Rupert Goold: “Every show should aim to change theatre”
Published in The Guardian, 12.02.2014
Rupert Goold is already in the bar when I get there, instantly recognisable even from behind. It’s the hair – dark brown, medium length, foppish – that’s the big giveaway. It’s much more stylish than the studenty bouff he had in his 30s. Goold is quite happy to draw attention to his locks himself, using them to gently poke fun at both his career and his critics. “People see my directing as dandyish,” he says at one point during our chat. “I don’t know. Maybe it’s the hair. But it’s, like, ‘Oh, calm down, boy. Stop showing off.’”
They said this after he relocated The Merchant of Venice to Vegas in 2011 and King Lear to Liverpool in 2008. And they said it back in 2007 (or at least one or two of them did), after his Macbeth‘s explosive mixture of Soviet militarism and horror-flick chic sent his career into orbit. Two years earlier, Goold had taken over Headlong, or rather the Oxford Stage Company. He rechristened it and revamped it. Out went forgotten classics, in came big, contemporary plays staged with punch and panache: shows like Enron, Lucy Prebble’s freewheeling financial vaudeville, and a Dr Faustus that rearranged Marlowe around the Chapman brothers defacing works by Goya. Intellectual and irreverent, Headlong was pure Goold. Plus he had all the funding and freedom he could want.
So why did he leave? It’s a question made more pertinent by the fact that his final season, which came to an end last year, was one of the greatest British theatre has ever seen: five shows, all ambitious, all acclaimed. Chimerica and The Effect won awards; the American Psycho musical was a sellout; and the adaptations of The Seagull and 1984 were nothing if not daring and dazzling.
So why walk? “I didn’t particularly intend to,” says Goold, now 41. “It was more about suddenly feeling, ‘Oh, it’s time to go.’ I thought, ‘If I stay, I don’t know whether I’ll ever leave.’ And I look at artists identified with companies like Cheek By Jowl or Shared Experience and, however brilliant they are, there’s always a danger of stasis.”
A passage in Richard Eyre’s diaries has stayed with him: great companies have a shelf life of seven to 10 years. Goold had entered the danger range at Headlong and was finding touring increasingly difficult. “The costs were going up, and the revenues were coming down.” Meanwhile, the Almeida was recruiting. He applied – late and on a whim – and got the job.
So now we’re sitting in the theatre’s chichi bar, about to discuss his first season. But first, why the Almeida? He flirted with the RSC’s top job two years ago, applying then withdrawing the next day; and he’s often tipped as a future National Theatre boss. For now, both those positions are too constrictive, preventing freelance work: Goold’s Made in Dagenham musical is due in autumn; it will follow True Story, a Hollywood film about journalism, murder and morality, starring Jonah Hill and James Franco.
Those two jobs, he says, would also inhibit his “slow-cooking” approach to new work. “Chimerica took six or seven years,” he says – and the National needs 18 shows annually. It’s “partly an age thing”, too. He has always seen those jobs as 50-plus gigs. The Almeida, by contrast, allows artistic freedom and, with only 325 seats, enables the kind of risky, swaggering programming he champions. No studio space either. “For better or worse,” he says, “I’ve always taken my risks on the main stage.”
The first season certainly takes risks. There’s King Charles III, a mock history play that looks ahead to the reign of the Prince of Wales; a new verbatim piece by Alecky Blythe (co-writer of the musical London Road) about the 2011 riots; and a grand Chimerica-style epic about oil. Most eye-catching of all, there’s Mr Burns: A Post-Electric Play, which imagines America after a national-grid meltdown – and asks what happens to pop culture, specifically The Simpsons, when its new medium is campfire retellings and ritualised re-enactments.
“I’m a populist, basically,” says Goold. “I think a lot of culture is boring, and I like people to have a good time at my shows.” Art, he says, shouldn’t be a chore or a trial. “There’s a sort of Roundhead bullshit around culture: the more serious and difficult it is, the more it hurts you and your audience, the more worthwhile it is. It’s a form of bullying.”
That doesn’t mean he’ll pander to an audience with familiar titles and stars, though. He’s had “approaches from big names wanting to do Shakespeare”, but thinks “that sort of thing” belongs elsewhere, possibly in large, off-site spaces. Goold has always sought to maximise a show’s reach, though, believing you “have to justify your subsidy”. And we should expect Almeida shows to tour nationally. “Just because I run a London theatre now, doesn’t mean I don’t have a commitment to that.”
For all that, Goold’s background is standard-issue theatre director (middle-class London upbringing, independent school, first in English at Cambridge); the director “really struggled after graduating”. His first fringe show – a Cuban-American play called Mud that was “like rural South American Pinter” – bombed. It had taken six months of bar work to fund. “I remember thinking: this is crazy.” Residencies at the Donmar and Salisbury Playhouse followed, with Goold directing John Godber’s Bouncers (“I took it incredibly seriously”), before embarking on bland commercial tours of Graham Greene and PG Wodehouse. He grew increasingly frustrated and, by 29, was debt-ridden and ready to quit.
“I knew the kind of work I wanted to make, but I just couldn’t persuade people to support me.” He had been inspired by “gargantuan” performances: Michael Gambon in View from the Bridge, Antony Sher as Richard III. But it was Jonathan Miller’s colonial take on The Tempest that really fired him up. “It was the first time I became aware of directing,” he recalls. He immediately bought Subsequent Performances, Miller’s book, which argues that classics wither without directorial intervention. “At university, everyone was reading [Peter Brook's] The Empty Space, but that was my handbook.”
At 30, Goold gambled. Having met Kate Fleetwood (then his Juliet, later his wife), he moved to Northampton and took over its deadbeat Royal and Derngate theatre. “I had my neck on the line, but at least I had the freedom to do the work I wanted.”
His daring worked. He put the theatre back on the map, leaving after three years, and he hasn’t looked back since, emboldened by the fact that the riskier his programming, the better his audience figures. “The moment you try to second-guess your audience and shore up your financial position through safe programming, the audience smell it. If you don’t programme every show believing that it could change the face of theatre – if you go, ‘Oh they’ll need a comedy or something’ – it fails.”
For all his steadfastness, Goold is full of contradictions, a director who displays both confidence and insecurity. He concedes that he’s “not very good with a boss”, yet clearly feels “the anxiety of leadership” deeply. Despite his success, he claims to be “still haunted” by a fear of unemployment. And he’s both an experimentalist and a populist, a maverick director incapable of ignoring reviews (bad ones for his Lear and his Turandot clearly still rankle, as does the very first panning he ever got, from Time Out).
“I’ve become very interested in psychoanalysis,” he says. “I realised the other day I’d done a lot of shows – Paradise Lost, Faustus, Enron, Macbeth, American Psycho – with basically the same protagonist: the Marlovian over-reacher.” In these Icarus-like stories, protagonists are driven to their downfall by their own self-belief. “That’s Macbeth, that’s the Chapman brothers defacing Goya – an artist who’s sort of their god – and humiliating themselves through their iconoclasm.” True Story, about a disgraced journalist, follows suit: “Over-reacher, vaulting ambition, undone and humiliated.”
Does Goold think he, too, has this confidence, this vaulting ambition? “Gosh, I don’t know how you define ambition,” he says. “Am I ambitious to run the National or to win an Oscar? No, not particularly. Am I ambitious to be seen as relevant and important by the people I value? Yeah, I really am. And confidence? I don’t know any artist who doesn’t start every day in complete paralysis and doubt. But the one thing I’ve always trusted is that I’ll have ideas.”
Photograph: Rob Greig