Gregory Doran has famously long glossy locks and is widely known to be a nice guy and an incurable Shakespeare nut. He has now taken over the reins at the Royal Shakespeare Company, with which he’s been associated for 26 years, working on both sides of the footlights, first as an actor and then a director. If you think he’s in the wrong job, blame Eileen Atkins. He first went to Stratford as a schoolboy to see her in As You Like It. ‘I went dancing out of the theatre and as we went back up the M6 in my mum’s beige Mini, apparently I turned to her and said, “That’s what I want to do when I grow up”.’
In fact, Doran, 55, has been putting on shows ever since the placenta hit the pedal bin, to use Maureen Lipman’s happy phrase. Born in Huddersfield into a middle-class Catholic family — his father worked in atomic energy and ran Sellafield — he cut his teeth in productions in his bedroom, then in amateur theatre in Preston, and went to Bristol University before working as an actor at Nottingham Playhouse and then Stratford.
‘I played a lot of floppy-haired parts at the RSC but then I read something Flaubert said, that most people end up in life doing what they do second-best. That really hit home.’ The company suggested that directing was his real métier. He has now done half the canon, won numerous awards, and he takes over from Michael Boyd, who heroically oversaw the building of the new Stratford auditorium and has restored the company to health over the past dozen years.
He kicks off with Richard II starring David Tennant, the Doctor Who actor who gave his bestselling Hamlet a few years ago. That will be followed by the two parts of Henry IV, which see the return of Jane Lapotaire (Duchess of Gloucester), Michael Pennington (John of Gaunt) and Oliver Ford Davies (York), with Antony Sher playing Falstaff and Jasper Britton as Henry IV.
‘I wanted some big hitters in these parts,’ says Doran, keen to keep the tradition of staging the history plays in their entirety. ‘The first time the Shakespeare histories were ever seen in a cycle was, as far as we know, when Frank Benson did them at Stratford before the first world war. He did “the week of kings” and Yeats went to see them. I want to do them in sequence, though to me Richard II is a great lyric tragedy in its own right, not a prequel to Henry IV.’ Richard and the Henrys will transfer to the Barbican Theatre, restoring links with the London base the company perversely abandoned in 2002.
Doran’s projects are now mapped out until 2018. The plan is to stage every play Shakespeare wrote over the next six years, so that a child going into senior school could have (almost) seen the lot by the time he/she leaves. But in the Swan, the 400-seater that’s part of the Stratford complex, Shakespeare is now verboten.
‘We are going to do plays by his contemporaries, the original point of the theatre when it was built. We are doing three superb plays with great parts for women: The Roaring Girl [Dekker and Middleton], Arden of Faversham [author unknown] and The White Devil [Webster]. We’ve also commissioned a new play about Queen Anne. Did you know she was threatened with being exposed as a lesbian?’
I didn’t. How about a season, then, of plays about gay monarchs? ‘That might be slightly obvious for someone like me to do,’ smiles the director who lives with Antony Sher. They met on The Merchant of Venice in 1987. Every night Doran spat at Shylock on stage and romance blossomed. Wary of accusations of nepotism, Sher hasn’t benefitted from the connection for ten years. He will be playing Falstaff in Henry IV, but only because Ian McKellen turned it down. But is Sher fat enough for the part? ‘Have you seen him lately?’ guffaws Doran.
A lot of top actors have of late been doing Shakespeare at the Globe, the National Theatre, the West End, almost anywhere but at Stratford. RSC veterans Simon Russell Beale, Henry Goodman, Juliet Stevenson and Roger Allam are all apparently on the blower, considering offers. It would be terrific if Doran could pair up, say, Benedict Cumberbatch and Rebecca Hall in something. Stratford desperately needs more glamour. ‘There was a sense that for some actors the RSC wasn’t their home any more,’ admits Doran. ‘To me it’s an actors’ company and that’s what should drive it. I am not going to directors and saying “What do you want to direct?” I am going to actors and saying “What do you want to play?” ’
Doran isn’t short of ideas. In 2016 — the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death — there’s a rather sweet plan to do A Midsummmer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare’s love letter to amateur dramatics, on a huge national tour, getting an amateur group in each venue to play the rude mechanicals. Without its regional partnerships and its hugely energetic education department, the RSC wouldn’t get its generous £16.4 million a year public subsidy. An awful lot of what the RSC does now is the vital business of getting Shakespeare into the veins of the UK’s youth.
‘I also want the plays we do to be in conversation with each other. I will get to Henry V in 2015, the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt. What we want to do is put it on with Troilus and Cressida, presenting Shakespeare’s two great polar opposite views of war at the same time. What we are hoping also to do is Troilus with Romeo and Juliet, the same actors playing both sets of lovers. Each play we do has to be an event otherwise we’re dead.’
Doran never mentions the company’s worst vice: inaudibility. The RSC voice department has a massive task in front of it. Drama schools now churn out actors who are encouraged to mumble so they can be employed in BBC telly dramas where estuarine mumbling is considered realistic. With verse drama it doesn’t work, as Judi Dench will tell you.
If Doran has got any sense, he will get the best black and Asian actors he can lay his mitts on (his own all-black Julius Caesar last year was a shot in the arm for an often boring school play) and lure in younger audiences with some aggressive downward seat pricing. It’s early days but Doran is the right man for the job. ‘What I really want to do above all is generate some excitement,’ he says, looking like he means it.