked as a teacher for two years; he knew he wanted to be a theatre director, he just didn’t “have a clue how to go about it”. So he went on the two-year theatre directing course at Birkbeck, University of London, “an incredible course run by one of the unsung heroes of British theatre: Rob Swain”.
To fund it, he applied to “loads of trusts and bursaries” and wrote letters to playwrights including David Hare, Alan Ayckbourn and Tom Stoppard. He would encourage anyone new to the industry to reach out in a similar way.
A placement at West Yorkshire Playhouse followed and he went on to work as an assistant director at the RSC. After three years of assisting, he decided it was time to move on. In 2012 he was the recipient of the Leverhulme Award for emerging directors from the National Theatre Studio, one of many opportunities, he stresses, that were available to him but no longer exist. “There’s a lot less money these days.”
‘If you really want to change structural things, you have to be in a position to set up schemes to do that’
He directed Rajiv Joseph’s Gruesome Playground Injuries at London’s Gate Theatre in 2013, and found himself back at the RSC in 2015 to work on The Jew of Malta, this time as director. “Loads of people who assist at the RSC come back and direct shows,” he says. “It’s a liberal institution in a conservative part of the world. There’s an amazing sense of family there. They embraced and supported me.”
One of the shows he is most proud of is The Jumper Factory, made with inmates at Wandsworth Prison as part of the Young Vic’s Prison Project. “It wasn’t the easiest thing,” he says, “There was a flood, a fire and a riot while we were there.” After the playwright Luke Barnes created a narrative, he explains: “The inmates told us what wasn’t right, what didn’t feel truthful. They really got into it. These really tough guys were basically giving us dramaturgical feedback.” When it came to the performance of the show, “they had performance nerves, stage fright, just like regular actors – everyone has the same fears”.
The piece’s power, he explains, came from the fact that it was specific to that group of people in that place. “I hope that’s the kind of artistic offering we can have at the Unicorn in our outreach and education work – that kind of delicate specificity.”
He is keen for the work he programmes at the Unicorn to “be radical in form and content – that should be our mantra”. Audibert reveals one of the main reasons he went for the job in the first place: “Its mission is that art for young people is no different from art for anyone else. It’s not a specialist weird branch of art; it’s just art.”
Audibert had previously directed two shows for the Unicorn: Chris Thorpe’s adaptation of Beowulf and Holger Schober’s My Mother, Medea, so he’s speaking from experience when talking about the theatre’s audience. “It’s the most honest there is. There’s no hiding. If the show’s no good they tell you.”
Under Morrell, the Unicorn was one of the most outward-looking venues in London, regularly programming work by international artists. “There’s no way under my tenure that we’re going to lose our internationalism,” Audibert insists. “If anything, I want to expand it to China and sub-Saharan Africa.”
As “a council estate kid from Ilford”, Audibert is acutely aware that he joined the industry before the credit crunch and things are much tougher now. That’s another reason why he wanted to run a theatre. “If you really want to change structural things – like the socio-economic barriers to working in the industry – you have to be in a position to set up schemes to do that.”
With this in mind, he’s keen to explore other ways of entering the arts. Given the level of debt involved, you shouldn’t have to go to university to be a theatre director. “We should be looking at breaking those things down.”
“People don’t talk about class that much in theatre,” he says, but that’s beginning to change. “There’s a group of people in artistic and executive director roles who are working together to make this industry a more equitable place – that’s definitely on my to-do list.”
Born: 1981, Ilford
Training: MFA in theatre directing, Birkbeck, University of London
Landmark productions: Gruesome Playground Injuries, Gate Theatre, London (2013); The Jew of Malta, Royal Shakespeare Company (2015); Beowulf, Unicorn Theatre, London (2017); Snow in Midsummer, RSC (2017); The Box of Delights, Wilton’s Music Hall (2017)
Agent: Sandra Chalmers at Shepherd Management