Dominic Dromgoole: ‘New plays are terrific, but let’s not lose touch with tradition’
Nobody could accuse Dominic Dromgoole of being predictable, whether in his career decisions or talking to journalists, and this interview is no different. He has requested a room with a sofa for our chat, and I realise why shortly after he comes in.
After a long day’s rehearsal for Oscar Wilde’s A Woman of No Importance in the bowels of a chapel in Islington, he groggily enters, throws himself on to the divan and proceeds to answer my questions lying down, head propped on his hand. He has the snuffles too, as he’s nursing a bad head cold.
Dromgoole’s career path reflects that unpredictability. He first made his mark as a director of new writing, running the Bush Theatre for six years in the 1990s. Then he worked with Peter Hall at the Old Vic, before taking to the road as artistic director of a national touring company, Oxford Stage Company (that became the basis of Headlong), from 1999 to 2005.
The next step was to succeed Mark Rylance as artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe, a tenure that would last 11 years. If Rylance was a tough act to follow, Dromgoole also left his mark on the institution.
During the London Olympics in 2012, he brought companies from around the world to perform the full cycle of Shakespeare plays each using their own language, which proved a huge success and attracted new audiences to the venue. He also commissioned and opened the indoor Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, which he counts among his proudest moments there. “In the middle of the night when that feeling arises of ‘What have I achieved?’ – which happens when you’re getting on – the Wanamaker rears up very gracefully as an entity and something that I did achieve.”
To round off his tenure in 2016 he sent a production of Hamlet around the world. The band of actors and theatre-makers travelled more than 310,500km to 197 countries. Before the tour set off he said it “should be a giggle. But once you have an idea like this, it is impossible to stop it – it has its own momentum, especially if it’s big and stupid”.
Dromgoole, a burly bear of a man, thrives on bold – and possibly stupid – ideas. His latest wheeze is to bring seasons of classic plays by well-known writers whose work has largely fallen out of the repertoire, and stage them in the proscenium arches of the West End they were originally written for.
To do this he set up Classic Spring Theatre Company and starts this month with an Oscar Wilde Season at the Vaudeville Theatre. “They’re big plays,” he says. “They’ve got 15 or 16 people in them which you don’t often see in the West End, and they need three or four sets each, which you can’t stint on. So it might be stupid, but it’s also bold.”
In a career that has stretched from new writing to Shakespeare, where does this project fit in?
“It’s all absolutely consistent. It’s all about the writer,” he says. Working at the Bush taught him that as a director “you’re there for the writer. You’re there to represent the writer, to get behind them and make the play come alive. At the Globe, which was also about Shakespeare as a writer and the stories he created, we were able to stitch new writing in beside it. And now this is about representing the writers I chose, and getting behind them.” One reason Dromgoole has set up his new theatre company to celebrate work by playwrights including Wilde is because “these plays aren’t being done. Everyone thinks they’re on all the time, but they’re not”.
He starts running through the numbers. The Importance of Being Earnest has been staged in London four times in two decades, A Woman of No Importance and Lady Windermere’s Fan once each and An Ideal Husband once since Hall’s touring production stopped. “I was reading the plays just for pleasure, a year and a half ago after I’d left the Globe, and I suddenly thought, ‘They’re not on’,” he says. “Not only are they not on, but when they are, everyone wants to turn them upside down or inside out, and not do them as they are written.”
He fondly remembers Hall – “what a glory he was” – and his take on classic plays. “What he was always on about was a conversation between the past and present. He loved the writers of the past and wanted them to be in a conversation with those today.”
Looking around today, Dromgoole is full of passion for the new writing on the stage. “If you look at the West End at the moment, it’s terrific,” he says pointing to work by James Graham, Simon Stephens and Jez Butterworth, as well as Oslo and Venus in Furs. “That’s really healthy, but you want to be able to have a conversation with older plays, too. A preponderance of new work is still a good thing, but you don’t want to lose touch with the tradition you’ve emerged from, otherwise new work is just reacting to itself.”
So the idea of Classic Spring was born, “to look through the repertoire and celebrate individual writers like Wilde”. He also feels the popular perception of Wilde is all wrong.
“People think of him as conservative, but he was a really brilliant, bold gay man, who made extremely radical gestures. You realise he was a different playwright from what we imagined. He was a massive fan of Ibsen and saw Hedda Gabler four times in its first production in a club performance at the Vaudeville. And among the books he asked for when he was in Reading Gaol were Little Eyolf and the plays of Strindberg.”
There is a place for Wilde in the West End, he says: “There’s an audience who knows and loves the plays and there’s an attraction in seeing the actors.” These include Eve Best, Anne Reid and Eleanor Bron in A Woman of No Importance and Samantha Spiro, Kevin Bishop and Jennifer Saunders in Lady Windermere’s Fan, which will be directed by Kathy Burke.
“I hope they will draw a crowd,” Dromgoole says. “It’s an absolute delight and a privilege to be in the same room as them. This company that I’m working with are so good and it’s such a fucking pleasure to be in the presence of technique like this.”
He adds: “You see things nowadays which are about being sensational or outrageous or striking attitudes, but pure acting technique is a pleasure in itself.”
He has partnered with Nica Burns at Nimax to present the Wilde season in the West End, and credits her for getting behind his idea. “I’m bringing most of the finance, but they were immensely helpful and remain so in terms of designing it and working out how to make it all work.” In addition to three main productions, he’s also providing variety with three ‘interludes’ between each run. “Between one and two, we’re doing De Profundis for a week, and between two and three we’re doing The Selfish Giant in a new musical version by Guy Chambers.”
Q&A: Dominic Dromgoole
What was your first non-theatre job? After university I was unemployed for two years, and did everything from being a waiter and security guard to working in a cheese factory.
What was your first professional theatre job? Assistant director at the Bush to the triumvirate of Jenny Topper, Nicky Pallot and Simon Stokes.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? Don’t worry.
Who or what was your biggest influence? The Bush Theatre, and its ethos that you are there to do the play, not to present yourself.
What’s your best advice for auditions? Prepare and then relax.
If you hadn’t been a director, what would you have been? I would have liked to have been a poet, but didn’t have the talent; or a teacher, but didn’t have the patience… no idea.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals? Too many, I touch wood to a degree that is close to OCD.
The next playwright he’d like to focus a season on is Bernard Shaw. “There’s a lovely thing in Nick Hytner’s book [on running the National] about being massively resistant to Shaw, but then doing Major Barbara and being seduced by it. They’re fizzy and they’re fun. And these writers are really brilliant thinkers who were incredibly brave in their moment.”
If the West End season is a risk, Dromgoole has been even bolder with his recent experiments as a film producer and director. “I’ve been under the cosh all year making films,” he says. “We made four and I bought another that I gave completion finance to.” The latter, Tides, will get its world premiere at this month’s London Film Festival. Other projects on the slate of his Open Palm Films company, established in July 2016, include film versions of the plays Making Noise Quietly and Pond Life as well as Benjamin, a new film written and directed by comedian Simon Amstell.
There are another two films scheduled for next year. “They’ve been made at the lower end of the spectrum, costing around £800,000 to £1 million each – we’ve been quite canny about keeping the costs low, in order to pay for about four or five [if it’s a success]. I’m not sure all will make a splash, but two or three will. If we can get them out in the right way, they will form quite an interesting body of work.”
The interest in making the transition from stage to screen emerged out of a series of short films he was involved in towards the end of his reign at the Globe, as well as the multimedia channelling of Globe shows. “We distributed the ones we made very successfully, and created a good business model. It was curiosity but also wanting to do something new, to make them in a slightly new way and a freedom you don’t often see films made with, which will hopefully bear fruit with something quite surprising.”
Is he missing the Globe now? “Yeah, like crazy. It was heartbreaking to leave and a massive wrench. But you have to go; it’s a good system in this country that we mostly tell ourselves when we have to leave and then do.”
“Emma and I both wrote open letters to her successor and it’s very hard to add anything to that. It has been painful, it has been much more painful for other people, so it’s a bit cheeky and arrogant to talk about my own difficulties with it when clearly it has been very upsetting for many people.”
He is happy to be drawn on the appointment of Rice’s successor Michelle Terry. “She’s absolutely brilliant and I couldn’t be happier. She’s super-smart and up on her Shakespeare, she’s very bold and tough and she’s charming, and big hearted; she’s a terrific choice.” More generally, he adds: “We’re very lucky with the tradition of how our theatres have been run since Lilian Baylis reinvented the model. It’s fantastic they’re being refreshed, but there’s also a long tradition of people running them well that I’m grateful to have been part of.”
Dromgoole pays tribute to the legacy of Hall, the former head of the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National, who died last month. “His massive love of all culture and his belief that it was for everybody was amazing,” he says. “He wouldn’t understand the tribalism there is now. His great belief was that everything was for everybody. I will never forget seeing his production of The Oresteia: there was this massive sense of community and everyone gathering to do something important and grave that bonded us all together. I don’t know I’ve felt that in the same way since.”
When suggesting that is something that can be said of the Globe, its former artistic director is quick to agree. “You’re exactly right, its so much about inclusion, and against saying anyone isn’t allowed in. It will always be a thrilling place – and the glory of what Emma has done was to show it is capable of massive reinvention and continuity within that reinvention.”
Dominic Dromgoole’s top tips for aspiring directors
• Listen and watch during rehearsals with love.
• Treat everyone with respect.
• Try not to get disheartened by trolls on social media.
Person of interest
Would he be tempted to run another theatre in the future? “The only one I’d ever love to run now is the Public [in New York], but I don’t think Oskar Eustis will ever leave. I’ve covered the rest and I’m an old, white, Cambridge, middle-class chap, so it’s time for the rubbish bin. Whereas white middle-class English chaps in New York are really quite interesting and new, so I’ve got a chance of looking original there.”
He wrote one of the best books about the business of plays and writing plays called The Full Room. Almost 18 years since publication, surely it is time for an update.
“It’s probably for someone younger than me to write,” Dromgoole says. “But it would be nice to update and honour things that were left out; it’s a bit skimpy on female playwright and non-white playwrights. That has been the great story of the last 16 years and it would be nice to celebrate them.”
He returns to new writing and what feels like a golden age. “We’re having a great time at the moment. There’s a huge generation of women writers, some of them utterly remarkable, like Lucy Kirkwood, Lucy Prebble, Debbie Tucker Green and Sam Holcroft. And Caryl Churchill is still writing.”
He points to an interesting shift in the industry. “There used to be such a centrality to the Royal Court and the Bush, but it’s not focused on just a couple of places anymore. Hytner was brilliant in saying that the National was going to be a new writing house, and Rufus Norris has followed. That bust it open.
“And now commercial managements are taking bolder risks. Sonia Friedman is great at what she does, while Michael Grandage and Marianne Elliott are opening James Graham and Simon Stephens plays in the West End.”
He concludes: “It’s starting to feel more like the 1960s again, when Michael Codron was running the West End like an extra Royal Court,” before adding, head still resting on his hand, “ever since Shakespeare’s days we’ve always folded old plays into the repertoire beside the new ones”.
CV: Dominic Dromgoole
Born: 1963, Bristol
Training: Started own touring company at 16. Educated at Cambridge University, directed student productions; assistant director at Bush Theatre, London
Landmark productions: Artistic director at the Bush Theatre from 1990 to 1996: premiered 65 new players, many of which he directed himself, including early work by playwrights Billy Roche, Philip Ridley, Catherine Johnson, Sebastian Barry, Jonathan Harvey, Helen Edmundson, Irvine Welsh and Conor McPherson, Love’s Labour’s Lost, Shakespeare’s Globe (2007, revived 2009), King Lear, Shakespeare’s Globe (2008), Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, Shakespeare’s Globe (2010), Hamlet, Shakespeare’s Globe (2011); Globe to Globe tour (2015-16)
Awards: Sheridan Morley Prize for Theatre Biography 2007 for Will and Me: How Shakespeare Took Over My Life
Agent: Independent Talent Group
A Woman of No Importance runs at the Vaudeville Theatre, London, from October 6-December 30