Gregory Doran interview: “I think ‘no’ is a very creative word”
23rd January 2013
Gregory Doran begins his tenure at the Royal Shakespeare Company with a stunning Anglo-Japanese production. Dominic Cavendish reports from Yokohama. First published in the Daily Telegraph, January 23, 2013.
What is the Royal Shakespeare Company under Gregory Doran’s artistic directorship going to look like? Today’s the day Doran, 54, raises the curtain on his programme for next winter and his five-year plan for the organisation, having taken over from Sir Michael Boyd in September last year. He’ll be chatting to news correspondents in the morning, critics in the afternoon – and no doubt within hours the media will have given a thumbs up or down.
Everything is so micro-managed these days that it’s a huge relief – and great testament to Doran’s nice-guy naturalness – that he doesn’t stay tight-lipped during the three days I spend in his company in Japan in the sprawling port of Yokohama, south of Tokyo, watching him unveil an eye-opening theatrical epic about a crucial chapter of Japanese history. Even though the big RSC launch is still several months away, he proves more than happy to sketch out his vision, while keeping the specifics under wraps.
In a way, you can’t glean what Doran is about or grasp the kind of tone the company will have under his leadership without seeing Anjin: The Shogun & The English Samurai – which wings its way to Sadler’s Wells theatre next week. The show, co-scripted by Mike Poulton and Sho Kawai, tells the story of William Adams, a mariner from Gillingham, Kent, who wound up – tempest-tossed and half-dead – on the shores of Japan in 1600 in a Dutch ship called the Liefde.
He soon became indispensable to Tokugawa Ieyasu – regarded as the first warrior to unify Japan. This was partly thanks to the Liefde’s cannons, used at the decisive Battle of Sekigahara that year. But Adams’s counsel was also considered so valuable he was made a samurai (an honour unknown for a foreigner), and took a Japanese wife, staying on until his death in 1620, never seeing his own family or homeland again.
Although Adams’s story inspired James Clavell’s bestseller Shogun, Doran rightly surmises that the English are far less aware of this remarkable episode than the Japanese. When Doran introduces me to the Anglo-Japanese company backstage at the vast Kanagawa theatre, Masachika Ichimura – one of the country’s leading actors, last seen in the UK starring in Ninagawa’s glorious production of Pericles at the National – says he’s honoured to play Ieyasu, “the brightest and most magnificent lord of all times”.
For his part, Stephen Boxer, taking the role of Adams, is struck by the “veneration in which the guy is held here”, which extends to a temple at the Englishman’s tomb dedicated to his memory, complete with its own priest.
The project, funded by the HoriPro corporation, encapsulates the “hands across the water” sentiment of Adams’ story. The text combines Japanese and English, with surtitles in each language, and both sides of the company have had to get to know each other’s working practices incredibly fast, as well as getting acquainted with foreign-language cues and, in Boxer’s case, the ways and bearing of a samurai warrior. The whole thing rather brilliantly marks 400 years of Anglo-Japanese relations.
For Doran, the production, though too long in the planning to fit into the RSC’s schedule, goes to the heart of the kind of internationalism he’s striving to introduce, and which has also been seen in his acclaimed staging of The Orphan of Zhao, China’s lost Hamlet, and an African-set Julius Caesar.
“One of the major planks of Michael Boyd’s directorship was his internationalism,” he explains, during a break from technical rehearsals. “I’m taking a fresh approach, though – more along the lines of The Tempest that came to us from Cape Town [which starred his partner Antony Sher].
“I’d rather have an international programme that didn’t bring so much across but which engaged more deeply with each piece,” he continues. “Doing less, better” could serve as the watchword for his regime – which will grow out of his six years as Boyd’s deputy but will have a different emphasis. “I represent continuity and managed change, I guess. Michael reasserted C for Company as the most important of our three letters. I would say S for Shakespeare.
“I think ‘no’ is a very creative word,” he argues. “We get an awful lot of approaches to do an awful lot of things. The danger lies in accepting those invitations.” Restraint when it comes to the repertoire will be a salient feature, too: “We reduce the currency of those plays if we do them too often, too fast. Every play has to be an event – there has to be a reason for it. Otherwise if it gets to ‘It’s Tuesday so it must be As You Like It’, we might as well close the RSC. It has got to have meaning and excitement.”
Looking around the world to explore the work going on in Shakespeare’s day will be a big part of Doran’s drive – one that applies equally to Shakespeare’s English contemporaries. He reveals that on the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death in 2016, Ben Jonson will be getting a decent airing.
“It’s over 12 years since we did Volpone – in that time we’ve probably done five Romeo and Juliets. Actually, the significant event of 1616 was when Jonson produced the first folio of his work; that was the first time a playwright published their complete works. Had he not done so I doubt we’d have had Shakespeare’s First Folio.”
A celebration of Jonson, then – and, looking ahead, a permanent London base for the company at long last to replace the loss of the Barbican: “I am determined that if 2016 is going to celebrate anything, it will be our having opened our London home by then.” He needs to hurry, as space is increasingly limited: “While we have not had a permanent London home an awful lot of saplings have grown in the clearing,” he warns.
Raised in Preston, his father an expert in nuclear power, Doran’s earliest encounter with Stratford and the RSC was as a teenager, taken by his mother to see As You Like It, starring Eileen Atkins and Maureen Lipman. It made him giddy with happiness: “I apparently said to my mum on the way home, ‘That’s what I want to do when I grow up’.”
So, after being a pillar of strength as an RSC stalwart for many years, securing the top job must seem like a dream come true? He smiles. “There’s a feeling of ‘Be careful what you wish for.’ I have a mixture of excitement and terror. It’s easy being number two and thinking, ‘If I were doing it I would do it like this’. Well, I will have to do it now.”
On the evidence of Anjin alone, I have a strong hunch Doran will deliver.