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Megan Vaughan: I have a confession – I’m becoming obsessed with Robert Icke

Robert Icke and Jessica Brown Findlay in rehearsals for Uncle Vanya. Photo: Manuel Harlan Robert Icke and Jessica Brown Findlay in rehearsals for Uncle Vanya. Photo: Manuel Harlan
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When Time Out tweeted its review of the Almeida’s Uncle Vanya a couple of weeks ago, the five stars it gave the show arrived with a chaser of sheepishness.

That “(inevitably)” says a lot. Firstly, it demonstrates just how firmly Robert Icke has been cemented as the great young hope for mainstream theatre. For a certain influential sector of the theatregoing public, Icke’s method – enlivening meticulously examined source material with a few unexpected theatrical devices – is a sign that the UK’s once stuffy middle-class theatre culture is waking up to more exciting and less prescriptive techniques.

His shows so far – 1984, Oresteia, Uncle Vanya… even Mr Burns had an impact – have proved that mainstream British theatre can borrow from European realism and arthouse cinema, and be successful in the commercial sector too. Talking to someone on Twitter shortly after I saw Uncle Vanya, he lamented the fact it was proving so hard to get a ticket, before adding: “It’ll transfer – all Icke transfers.”

See? We expect it now. We consider it a given. I could feel the weariness ooze from my phone screen.

Those brackets in the Time Out tweet act as a kind of resigned apology for the five-star rave. It’s as if they regret their own predictability, or perhaps Robert Icke’s, or they need to say sorry that they haven’t fed our collective hunger for schadenfreude this time but will do better in the future. Readers of theatre reviews, after all, like nothing more than a massive upset in which a bright young talent is brought down a peg or two.

I’m not afraid to admit it: I am getting kinda obsessed with Robert Icke.

My obsession is not an easy one. It is fuelled by conflict. Is he too career-minded? Is he just playing a game? Was Oresteia really as good as everyone said it was, or were we all just drunk on its potential? Is it possible that he’s made loads of shows that flopped, but he magically erased our collective memory with the power of his mind? Is he really from Stockton, or was he built in a laboratory in Rupert Goold’s shed? Has anyone actually seen his birth certificate?

On reflection though, I think that my hang-up stems not from jealousy, nor from my distrust of his swift route to the top, but because of the lack of clarity in the way we talk about emerging artists.

The word ‘emerging’ always makes me imagine rows of artists lying on tiled floors – cold, naked and shivering – with sacks of umbilical fluid stretched around their heads like translucent halos. It’s a fluid term, which feels increasingly uncomfortable if it’s not first volunteered by the artist. ‘Emerging’ may have become a standard industry term, but it requires self-identification. Opportunities for emerging artists that set an age limit come under fire for excluding those who have come to the arts later in life, or who (I imagine) have been trailing bloody afterbirth, an art-placenta, from their belly buttons for decades.

Icke’s CV lists bugger all outside his work with Headlong and the Almeida, both under Goold’s tutelage (lending credence to my theory about the shed). He is, somewhat famously, only 29. We know that because it’s mentioned in almost every interview. It’s mentioned so much that my friends and I now refer to him as Lil Bobby Icke; we joke about pinching his cheeks should we ever meet, despite the age difference between us being negligible.

In an interview with The Guardian, Lil Bobby bares his teeth at the “fetishisation of age”, calling it “pathetic”. We should be focusing on the work he’s making, not how old he is while he’s making it. Fair, I guess. But I don’t think it’s his age that we were fetishising. I think it’s about the ratio of talent to experience. Stating Icke’s age has become shorthand for expressing admiration, because his high-profile successes and employment status with one of London’s most prestigious theatres mean that the word ‘emerging’ is somehow inappropriate, despite a relatively short CV. It’s like a game of Rock Paper Scissors: Success beats Age, Age beats Experience, Experience beats Success. Or even better: a Venn diagram. Maybe when I’ve managed to categorise him into overlapping circles I’ll be able to get on with my life…

All this makes me wonder if Peter Brook gets pure raging whenever he reads a Battlefield review that points out he’s 90. By the time you get to be 90 I suppose you’re fully entitled not to give a fuck about anything.

Aside from ongoing investigations into Goold’s secret shed-lab, what else is going on in March?

Here Me Roar is a feminist festival in Lancaster from March 8-12. The website is a bit of a nightmare to navigate, but highlights include Benz Punany by Project O, and What Tammy Needs To Know About Getting Old And Having Sex by Lois Weaver as Tammy Whynot. Transgender artist Emma Frankland is going to be responding critically to the events in the festival, so hopefully there’ll be some interesting stuff to follow from afar as well.

The twisted, horrific, hilarious and beloved I Heart Catherine Pistachio is on a very sporadic tour at the moment, heading to The Lemon Tree in Aberdeen on March 25. I’m not sure what further dates are planned, so please take this opportunity to go if you can. You have my word that you won’t regret it.

Dutch theatremaker Nick Steur is bringing a thing to Cambridge Junction from March 15-16 which looks amazing. It’s called A Piece of Time, and from what I can tell, he stands in the middle of a table and sets a huge pendulum rocking forwards and backwards over the heads of the audience. There are 32 metronomes in it too, so it ends up being about time and physics and all that inter-planetary shit. Honestly, who needs a binaural microphone when you’ve got a massive ball on a string?

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