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Mark Shenton’s top 10 classical directors

A scene from The Roman Tragedies. Photo: Jan Versweyveld
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David Hare recently railed against European directors who “distort” classic plays in a way that is beginning, he said, to infect British theatre. “Now we’re heading in Britain towards an over-aestheticised European theatre. We’ve got all those people called ‘theatremakers’ – God help us, what a word! – coming in and doing director’s theatre where you camp up classic plays and you cut them and you prune them round. And all that directorial stuff that we’ve managed to keep over on the continent is now coming over and beginning to infect our theatre,” he said, in an interview for Jeffrey Sweet’s book What Playwrights Talk About When They Talk About Writing.

I don’t think it’s as dire as that – and here are 10 of the directors whose work on the classics I try not to miss.

1. Ivo van Hove

There’s no director who is more influential on theatre practice right now. Just as Robert Lepage once spawned any number of imitators, the Amsterdam-based Ivo van Hove has dusted the cobwebs off the old approaches to the classics. This weekend his Roman Tragedies – a radical condensation of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus into one, continuous six-hour play – returns to the Barbican, where it was first seen in 2009. I can’t wait to see it again. Last year he made his National Theatre directing debut with a breathtakingly bold take on Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler; his Young Vic version of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge transferred to the West End and Broadway, and he also directed a stunning new production of another Miller play, The Crucible, on Broadway.

2. Robert Icke

Andrew Scott in Hamlet at the Almeida. Photo: Manuel Harlan

Young Turk Robert Icke detonated a bomb under theatrical complacency by recently declaring: “Certainly more evenings at the theatre are boring than not boring. Which is depressing. It would be nice to have it the other way round. And actually I suspect that, on average, you and I think that theatre is boring too.” It’s one accusation you can’t levy against the director’s own work: he’s currently reinvigorating Hamlet at the Almeida as if its a completely new play, having carried out a similar feat with Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya at the same address.

3. Phyllida Lloyd

With a career that has stretched from opera to Mamma Mia!, Phyllida Lloyd is also one of our most provocative theatre classicists: her all-female Shakespeare trilogy of Julius Caesar and Henry IV (both first premiered at the Donmar) and The Tempest (which joined them at King’s Cross last year) was, declared Susannah Clapp in The Observer, “one of the most important theatrical events of the past 20 years… Women had taken on the mightiest of Shakespearean male roles before: it was clear that an exceptional actress could scale the heights. These productions proved something more essential: that the norm did not have to be male. They also showed how arbitrary our sense of difference is. The news was about gender. With your eye and ear on that, it was easy to overlook the fact that the stage was being remade in other ways: full of round as well as skinny bodies, black and brown as well as white. That Scots and Irish inflections were not restricted to subordinates.”

4. Nick Hytner

Adrian Lester in Othello at the National Theatre. Photo: Tristram Kenton

The former artistic director of the National Theatre has been sadly absent from our stages since stepping down from that post two years ago, as he and Nick Starr develop their plans to launch a brand-new 900-seat theatre near Tower Bridge in London. But Hytner’s classical work for the NT always had a special allure, making plays like his inaugural NT show Henry V and Othello (one of his last) speak for today. I can’t wait to see what he brings us at the Bridge.

5. Michael Grandage

The former artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse now runs the Michael Grandage Theatre Company, and has continued to bring his expert clarity and focus to plays old as well as new. His Donmar Shakespeares provided a new way of approaching Shakespeare that rendered them at conversational rather than declamatory pace, and duly shaved off huge chunks from the running time. Some critics thought he must have cut great passages of King Lear to achieve it, but in fact he’d hardly made any cuts at all. Grandage is currently working Stateside to bring Disney’s Frozen to the Broadway stage, but he’s still one of the best classical directors in the business.

6. Rupert Goold

The artistic director of the Almeida is a bold, brilliant, interventionist director. Sometimes he goes too far, but when he’s on form, there’s hardly a director who is more scintillating or surprising. His Royal Shakespeare Company Merchant of Venice – relocated to Las Vegas – was a riot; he also did a superb version of Richard III at the Almeida in 2016.

7. Sam Gold

Glenda Jackson in King Lear at the Old Vic. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Young New York director Sam Gold is making major waves both on and Off-Broadway. Last year he did an absolutely stunning Othello at New York Theatre Workshop, and he is currently represented on Broadway by a new production of The Glass Menagerie; he’s also directing a new play, A Doll’s House, Part Two, opening on Broadway next month.

8. Deborah Warner

First coming to attention for her fringe company Kick Theatre, Deborah Warner is now long established as one of our most brilliant directors. Her King Lear, starring Glenda Jackson in the title role, may have been over-conceived – I dubbed it a “slightly self-consciously modish production” in my review for The Stage – but I’m still excited to see what she’ll do next.

9. Michael Boyd

War Horse

The former artistic director of the RSC now works to a much less rigorous schedule, unlike Richard Eyre who used to run the National or Trevor Nunn who used to run both the RSC and National – they still work to fierce schedules. But Boyd’s classical work – particularly the RSC’s monumental History cycle – saw the RSC at the height of its powers. His successor Gregory Doran is much more traditionalist, and his work duller, in my opinion.

10. Marianne Elliott

A woman who could have taken over the National if she had wanted to, Marianne Elliott is one of our finest directors, with work that has stretched from such new plays as War Horse and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time to brilliant productions of classics such as Ibsen’s Pillars of the Community, Shaw’s Saint Joan and Lawrence’s Husbands and Sons. She’s about to stage Kushner’s Angels in America at the National before she departs to launch her own theatre company.

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