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‘Theatre is, at its best, one of the most democratic of the arts’

I had the chance to sit down with Gregory Doran, Oxford University’s Cameron Mackintosh visiting professor and the former artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, to talk all things Shakespeare, contemporary theatre and the importance of accessibility in the Arts.

Greg Doran is Oxford University’s Cameron Mackintosh visiting professor and the former artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company. His current project is the student-led adaptation of Shakespeare’s Two Gentlemen of Verona running at the Oxford Playhouse this May. This production marks the milestone of his direction of all 36 plays in Shakespeare’s First Folio, yet this is the first time Doran has worked with a student-dominated cast and crew. He tells me how after receiving an initial eighty student self-tapes, he and his co-directors and producers ended up with the twenty current cast members. “I was casting who I thought were the most talented actors in those roles. And what was great, and sad at the same time, was having to turn down so many talented people who actually were great actors, but, you know, [we] had a particular idea for the role.” However, this seemingly cut-throat approach was within reason, as he reminds me about the importance of suitable casting,“There was a great Shakespeare director called Tyrone Guthrie, in the 1950s, … who used to say that directing is 80% good casting. And I sort of believe that. I think if you’ve got the cast right, I don’t think you’ve got 20% of the job left to do, but it’s a huge part of the process.”

Having directed over 35 Shakespeare productions, Greg explains what keeps him coming back to the world of theatre, and to Shakespeare specifically: “I think I’ve always been a sort of Shakespeare nut. I was lucky in that I was brought up by the Jesuits in Preston and we did a Shakespeare play every year. So, from the age of 13, I was kind of looking at plays and wondering, you know, what kind of part might I get? I wasn’t looking at Shakespeare and thinking of answering essay questions, I was looking at Shakespeare for the opportunity to be in the play and have a good time. I think Shakespeare became a kind of thread or passport through my life.” Greg then went on to train as an actor following his university years, and did some (to use his words) “complete rubbish, sitcoms”, before auditioning for the Royal Shakespeare Company at age 26: “And that was the rest of my life.”

On being reminded of how many incredible projects Greg Doran has worked on, and with the student cast and crew having an equally fortunate opportunity to work with such a notable director, I wondered whether he ever felt any sense of impostor syndrome during his career and what he learnt from it. “When I became an actor of the RSC, I was in two productions in the first part of the first season, one of which I felt completely engaged in and that my contribution was embraced. You know, I felt part of it. The other one, I didn’t really know what I was doing, I was really being asked just to say the lines and follow the blocking. I realised how much better it is if you can encourage that investment from the cast, because then they will pay it back and the production will be more successful as a result. You could always tell a production where it isn’t an ensemble because the actors who aren’t speaking don’t look as though they’re listening, or that they don’t really know what it’s about. I think [theatre is], at its best, one of the most democratic of the arts because it is about what we produce in the room.” 

Having previously directed the likes of Dame Judi Dench, Sir Ian McKellen and the then Prince of Wales, now King Charles III, I wonder what drew Greg to staging his final untouched Shakespeare play in the First Folio with a strictly student dominated cast and crew. “When the Cameron Mackintosh professorship was offered to me, the one play I had not directed in the entire first folio was Two Gentlemen of Verona. And because of it being about young people, to do it as part of my professorship seemed to be the ideal opportunity. Even though it’s a much bigger time commitment, it just so happened that I’d stepped down from the RSC, I had lost my husband, and I had the time. Also, it felt like the time to give back, to share the legacy of all the people that I worked with, all the great actors and directors, having had the opportunity to be in their rehearsal rooms, and share that a bit with the next generation. That’s been the joy of it. And really, what’s been lovely is how the cast all kind of seem to be embracing that.”

But why put the play on in Oxford, and why now? “One of the reasons I wanted to do this play here was because it’s a play about young people, it’s about them leaving home, it’s about them making a way in the world for themselves, working out their own identities and making horrible mistakes. Falling in love and then falling in love with the wrong people. And it becoming quickly, kind of, difficult. And what was interesting was seeing how those actors responded to the play, and how quickly they saw how it reflected their own experience and their lives.” 

“For me, Verona is wherever you left home from, or whatever was, for 18 years of your life in this case, a sort of home. And to me that was Preston, which is where I grew up. I wanted people to connect with their own experience of coming into the bright lights of the big city and the excitement of that but also the challenge [it poses]…I mean, it isn’t like any other Shakespeare production I’ve done. Certainly, from the point of view of its contemporaneity, I think with comedy you need a very precise social structure that you recognise. And I guess, certainly, with the tragedies, I have found ways of finding something that is contemporary and then just smudging it a little so it doesn’t involve the kind of things that we take for granted in a contemporary setting. I often say in a modern dress production of Romeo and Juliet, when they get to them I always think, why didn’t she text him? And that’s an irrelevant question for me to ask but if the production has alerted you to that kind of contemporary detail, then why shouldn’t you ask those questions?”

Once only accessible in the flesh and on stage, the landscape of theatre has rapidly changed to include pre-recorded or live-streamed theatre productions in cinemas and on television screens. Greg reflects on the impact of technological advancements on the world of theatre: “When I became artistic director [of the Royal Shakespeare Company], I had done a production of Hamlet with David Tennant and Patrick Stewart and we were invited to be the first theatre production to do a ‘Live-from’ (like how the Met in New York [stream] the operas ‘Live-from…’). Theatre had never done it by that point. We were invited to do it with Hamlet.”

”One of the cast simply didn’t want to [record the performance]. They felt that theatre was transitory, and it should be left in the memory of the audience. But when I became artistic director, I thought, ‘Well, what I think we’re going to do is broadcast every production’, because I had decided that we would work through the entire canon of Shakespeare’s plays… I just felt that the technology was open to us to embrace. The technology of being able to broadcast live into cinemas around the country and indeed around the world. The joy of that was that somebody sitting in a cinema in Newcastle was sitting down at the same time as the audience in Stratford was sitting down. The response of a live audience was infectious.” He shares a heartwarming memory that was made on the night of the filming of Richard II. “I got a tweet from somebody who said:  ‘loving David Tennant’s Richard II at my Whiteley cinema, eating my chicken korma.’ I thought, well, A: I’m glad I’m not sitting next to you, but B: if that’s how you want your Shakespeare, then great! And if it’s not intimidating, then you kind of get a sense of what it’s about… and maybe next time you go and see it live in Stratford.”

Gregory Doran’s contemporary adaptation of Shakespeare’s Two Gentlemen of Verona promises to be an engaging display of young talent and creative collaboration. The production can be seen at the Oxford Playhouse from the 15th to 18th of May 2024, with tickets on the Playhouse website available now.

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