Dominic Cooke interview: the Royal Court’s new writing king
30th December 2009
Dominic Cooke’s tenure as artistic director at the Royal Court has seen two consecutive productions commissioned by his predecessor, Enron and Jerusalem, transfer to the West End. He foresees interesting times ahead. First published in the Daily Telegraph, 30 Dec 2009
I can’t help thinking of the title of that Arthur Miller play The Man Who Had All the Luck when I meet Dominic Cooke. For much of the Noughties, his predecessor as artistic director at the Royal Court, Ian Rickson, struggled to make a splash, presiding over a programme which, aside from the successful surge of the 50th-anniversary season in 2006, often met with flat puzzlement and sometimes outright irritation.
Then into his shoes steps Cooke – and in just under three years the place is back at the centre of our theatre culture, easily holding its head up high alongside a revitalised National Theatre, rescued RSC and turbo-charged Donmar Warehouse.
Genial, articulate and outgoing, Cooke has taken to the role as to the manner born. While 2009 didn’t quite match his first year for booming box-office business – when attendances ran at 92 per cent – it saw the biggest hits of his regime to date, and two of the decade’s defining works. In the main house, Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem was the sell-out success of the summer, followed hard on its heels by Lucy Prebble’s equally raved-over Enron. This month both head into the West End – the first time since 1968 (when Cooke, now 43, was a mere toddler) that the Court has transferred two consecutive productions into town.
Whatever else one can say about his astute programming abilities, Cooke clearly had the good fortune to land in the right place at the right time so far as these two lauded – and sure to be much awarded – shows are concerned. An early draft of Jerusalem was already knocking about in 2003 – and the play was steered to fruition by Rickson. Enron dates back at least as far, its path to glory principally ensured by the commitment of director Rupert Goold and his company Headlong.
“I have been very lucky,” confesses Cooke as he looks out from his chic, brick-walled office over a Sloane Square suddenly engulfed by a fairytale swirl of snowflakes. A long-time associate at the Royal Court, and also at the RSC – where his restaged adaptation of Arabian Nights is currently packing them in at Stratford-upon-Avon (see Charles Spencer’s review, below? right? left? above?) – he was very wary about applying for the job in the first place. “Having watched Ian [Rickson] do it, it just seemed that whatever you did, it was a bit like being the manager of the England football team – there’ll always be someone who thinks you’re doing it badly. The Royal Court tends to attract a lot of anger – and I didn’t think I could take that, because I’m quite sensitive and like to be liked.”
So far, though, the brickbats have been noticeably absent, saving perhaps for his recent Wallace Shawn retrospective festival which he’s thick-skinned enough to insist he’s proud to have done. “I think the area where I’ve actually been most lucky is that when I started, we had a number of terrific young writers coming through,” Cooke maintains. “In my first season we had work by the likes of Mike Bartlett, Polly Stenham and Bola Agbaje – all of whom are really strong and are bound to be writing for years to come.”
Bartlett’s tragicomic study of bisexual indecision, Cock, starring Ben Whishaw, was the succès fou of the latest season in the Theatre Upstairs; Stenham has delivered the goods twice, first with her hit debut That Face, then with its follow-up Tusk Tusk; and Agbaje looks set to build on the promise of the Olivier Award-winning Gone Too Far! with another piece set on a London estate – Off the Endz, which opens the new main-house season in February.
How to identify the distinctive nature of Cooke’s contribution, which has the unmistakable stamp of an underlying agenda without being easy to pin down? “What I’ve done is to make sure that we are as eclectic as possible, so we’re not signalling to writers that there’s only one type of play we’re interested in,” he explains. “There was a perception, rightly or wrongly, that the Court does these naturalistic plays that are all about how hard life is up North or about someone who has just come back from Iraq and at some point in those plays someone will do something sexually explicit. I think the minute there’s a perception like that and people think they know what a Royal Court play is then you’re in trouble.”
The days of the so-called “in-yer-face” theatre are long gone – and are even subject to critique now. “I think there has been a tendency in the past to opt for the ‘Isn’t life terrible now?’ school of writing, whereby a series of events is presented on stage which are horrible and you’re invited to read this as a metaphor for our times. Actually people have been psychopathic since the beginning of time, so if you’re going to use violence as a way of exploring our own age, you need to make an argument and persuade the audience that it is something specific to now,” he says.
Much was made of his common-sense pledge at his inaugural press-conference to turn the spotlight on the middle-classes – and there’s going to be no backtracking on that commitment: “We will continue to look to the edges of society because that’s an important project. At the same time if you want to understand the world you can’t just look at the bottom rung. In fact it’s often more interesting to look at the people who’ve got power – whether they’re middle-class or corporate business people.”
Of dependable London middle-class stock himself – his father was a film editor, his mother a nurse – middle-class confusions are particularly fertile dramatic soil at the moment, he reckons. What audiences have responded to in Jerusalem, he believes, is its defiant spirit – “its rejection of that health-and-safety regulation which is such a feature of our lives in this country. The idea that we can live without danger is a ludicrous myth, so it’s refreshing to have a character who stands against that deadening force. Mark Rylance’s character Johnny Byron is an anti-hero of our age because he’d rather destroy himself than allow himself to be limited in that way.”
Looking ahead, he foresees only interesting times in the theatre. “Some of the questions we are facing now as a society are impossible to answer. All artists can do is ask the questions and see what the audience concludes. We are here to challenge all the orthodoxies, whether they are from the left or the right doesn’t interest me. It’s about looking under stones and being honest about what you find underneath.”
Dominic Cavendish is the lead theatre critic for The Daily Telegraph. He is the founding editor of the audio archive Theatrevoice
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