Interview: Rupert Goold takes over at the Almeida
9th April 2014
Rupert Goold, interview: ‘I’ve set the controls for the sun’
The Almeida’s artistic director, Rupert Goold, talks about the controversy his new production – about Prince Charles taking the throne – will generate. First published Daily Telegraph, Apr 09, 2014
A few years ago, Rupert Goold had a dream that often still comes to his mind. “I was on a motorbike heading towards a brick-wall and suddenly the wall became a door. And that’s the experience of doing shows for me, I think – heading towards the wall and trusting it will become a door.”
Better than any critical appraisal, that insight sums up the combination of full-throttle dynamism, daredevil risk-taking and gilded good fortune that has characterised his remarkable career as a director.
Twelve years ago, little known, he took over at Northampton’s Royal & Derngate – a regional gig that could have been a dead-end. Yet he quickly cottoned on to something: “Audiences want to feel stirred, provoked and feel cleverer, sexier and more interesting than when they went into the theatre.”
Though his autobiography is rather dull – “I’m basically a middle-class literary kid who went to Cambridge” – he did the impossible and made regional theatre hip, making waves with a stylish, theatrical reading of Milton’s Paradise Lost and rewriting Marlowe’s Faustus to bring it into the realm of those infernal artists the Chapman Brothers.
Since he left Northampton there has been no let-up: he did high-concept, take-no-prisoners work at the RSC, a noirish Macbeth at Chichester with Patrick Stewart that made him a name in London and New York, and after being put in charge of the Oxford Stage Company and rebranding it Headlong in 2006, he has unearthed some of the biggest new plays of recent years: ENRON, The Effect, Chimerica. The latter, up for five awards at this Sunday’s Oliviers, brought such a buzz to the Almeida it fully warranted his appointment as its new artistic director.
True, there have been some near crashes along the way. The reviews for his ENO Turandot, relocated to a Chinese takeaway, and his Young Vic King Lear, which shifted the tragedy to England circa 1979, showed no deference to his golden-boy status. There were doubters, too, about his inaugural production at the helm of the Almeida, a sharp, cool, knowing musical spin on American Psycho starring Matt Smith. But in each case there were packed, appreciative houses.
The definite prospect of taking Psycho to America and maybe the West End, combined with the imminent transfer into town of another Headlong/ Almeida smash, a 1984 that rips up the rule-book on how to present Orwell’s classic, suggests he is revving things up nicely in Islington.
But who knows what the reception will be to Mike Bartlett’s King Charles III, which opens this week?
When we meet at the theatre, the morning after the first preview performance, he has been up since 4.30am, pondering what needs doing, what needs sorting. Straight down to business after getting off his bicycle – he lives up the road, Finsbury Park way – he’s bleary-eyed but focused, and charming.
“This is when you earn your corn,” he says. “I’ve seen so many directors freeze at this moment. You’ve got to step back and see what the play is.”
Exactly what’s contained in Bartlett’s “future history” play – which imagines events after Charles’ ascension to the throne – is something he wants kept under wraps until the last possible minute.
“The idea of surprise is in the DNA of how I approach things,” he says. But, as ever, it’s high-stakes stuff.
“It’s not sensationalist – yet at our first run-through, Mike and I turned to each other and said ‘This feels really provocative.’ ”
Transport for London won’t allow the show’s posters – featuring Tim Pigott-Smith’s Charles in coronation regalia – on the Underground, and few major subsidised theatres would touch a play like this, he reckons.
“Institutions are funny about the monarchy, from trustees to actors. People don’t want to get on the wrong side of them – or be associated with them. There’s this double-edged thing – for some people the royal family are representative of all that’s worst in Britain, for others they are very powerful.
“That’s why this is an important play. It’s a ‘what if?’ exercise. One of the characters says they assumed a Nazi party couldn’t come to power here because the monarch would use their constitutional authority to put a brake on it. But is that true? It will make you think about these things.”
His Almeida mission is as simple as it is ambitious – “The work needs to be as good as possible. You should feel that nothing is done lazily. We will never programme anything that isn’t exceptionally visionary. If we start doing chocolate-box revivals then what hope is there for the art form?”
So, no Chekhov under his watch? On the contrary. “I’m sure I will start doing that,” he says, “but even then I’d want to feel that it might be incendiary or revolutionary in some way.”
That’s for another time. His first year includes the UK premiere of “Mr Burns, a Post-Electric Play”, a New York hit for Anne Washburn based on the bizarre, apocalyptic premise of a succession of survivors gathering to retell an episode of The Simpsons – “It’s like American Stoppard” is his approving assessment.
Verbatim theatre pioneer Alecky Blythe will serve up a new helping of recorded observations, this time about the 2011 riots as they affected London N1’s diverse locals.
Also in the pipeline, Holding Ground by Ella Hickson – “a brilliant play about oil” – is probably the most ambitious project he has taken on, he says. What else? More site-specific work, more touring and, obviously, more surprises.
There’s an irony that in the autumn he will be unveiling the West End musical premiere of Made in Dagenham, as adapted by Richard “One Man, Two Guvnors” Bean. The story about women sewing-machinists going on strike for equal pay at Ford’s in 1968 is being brought from screen to stage by a director who has little acquaintance with regulated working conditions.
Goold, 42, can hardly remember when he last took a day off. It has taken its toll, he concedes.
“The last couple of years, I’ve really set the controls for the sun and pushed everything way too hard,” he says.
He was in the States for nine months last year, making his Hollywood film debut with True Story, the tale of a murder suspect who assumes the name of an American journalist – based on a memoir by Michael Finkel. He’s happy with the result, which should make it to cinemas this year, but such a prolonged absence from his wife, the actress Kate Fleetwood, and their young children was very hard on all of them.
“For most directors, when you finish your movie, you have a couple of weeks off. I went straight into a workshop here”.
Last week he needed a massage – “My back was crippled with tension and stress”, he says with a grin that’s half grimace. “I was feeling exhausted.” A case of “uneasy lies the head that wears a crown”, perhaps? He smiles, laughs.
“I have a masochistic work ethic, but the honest truth is that it’s a fantastic job being a director. It’s hard to replicate the excitement you get from your work in any other area of your life. That’s just how it goes.”
And with that he’s up and ready, albeit active now for some seven hours, for his day to begin.