The producer who brought a season of Russian plays to Theatre Royal Haymarket is back with Tartuffe. He tells Nick Smurthwaite about building cultural bridges and the pressures of gambling with other people’s money
At a time when Anglo-Russian relations are at a low ebb, a dynamic young London actor and producer is determined to rebuild bridges through the two countries’ cultural links.
Oliver King was the driving force behind the recent Maly Theatre of St Petersburg season at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, featuring the UK premiere of its adaptation of the banned novel Life and Fate.
His backers included the Russian billionaire businessmen Roman Abramovich and Len Blavatnik. But this Russian Season is the first time he has worked with Blavatnik, who is rumoured to have bid for the Theatre Royal Haymarket , so King can shed little light on the potential addition to theatreland’s roster of venue owners.
King’s passion for Russian theatre dates back to his student days when he spent three months studying acting at the Shchukin Theatre Institute in Moscow. “It was very intense,” he recalls. “We acted in English but we were directed by Russians. We would start at 8am and keep going until it was done. I didn’t get a lot of sleep, so it was both exhausting and energising. It’s kind of how it is to be a professional actor in rehearsal.”
Now King is back at the Haymarket, with his producer’s hat on, with an updated, dual-language version of Moliere’s classic comedy Tartuffe, adapted by Christopher Hampton.
He explains how the dual-language format will work. “I’ve always wanted to do something that encompassed two languages. My partner is half French and I’m fascinated by TV series such as Narcos, which switches from English to Spanish to Russian. We’re playing with the mix of languages to try to reflect the times.”
King first had the idea in 2014, but admits: “I didn’t really know what I was doing.” A friend, the veteran producer Lee Menzies, introduced him to respected French director Gerald Garutti and the idea took off from there.
“Garutti had worked before with Hampton and we asked him if he would be interested in adapting it. It was Hampton’s idea to set it in Los Angeles in the present day, using basically the same Moliere text, but with added contemporary references,” King says.
“Tartuffe is usually portrayed as a bombastic fool, which begs the question – why does everyone fall under his spell? So we’ve looked at what it is about Tartuffe that enables him to hoodwink everyone. Our Tartuffe is a French businessman relocated to LA with his family . The language will alternate depending on who is talking to whom. Yes it’s a big risk, but I think it works incredibly well.”
Q&A: Oliver King
What was your first non-theatre job?
A waiter at private parties and catered events in my gap year.
What was your first professional theatre job?
Working as an intern for the producer Lee Menzies.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
Don’t choose a play to produce on the basis that there is a good part for you in it.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
Peter Brook, Lee Menzies, Sam Mendes and Neal Street Productions.
If you hadn’t been a producer, what would you have been?
A photographer. Early on I had a real struggle between photography and theatre.
Menzies, who is co-producing with King, believes his protege will go far. He says: “Oliver has great energy and determination, and a wonderful ability to raise money, all of which will serve him well as a producer.”
Having started out wanting to be an actor, King morphed into a producer at university in Durham where he ran the university theatre and took a number of plays to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. He also produced summer touring Shakespeare shows. “I spent my entire time acting or producing plays and I worked for Lee Menzies in my summer breaks. I love all aspects of the business, so I wasn’t daunted by the financial juggling needed for producing.”
After a postgraduate year at the Drama Centre he set up the “very Russia-focused” Belka Theatre Company with his former drama teacher, the London-based actor Oleg Mirochnikov. Five years on, King set up a second company, Wild Yak, with a view to producing a wider portfolio, as well as providing general management for other productions. Why the odd name? “I was chased by a wild yak once when I was backpacking in Tibet. As I’m working in quite a precarious sort of business, it seemed appropriate.”
His early forays into the London fringe were hit and miss. From a 2013 adaptation of a Chekhov short story, The Lady With the Little Dog at the Platform Theatre in King’s Cross, “where I got everything wrong”, to the extraordinary Queens of Syria , produced through the charity Developing Artists at the Young Vic in 2016.
“I brought 13 Syrian refugees, all women, from Jordan to London to perform an adaptation of The Trojan Women, which began as a drama therapy session,” he says, “and it sold out at the Young Vic in a production by Zoe Lafferty. We also took it on tour to six UK cities.” Susannah Clapp of the Observer called Queens of Syria “the most urgent work on the London stage”.
King adds: “The logistics and costs of bringing over foreign companies are hair-raising. At least with the Russians, there are wealthy individuals who will back these things. Without subsidy or sponsorship it is almost impossible to welcome international companies to the UK.
“Fringe theatres in London are very much stacked against independent producers. It is hard to make productions commercially viable on the fringe. The problem is they programme four-week runs and you cannot recoup your costs in that time. When you’re on a tight budget very often you don’t have the money to pay for marketing and publicity.”
The set of skills needed to become a successful producer is not easily acquired. How does King think he is coping in a fiercely competitive and unsympathetic climate?
“Producing is gambling,” he says. “Tartuffe is hugely risky for me because my reputation depends on it. I’ve learned from my mistakes as I’ve gone along, as well as from mentors such as Menzies and Guy Chapman. Perhaps the hardest thing is finding investors. You go to a lot of parties and talk to a lot of people.
“My investors for Tartuffe are either French or French-speaking. One of them is a Swiss financier who used to be an actor. He has been invaluable in opening the door to other like-minded people in this world.”
Does it take almost superhuman self-belief to get a project such as Tartuffe off the ground? “Well, let’s say you have to project tremendous self belief, yes,” King says. “Then you go home and quietly weep into your pillow. It is incredibly stressful because you’re basically gambling with money that isn’t yours and if you don’t give people a return on their investment they are not going to want to come back again. You have to deliver.”
Where does King see himself in five years’ time, when he will be 36? “I’m encouraged by seeing so much from the subsidised sector coming in to the West End and holding its own. I’d like to be producing more new work that challenges audiences. Wouldn’t it be great to see more risks taken in the West End?”
He wants to do more Russian work and is talking to all the big producing companies in Russia and Georgia, seeing as much of the work as he can. “They have an amazing theatrical tradition. The performing arts there are akin to football here. Everyone goes to the theatre and, because it is subsidised, they can afford to go,” he says.
King does not want to run a building, but he does miss acting, “so don’t be surprised to see me turn up in one of my own shows”, he says, before adding: “Even though it’s probably not the best idea.”
CV: Oliver KIng
Born: London, 1986
Training: Drama Centre, 2009-2010
• Mary Postgate, Edinburgh Fringe (2008)
• A Warsaw Melody, Arcola, London (2012)
• A Dashing Fellow, New Diorama, London (2014)
• Three Sisters/Uncle Vanya, Wyndham’s Theatre, London (2014)
• Donkey Heart, Trafalgar Studios, London (2016)
• Luce, Southwark Playhouse, London (2016)
• Queens of Syria, Young Vic, London and touring (2016)
• Requiem for Aleppo, Sadler’s Wells, London and touring (2017)
• And Here I Am, Cheltenham Everyman and touring, (2017-18)
• Life and Fate/Uncle Vanya, Theatre Royal Haymarket, London (2018)
Tartuffe is at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, London, from May 25 to July 28