Interview: Robert Icke
Published in The Stage, 12.06.2014
“Do I want a traditional career, like Trevor Nunn or Sam Mendes?” Robert Icke is mulling his options: “Run a building. Graduate to a knighthood and national treasure status. Direct big musicals and big plays with big stars. Or do I want to do something else?”
This should sound presumptuous. Intolerably so. Icke is 28. He has all of six professional credits to his name. Somehow, though, he gets away with it. Thanks to straight-faced, unblinking conviction, there’s neither a scrap of irony nor a sliver of doubt in his delivery. “I find myself constantly going, ‘Is this something I still want to do? What’s the point?’ It’s so easy to look at a career ladder and go, ‘I do that, then that, then that’ – follow a set narrative to get to the end point. I don’t really want to do that. That’s come as a bit of a surprise.”
Icke is Rupert Goold’s latest protégée. He joined Headlong in 2010 and followed Goold to the Almeida last year. They’ve had a hectic, helluva start: sell-out runs, overnight queues, West End transfers, including Icke’s own garlanded production of 1984, co-written and co-directed with Duncan Macmillan, and currently doing good business at the Playhouse Theatre.
It’s been all-go from the get-go at the Almeida. Icke spent his first day on the payroll flying to New York; his “mission” being to secure the rights to Anne Washburn’s new script Mr Burns: A Post-Electric Play, which had set several British theatre’s salivating. “Even before Rupert read it, I knew we’d do it. This is completely us. It’s completely brilliant and I don’t know any play like it.”
Truth be told, there isn’t one. Set in a crippled America – deadly virus, nuclear meltdown, national powercut – Mr Burns puts a Simpsons episode through the oral tradition, watching it morph from simple campside retelling into something altogether more cathartic. “The protagonist of the play is the story,” says Icke. “That’s the thing that develops and changes.” It’s a remarkable, wide-ranging and deep-thinking play, as impish as it is intelligent. “There’s no way of doing a glib on it,” Icke continues, excitedly, “You can’t go, ‘Oh, it’s like Closer but with transsexuals.’”
If the play’s originality appealed, so did its imperfections. “Had it been like August: Osage County – once they’ve finished with that script, we might as well burn it – that wouldn’t have appealed.” He and Washburn have been swapping dramaturgical notes via Skype since September.
Mostly, though, he loved the play’s sheer, somersaulting ambition – both cerebral and theatrical. “A lot of plays are really good at America, but not very good at Angels,” he says, delivering another killer line that triggers this critic’s envy.
Icke’s always looking for both: purpose and possibility. “Theatre’s got the potential to feel more of everything: more joyful, more surprising, more alive. I don’t think it does most of the time, but I think it can.” The key, for Icke, is its liveness. He wants theatre to be capable of “changing the weather” of a room. It’s why he loves Ivo van Hove. “He creates a thickness in the room, an intensive feeing. Sebastian Nübling can do it as well: change the feeling, change the temperature. It’s something we’re terrible at in this country. We’re used to going, ‘Ok, it says sunshine. Give me some sunshine.’”
The problems, as he sees it, are literalism and lazy assumption. For Icke, directing classics involves “scrubbing off 300 years of stage history…trying to convince your audience they don’t know the play as well as they thought.” Hence the emphasis on Nineteen Eighty-Four’s lesser-spotted appendix, and the Sliding Doors moments he laced through Romeo and Juliet. Icke’s Headlong production sought to show the play as teeming with near misses and contingent coincidences, rather than simply blaming Verona’s dodgy postal service for the tragedy.
“It’s like an episode of Friends in which Joey gets shot in the head halfway through” – another of those knockout lines – “Mercutio dies and everyone has to cope with the fallout. You feel genre collapsing. That’s much truer to our experience of life. It’s much scarier, because it could so easily go right and it just misses. There’s an agony about that, which is really profound.”
All this is perfectly Headlong – an adjective he sees as a huge compliment. Icke had big shoes to fill there: Ben Power, now an NT Associate, had been Goold’s dramatug and right-hand man for seven years. “I’m not a dramaturg, so I was never going to be Ben. I remember saying as much to Rupert.”
Even so, the same sensibility is there: whip-sharp, warp speed quick and absolutely, 100%, 24/7 consumed by theatre. Goold has that. Power too. “He’d never seen anything I’d done,” Icke recalls. Goold had one interview to go on – “and he signed me up and handed me the car keys. What an extraordinary gift that is.”
The difference is that Icke, still only 28, hasn’t got his gifts under control yet. He pings off in tangents, this way and that, always talking in double-time. It’s as if his brain is in constant overdrive – but you can spot both the desire to impress and the diversion tactic beneath. You have to wrestle him back on topic – never more so than when that topic is Icke himself, and his unrehearsed feelings, ideas or uncertainties.
Many of the things he talks about – the centrality of surprise for today’s audiences, box sets as “the great modern medium,” Ivo van Hove as “the best director in the world” – come directly from Goold. Such ideas are likely shared, born of conversation, but there’s a distinct tang of discipleship.
“He’s quite a processy person, Ru” – it’s nearly always Ru, rarely Rupert – “in terms of anxiously going over and over, asking a lot of second opinions. I probably do the same. My role with him is to advocate while he plays devil’s advocate. It’s very Cambridge.”
Ah yes, the C-word. Icke read English at King’s college – “because that’s what I thought you did if you wanted to be a director” – but found the drama scene “cliquey.” He is, he stresses, “an ordinary middle-class North East boy” from an “ordinary state secondary” in Stockton-on-Tees.
“Where I’m from in the North East, there’s still no big producing theatre.” Northern Stage and West Yorkshire Playhouse were an hour by car, Sheffield two, but distance didn’t stop him. The Crucible, then run by Michael Grandage, became a particular point of pilgrimage. “The work was extraordinary. I wouldn’t be sitting here without it.”
In 2002, he set up his own company, Arden, literally prising open the automatic doors at the closed ARC Arts Centre and persuading new AD Paul Walker to lend him free space to stage Julius Caesar after his GCSEs. Looking back, he reckons “45 seconds were probably quite good,” but audiences came and so Arden won a regular slot. “I made all my very early mistakes there.” (‘What,’ you think, ‘all of them? Are there none still to come?’)
There’s been one particular criticism levelled at Icke: what Variety’s David Benedict called “his relative weakness with actors.” Curious, because Icke loves actors. He hymns Kenneth Branagh’s Richard III, one of his Sheffield Crucible epiphanies, in a blow-by-blow account. “All the great moments in theatre, I think, are about actors. If you’ve got great actors – and I’ve been lucky to work with some – you want all the liveness they can bring.”
That governs his approach to rehearsals: “If you start around a table, analysing and underlining, immediately you’re saying there’s a right version. So why not film that, if there’s a perfect one. You don’t want the performance to be the same every night. That’s why I find rehearsals so tiring: I don’t see it as a linear thing.”