With a reputation for tackling tricky texts, the director is about to open the rarely performed Timon of Athens in Stratford-upon-Avon. As he prepares to move to the US to head up the Shakespeare Theatre Company, he tells Sam Marlowe how retraining in the Lecoq method helped him reinvent his career
Simon Godwin loves a challenge. And when it comes to Shakespeare, there are few more challenging plays than Timon of Athens. The last time the Royal Shakespeare Company put the work on one of its main stages was in 1999, when the company’s now artistic director Gregory Doran admitted to grappling with one of the canon’s most notorious problem plays. Two decades on, Godwin is relishing the opportunity to bring it to the Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon.
“Timon of Athens has so much mystery and, in a way, any production is such an unusual event that it kind of liberates you,” the 43-year-old director says. “It’s more about the play than coming up with a new wheeze. There’s something radical about just putting it on.”
It marks Godwin’s third outing for the RSC, the most recent being two years ago when he directed an acclaimed Hamlet set in Africa starring Paapa Essiedu. He made his Stratford debut in 2014 with The Two Gentlemen of Verona, another Shakespeare work, like Timon, that is often overlooked.
“There are definite advantages to working on a less well-known Shakespeare,” Godwin says. “When I directed The Two Gentlemen here, people commiserated with me. Yet there’s also a feeling of being unburdened by the pressure of a masterpiece. It’s very different from directing Hamlet, when there’s the question: what will you do with it? What will you say that’s new or different?”
Godwin is prolific – directing productions over the past 15 years at the National Theatre, Shakespeare’s Globe, London’s Royal Court, the Almeida and around the country – but he is also building a reputation for tackling a difficult text and pulling it off. His production of Eugene O’Neill’s Strange Interlude at the National in 2013 made a long, heavyweight play fresh, intriguing and startlingly modern. Two years later, he took George Bernard Shaw’s knotty Man and Superman and created something thrilling.
“As a director, you’re always trying to work out what your niche is – what you have to say that others don’t,” says Godwin, whose easy-going, slightly rumpled appearance belies a sharp intellect and canny self-awareness.
He grew up watching directors such as Stephen Daldry, admiring the freedom he took with texts like Machinal and An Inspector Calls – “discovering that flamboyance”. He adds: “They were such idiosyncratic productions of such remarkable plays, which seemed free of feeling intimidated by them.”
When Nicholas Hytner, then the National’s director asked him to do Strange Interlude, “that felt comparable”, Godwin says. “Everyone was like: ‘Who would want to do it? It’s impossible.’ So already the stakes were quite low,” he laughs. “And low stakes can sometimes mean good work, because you’re just not frightened. I mean, had he asked me to come and direct A Doll’s House, I think I would have been frozen.”
Many scholars believe Shakespeare co-wrote Timon with Thomas Middleton, and Godwin thinks that dual authorship gives him extra licence to explore it. “There isn’t the pressure to be as precious with the language and the text. It feels less like a revered cultural object.”
He points to the “very striking contrast” between the kind of city comedy that Middleton was so fond of – about tradespeople, money and transactions – and the heightened tragic voice that Shakespeare brings to it. “At its best it’s a beguiling combination of urban comedy and cosmic tragedy,” he adds.
It is the right moment to tackle Timon, believes Godwin. With its themes of greed, corruption and misanthropy, it’s a play he says that speaks to the era of Brexit and Trump. And what’s bound to add depth to the staging is the casting: Timon is played by the virtuoso shape-shifter Kathryn Hunter. The actor’s impressive CV includes male and female Shakespearean roles: she was Richard III at Shakespeare’s Globe in 2003, and in 1997 was the first British woman to play King Lear. For Timon of Athens, Godwin has chosen not only to have a cross-gender cast – most of the other leading figures in the play are also played by women – but also to feminise the title character.
“It’s interesting, the whole re-gendering programme,” he says. “Everyone in theatre is now in some way involved with it, or at least has a view about it. Partly it’s a natural rebalancing of the cannon: our world is half men and half women, so if Shakespeare’s world is going to be our world, there has to be a rebalance. It has to feel as if these are no longer dramas about men, performed by men – that they’re dramas that are fighting for their relevance, performed by and for a balanced group of men and women.” He adds: “I’d love it if re-gendering became something that we don’t really notice any more.”
The process of re-gendering a play, admits Godwin, demands some textual reconfiguring. When he directed Twelfth Night at the National last year, he cast Tamsin Greig as Olivia’s snooty steward, changing the character’s name from Malvolio to Malvolia, and altered some of Shakespeare’s language. “It means you’re not banging your head against the text.”
The point is, he says, to make gender switches feel unremarkable. “It shouldn’t feel radical, or like a stunt – it should feel like business as usual. We need to get to a place where a director doesn’t need a reason to cast a woman – where modishness will be replaced by such familiarity with that practice that it will just be an assumption that there should be parity in casting.”
An alertness to the politics of cultural representation is essential for theatremakers, and Godwin was recently confronted with issues surrounding race, gender and class. This was not in casting a new production, but instead during the selection process for the job of artistic director at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington. The US theatre had run a search that consciously set out to attract and promote diverse applications.
When Godwin snagged the job, not everyone was delighted, with discontent rippling through the Washington’s theatre community at the appointment of a white, British, middle-class man. Fellow company members have expressed their confidence in Godwin. But was he taken aback at the ruckus? “No, in fairness to everybody I wasn’t,” he says. “Because I agree that we need more women and artists of colour running buildings. It’s a strange time to be someone like me… if you’re going to take a job with a public platform, people are going to take up positions for you and against you.”
He continues: “Having worked with so many amazing people over the years as an associate, whether it’s Dominic Cooke at the Royal Court, Tom Morris at Bristol Old Vic, Rupert Goold at Northampton, or Nick Hytner and now Rufus Norris at the National, I’ve observed their thick-skinned-ness. What I’ve got to do is demonstrate that my agenda is not the agenda that you might associate with a white middle-class male. That I can put my experience and my, if you like, privilege, at the feet of a new generation of artists, of all backgrounds.”
Godwin grew up in St Albans – “a very white, middle-class market town” – the eldest of four. His father, David Godwin, was a publisher and is now a well-known literary agent. As a child, bossy by nature he cheerfully admits, he longed to be an actor. After seeing the cast of Grange Hill interviewed on Saturday morning television, he decided that, like some of them, he would study at London’s Anna Scher Theatre.
After three years, Godwin’s name reached the top of the waiting list. He was accepted and became instantly hooked. “It was a huge group, 40, 45 people, and incredibly diverse,” he recalls. “It cost one pound to go, so there was no financial impediment. Naomie Harris was there, Tameka Empson, Natasha Gordon, Thea Sharrock, Jake Wood, Charlie Creed-Miles. It was an amazing time.” He also met Evie Gurney, now a costume designer, who worked on his current production of Antony and Cleopatra, starring Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okonedo, which is setting the NT’s vast Olivier stage alight. “Anna Scher remains a very important creative source for me.”
Godwin was barely into his teens when his first job beckoned on the 1991 BBC adaptation of E Nesbit’s Five Children and It, in which he played Cyril, the eldest child. “I don’t think I’ll ever be as rich again as I was when I was 13,” he jokes. “I enjoyed acting, but I was only ever really playing myself, a louder version of me. I was not versatile. I carried on doing a few things – I was in Midsomer Murders and The Upper Hand, and I was Hamlet in my school play when I was 17.”
About the same time, he heard Peter Brook give a speech, an experience that left a lasting impression. “He made what he was talking about feel present. It wasn’t a scholastic exercise, it was an embodied way of talking. He was able to conjure something invisible into the room. Such a remarkable human being.”
The young Godwin collared Brook on the stairs afterwards and asked him whether he should go to university or drama school. “He said: ‘My advice to you is not to take advice from people like me.’ But for years afterwards I was spiritually chasing Peter up those same stairs. He is such a shining example of someone whose integrity has remained profoundly intact. There are not many of us you can say that about, I think.”
Godwin began directing at Cambridge, where he read English, and in what seemed like the beginning of a charmed career, glided swiftly into his first associate directorship with Goold at Northampton. But niggling doubts crept in. “In my mid-20s, I got into a puzzle about status. I’d think: ‘I’m younger – what does one do when one is in a conflict with somebody? Is it my job to be serious, sombre and authoritative? Do I show my fear? Do I hide it?’”
The crunch came when he’d been at Northampton for nearly four years. He’d just directed Alan Ayckbourn’s Relatively Speaking, and had a track record of mostly “mainstream work – Alan Bennett, pantomimes – and I knew there was more than that.”
What was your first non-theatre job?
What was your first professional performing arts job?
Five Children and It, BBC
What is your next job?
Timon of Athens for the Royal Shakespeare Company, then Hamlet at Theatre Cocoon in Tokyo, and Hansard by Simon Woods at the Lyttelton, National Theatre
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
No one ever asked me to be a director. It’s what you volunteer that will define you as an artist, not what’s asked of you. So I suppose the answer is: to believe in the validity of the personal – if that doesn’t sound too pompous.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
My teachers: Anna Scher, Thomas Prattki and Peter Brook.
What’s your best advice for auditions?
I like it when people draw a parallel between the material they’re auditioning for and their own lives. So find a correspondence between
the material and you.
If you hadn’t been a director, what would you have been?
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
I always wear yellow socks on the first day of rehearsals.
In what Godwin describes as “a maverick career move”, he decided to take two years out to retrain in the Le Coq method under teacher Thomas Prattki at the London International School of Performing Arts, the London branch of the famous French drama school. “It was a pretty intense moment when I told Rupert I was going,” he grins. “I think he was… surprised.” No wonder, it was a breathtaking gamble. But Godwin insists that, as an artist, it was the making of him.
“I spent two years doing physical work, not because I wanted to be an actor, but because I knew there was some quality of leadership that Thomas had, and that I wasn’t able to access in myself,” he says. “Also I was quite threatened by the devising community, by physical theatre, by all that was happening in that world. It was very challenging, like going into the wilderness for two years. I didn’t know anybody, didn’t know what I was doing, didn’t have any money. But at the end of it I emerged sort of relieved.”
He adds: “It was about stepping into the off-balance, letting go of my shame about failing or making myself ridiculous. After doing that, I’d just lost all pretence at being serious, or being the fount of all knowledge. I had a renewed feeling of humanity, that we share so much, and let’s celebrate ourselves, in all of our vulnerabilities as well as our strengths.”
Godwin was primed to take this new perspective back into the rehearsal room, but first came a messy couple of years in which he and some friends idealistically attempted to form a directorless touring devising company. It dissolved in acrimony – and Godwin was left wondering where to turn next.
It was a job ad in The Stage for a director of A Christmas Carol at the tiny West London fringe venue, the Tabard, that unexpectedly supplied the solution. Godwin got the job – the organisers were somewhat startled at the plethora of professional credits already on his CV – and he went on to direct Martin Crimp’s The Country at the same venue. Crimp saw the production, recommended him to Dominic Cooke at the Royal Court, who had seen his production of The Seagull with Rory Kinnear at Northampton, and he was back on track.
Since then, Godwin has carved out a particularly strong reputation for reinvigorating classics. But he has also worked with notable new writing talents, among them Vivienne Franzmann, Anya Reiss and Lucy Kirkwood. Memorably, he staged Nick Payne’s Wanderlust at the Royal Court Upstairs. The sexual politics of both play and the production were horribly naive – a shortcoming Payne later publicly acknowledged when he set out to tackle feminist themes in Blurred Lines at the NT’s The Shed.
Was Godwin out of his depth? “At the time, I was just thrilled to be asked to do a play at the Royal Court, because I was in such awe of the place,” he says. “We were very immersed in how to stage it, and as a director I didn’t interrogate it enough. And because the Royal Court is a writer-led theatre, as a director you’re partly trying to strengthen the writer’s conviction in what they’ve done. I was a very new director to new writing. I certainly didn’t bring the rigour of thinking around the feminism in the play to it as much as I would today.” He sees himself as a feminist, but adds that he is “searching for how to be a better feminist – as an artist, as a director, as a man, every day.”
The next year looks busy. As well as taking over at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, he is directing Hansard, a new play by Simon Woods in the Lyttelton and heading to Tokyo to tackle the Dane again – in Japanese.
As for other ongoing ambitions, in the past Godwin has cited King Lear and The Oresteia as both being on his bucket list; now, though, he says his wider preoccupation is with the very nature and transcendent power of tragedy. “I find myself really curious about what the tragic experience is for us now. That sense of radiant anguish that great tragic actors have – I’m chasing that.”
He continues: “And I’m chasing the question of how we do these plays in a way that enlivens, revives and exhilarates us, rather than making us heavy, or glum, or clogged. To bring the sunlight into the darkness of a tragic play requires such a confidence and lightness of touch. And,” he adds, flashing a broad grin at the prospect of future filled with yet more delightful challenges, “I’m under no illusions – it’s a huge endeavour.”
Training: Anna Scher Theatre; University of Cambridge; London International School of Performing Arts
• The Seagull, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, (2002)
• Habeas Corpus, Royal and Derngate (2003)
• Relatively Speaking, Royal and Derngate (2004)
• The Winter’s Tale, Headlong/Nuffield Southampton (2009)
• The Acid Test, Royal Court, London (2009)
• Far Away, Bristol Old Vic, (2010)
• Wanderlust, Royal Court, (2010)
• Faith Healer, Bristol Old Vic (2011)
• Krapp’s Last Tape/A Kind of Alaska, Bristol Old Vic (2012)
• NSFW, Royal Court (2012)
• Strange Interlude, National Theatre (2013)
• Richard II, Shakespeare’s Globe (2015)
• The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Royal Shakespeare Company (2014)
• Man and Superman, National (2015)
• The Beaux’ Stratagem, National (2015)
• Hamlet, RSC (2016)
• Sunset at the Villa Thalia, National (2016)
• Twelfth Night, National (2017)
• Antony and Cleopatra, National (2018)
Awards: Evening Standard award for emerging director (2012)
Agent: Judy Daish
Timon of Athens runs at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, from December 7 to February 22