Dominic Cooke: ‘Running theatres is becoming a job that almost can’t be done’
During Dominic Cooke’s seven-year tenure as artistic director of the Royal Court, which he left in 2013, he turned it into one of London’s most indispensable theatres. Along with Nicholas Hytner’s National and Michael Grandage’s Donmar Warehouse, it was one of the theatres I most looked forward to visiting during the first decade of the century.
Each of them has gone on to new pastures since; both Hytner and Grandage have formed their own production companies (with their former executive directors in tow), while Cooke has taken a temporary leave of absence from the theatre, making his first film.
But now he is back, with three big shows lined up between now and early next year. The first, the British premiere of Christopher Shinn’s latest play, Teddy Ferrera, begins at the Donmar Warehouse next week, then he goes to Rufus Norris’ National (where he is now an associate) to direct a brand new play by Caryl Churchill and a revival of a modern classic by August Wilson.
Among the 100 or so new plays produced under his brilliant, eclectic watch at the Royal Court were Bruce Norris’ multi-award winning Clybourne Park (that Cooke directed himself), as well as Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem, Nick Payne’s Constellations and Lucy Prebble’s Enron (co-produced with Chichester and Headlong), all of which had an extended life from the West End to Broadway.
But Cooke, who always has a calm, kind and seemingly unruffled demeanour, also admits to something else when we meet again for the first time since he ran the theatre: “There were parts of the job that I found incredibly hard and I was quite burnt out by the end.”
More than that, he wonders whether the job is actually doable at all: “I do think there’s a bit of an issue at the moment, that running theatres is becoming a job that almost can’t be done at all. It’s all such a stretch. You have multiple funding strands so that you have to triangulate your values ridiculously. At the Court, I’d be sitting with a playwright who was living in a tent on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral as part of Occupy, then having dinner with the managing director of Coutts bank. It was odd trying to bring all these people together to the same organisation. Everyone is having to do it now, to varying degrees, and it takes a lot of time and energy.”
Then there was the public accountability: “Fulfilling the obligations of being a public servant taking money from the government; there was a lot of compliance and obligations to meet, as well as employment laws and health and safety to have to think about. Running a theatre is a weighty job.”
That’s quite apart from the business of putting on plays, which he did so inspiringly. No wonder he didn’t apply to take over at the National after Hytner left: “I just couldn’t have done it at that point. I was really tired and I needed to stop. I wouldn’t have been able to do the job well.”
He very nearly didn’t apply for the Royal Court job, either, and the reason is part of what seems to have burnt him out, too. He’d served as an associate there under Ian Rickson for three years and knew it well, and he says: “The Court is a slightly crazy place. It has a dark history to it, not just what is on stage but also the life of the theatre itself. It’s not so much George Devine, who seems to have been a generous spirit, but others were sadistic and the sense of darkness and aggressive exclusivity was very much still in the water. Not that people running the theatre were consciously aware of it, but it’s very much there and still part of the ‘fuck you’ spirit of the building. Theatres carry a certain amount of their founding spirits – you also find that at the Royal Shakespeare Company – so I was nervous. I knew that it was a job with a bit of blood attached to it, and whatever I did would attract a lot of anger and I didn’t know that I had the stomach for it.”
While both his immediate predecessors, Stephen Daldry and Ian Rickson, had more or less stopped directing at the Royal Court before they left it, Cooke continued to direct to the end. “I always felt when I was running it, even when we were successful, that I was only just keeping my head above water. It’s a unique place, but that’s also why it is so brilliant.”
But then Cooke is also not one to resist a personal challenge. “When I left the Court, I took a bit of time out for myself but then I started some conversations about making a film. I was heading towards 50, and if I was ever going to do this, I had to do it now. One of the areas of theatre I find really hard is that it is never quite finished – you head to the opening night with a sense of that’s where you’re going, but then you’ve got to maintain it – shows grow and change. That for me is really hard – I find going back to see shows really difficult. So I thought, wouldn’t it be great to do something where you actually finish it?”
He was originally planning on something more low-key than what turned out to be his screen directing debut. “I thought I’d do something really simple, and I was working on a film script with a writer that was a modest, beautiful little thing. Then I was standing on the platform at Acton Central station when I got a call from Sam Mendes, asking me if I wanted to make the whole of the War of the Roses in three films. I love Shakespeare, and I realised that I’d learn a huge amount doing something with Shakespeare that I’d not done before. And it’s been an amazing apprenticeship in making films.”
There are 89 speaking parts in the film, he says, and adds: “I was petrified before I did it, but as soon as we started shooting, I felt very at home with it. Partly that’s because I understand how films are edited. When you’re shooting, it’s for things you can cut together later,” – his father was a professional film editor – “so I realised I knew more than I thought I knew.”
Nevertheless, it was still a steep learning curve. “Making film is so much more involved and complex. You have a huge crew, and because it costs more, you have a lot more input from producers and people who’ve put money in – you have to collaborate far more at that level.”
Now, as he completes post-production on music and sound editing, he says: “It was great to be immersed in something so different. Obviously there’s a big cross-over between film and theatre, but there’s also a very different rhythm to it. The thing about theatre that is so great is the immediacy and the simplicity of it. Coming back to it now, it is just so lovely being in a room again with a group of actors; that’s how you create the show.”
And creating shows is something he’s been doing since he was at university, reading English at Warwick. But the theatre bug bit even earlier. Born and brought up in London, he says: “I went to the theatre as a teenager, partly through school trips – we had brilliant English teachers who would take us to everything – and partly because my stepmother was a very keen theatregoer and took us to things.”
His first job after university was an unpaid runner for factual television, “but it didn’t sit with me at all, so I thought I’d give theatre a go. I didn’t think of writing to theatres to try to get a job because I thought no one would give me one, so I started a small touring company myself. It was called Pan Optic, and I ran it for two and a half years. It was really toughgoing and very ambitious, doing classics with multiracial casts. It was very influenced by Cheek by Jowl and having a playful, irreverent approach to the classics. I got good at the business side of things – we paid people – but I didn’t know the first thing about directing and was winging it on instinct.”
He finally got the grounding he needed when he joined the RSC as an assistant director in 1992, working with Adrian Noble, David Thacker, Michael Attenborough, Bill Alexander and Peter Hall. “It was brilliant, working on these amazing plays. I think Shakespeare stretches you more than anything – the plays are so vast and extreme, they set such a high bar in the writing that you have to match it, so they stretch you uniquely as an artist.”
But trying to become a full-time director is also stretching. “It was a struggle and it is still is for people – nowadays it is even harder. At least in my day you had things like enterprise allowance schemes and housing benefit. I did a lot of shows unpaid.”
He got a break directing Of Mice and Men at Nottingham Playhouse in 1994, starring Joe McGann; in the same season, the theatre also presented shows by Robert Lepage and Peter Brook. “The theatre was really alive. There was a real sense of ownership by the community, and you get a much closer relationship with the audience than you get in London; it’s a real live thing. They don’t give a damn about reviews; they go on word of mouth and because they trust the theatre.”
But even then he had a few years more of struggle. “I did painting and decorating and worked in shops to keep going.” Finally he did a play at the Gate, directing a promenade production of a German play called Hunting Scenes from Lower Bavaria with a cast of 18.
“No one got paid but we got a travelcard, and lunch was hummus and a baguette,” Cooke says. “It was a very bold piece of work and it really landed. It got a review from Michael Billington that I’ve never got since and there were queues around the block.”
Stephen Daldry came to see it, and invited him to join the Royal Court, firstly in high-powered script meetings – “that was another kind of training, working with writers and reading plays carefully” – before becoming a full-time associate there, then at the RSC with Michael Boyd. “He was brilliant – he was so calm, and played the long game. The company was in a lot of trouble when he took over, but he eradicated the deficit. He gave me various briefs – I ended up in charge of Newcastle and new writing, and also looked after education.”
It proved to be his own education, and now he’s directing a play that is set in the world of education. It is by Christopher Shinn, a New York writer whose plays Other People and Now or Later he previously directed at the Royal Court. He speaks fondly of the former: “It was a brilliant, detailed psychological exploration of the relationship between the private and the public, and how what is going on in the public world impacts on our psyches at a very deep level.”
The new play, Teddy Ferrara, sounds like it continues in a similar vein: “It’s about a lot of things, but it is really about the way that our culture has rejected introspection at great cost. Our energies go into putting out edited versions and images of ourselves into the public realm, rather than looking at who we actually are. Who we think we are is never who we actually are, and it looks at the cost of that, especially for LGBT people, but [Shinn] uses that prism to talk more widely about who we are. It’s a very complex and nuanced play with a Shakespearean structure.
“Something really odd is happening to us. We haven’t caught up with what the internet and information technology is doing for us and we don’t know yet how to manage it – we haven’t got the etiquette or the laws in place yet. It’s like the wild west – it will all become regulated and integrated into our lives in time, but it has all sorts of downsides in terms of our inner lives and the frontiers between the deeply personal and the public.”
Cooke, who lives with a writer (his partner is Alexi Kaye-Campbell, the acclaimed playwright whose plays include The Pride), says: “I’ve learned a lot about writers over the years, and I’m a passionate believer in the unconscious. What we do in theatre is really about freeing and releasing the unconscious. The real creative spirit comes from that place and whatever structures we put in place to feel safe are to allow us to be free and spontaneous and connect with those deeper urges. The best writers are not fully in control of it – they start something, but it comes from somewhere else. At some point in that process, they may become conscious. Rewriting is always very knotty – often you’re asking them to be conscious about something they were not conscious about in the first place – so what often happens is that the first draft has the wild spirit, the second is quite boring when they become conscious, then in the third they try to connect and bring them together to get somewhere.”
His own role as a director in that process varies from play to play. “There’s a wonderful discretion about directing new plays that I love. It requires a mix of ego and determination with immense humility. Some plays invite a bold intervention, like the plays of Martin Crimp, where he has unallocated text and you have to decide who speaks, but at other times it is less about a self-conscious intervention but more about making yourself invisible. Your fingerprint is all over every decision made, but you’re always trying to realise the play as clearly as possible and get out of the way. You always have to conceal the weaknesses of the play – you don’t often tell the writer that, but no play is perfect; even Hamlet has got bad things in it. Every play is flawed, but a skilful director will bring to the fore the most interesting element of the play, and often the one that the writer doesn’t know they’ve written, and conceal the flaws.”
Next up, he has two very different projects lined up back to back at the National. “I’m back in at the deep end,” he quips. First there’s a new play by Caryl Churchill, Here We Go, opening in November, before he then goes on to direct a revival of August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom in the Lyttelton Theatre in January 2016, the latter of which he calls a masterpiece.
As ever, the Churchill is a secret – he’ll only say that “it’s quite short, probably half an hour, but I think it’s magnificent. I still think she’s the best – every play she does is a reinvention of the theatre. She finds the form for the content, so that it’s the meaning of the play. She is wonderful to work with, a real collaborator. So it’s nice to come back to the theatre with strong relationships, like the one I have with Chris and the one with Caryl.”