RISKY BUSINESS AT ALMEIDA THEATRE
Fast approaching two years as Artistic Director of the Almeida Theatre, Rupert Goold decision to take a few risks, from a musical American Psycho to his latest King Charles III, has paid off. Now it’s all about Greek tragedy – with the small matter of his first feature film as director starring James Franco and Jonah Hill
You are approaching two years as Artistic Director at Almeida Theatre, so how do you look back at what’s been staged since September 2013?
I feel quite excited. We have had a good run. We had a record box office last year, and we have had record advances for the Greek season. We have done pretty challenging work at times. I didn’t expect things to turn out the way they have. There’s been a bit of a gauntlet thrown down in terms of seeing what the audience of the theatre would be interested in and how far they are willing to go. So far it’s been great.
Why was this the perfect place for your approach to theatre?
I really like the space. It’s something not talked about a lot by Artistic Directors taking on buildings, but here it’s a lovely room. You can do stuff that’s quite experimental and natural. I also love the atmosphere on the street, where at night the audience spills out to the street. It has got a background on quite risk taking work and it’s nice to be a part of that. And it’s my local theatre so I can cycle to work!
Why should theatre be about taking risks?
Theatre is having a tremendous boom and it has been great in London for the last 15 years. What’s exciting is seeing how work that’s maybe traditionally from the subsidised world is now finding huge success in the West End, such as what we have done with King Charles III. Then there’s the Kenneth Branagh residency and Matthew Warchus at the Old Vic, it’s an exciting time for quality theatre. The more theatre people see, the more I hope that they become interested in seeing the full range. When I started going to the movies I was watching Star Wars, then at some point I really started to enjoy arty stuff. One of the great things about the Almeida is there’s not a specific remit – we are not dedicated to new writing or Shakespeare, it’s about pushing the envelope I suppose. Pierre Audi did when he founded the theatre in the 1980s, continued by Jonathan Kent and Ian McDiarmid, consolidated by Michael Attenborough, and I hope we are doing that now.
Is the forthcoming Greek season something that is a risk?
I thought it was a crazy risk! At one point we were going to do a whole year of it, but three Greek tragedies in a row? But actually it has got a bigger advance! I think people like an event in London, like a big retrospective at a gallery, of the complete works of Shakespeare at the Globe over one year. People like something meaty to really dig into. But it should have been a big risk.
What can you tell me about the three productions you’ll be staging here during the season?
Oresteia is the foundation text of Greek drama. It’s a big family saga, very much like The Godfather. I suppose there’s an aspect that all great drama is about families. Even something like Enron [which he directed], it’s starting point is a structure of a family. This is sort of the first and original text about a family and how they came into conflict. It’s also arguably the first play where there’s a proper investigation of democracy, questioning our ideas of what’s right and wrong. Of the three productions, Bakkhai might be the most classical – don’t go to Oresteia expecting masks and two performers. It will feel very modern and it will be an event.
Bakkhai is more musical, more choric, it has got dance and song in it. I think it’s more typically associated with Greek drama. Ben Whishaw will play one of the most original characters in Greek drama, Dionysos, who is a very beguiling, charismatic figure. There’s a big chorus of wonderful women singers and three men playing the speaking roles. It has more of an international festival event feel to it.
Medea is arguably the most famous female literary figure. It’s a story of heart break, how far someone would go if they feel truly rejected by the person they love. It looks at how women feel about love and marriage and parenting. Medea is about being a woman in a really confrontational way.
Why did you choose Medea as the one you will direct?
I always wanted to do Medea. My wife [Kate Fleetwood] is playing Medea. We met doing a job and worked together eight years later on a production of Macbeth, but we haven’t worked together since. We have sort of been going ‘we should do something together’… [Laughs at the irony of the story they chose to work on together] It was a play I was always really interested in. There have been so many interesting feminist writers over the last few years, from Caitlin Moran to Rachel Cusk who wrote this text. It’s interesting when you look at motherhood that, generation to generation, women have learnt about parenting from their mothers. But now thanks to things like mumsnet it’s peer to peer, where women are speaking their minds and it’s not generational. That’s a fascinating development.
How does it feel when you leave the confines of the Almeida to work elsewhere, such as with Made in Dagenham in the West End?
It’s always lovely to be asked! I hope it’s healthy for the theatre as well. The danger of running a theatre is you get stuck in a groove. The big thing about the Almeida is until I come a cropper I’m still my own boss, so freelance working for someone else is healthy.
It’s not just theatre – how did you find the step to directing your first feature film, True Story?
It was quite challenging. Not so much that it was a film, but more just working in America. I have been in theatre for 20 years – if I do a play I often know quite a few people. I remember turning up for my first day on True Story and I knew nobody, and they didn’t know me. That was quite weird and was a challenge. It’s a studio system, which is also a very different thing. It’s much bigger and America is geared up to the metrics of evaluating – there’s a lot of money at stake, so the more the people involved can make analysis based on stats. Something I loved was doing a test screening – you get all this feedback from 350 people with an opinion and there’s no arguing.
And two big stars – James Franco and Jonah Hill – in the lead. Were they good to work with?
That was the other thing! This was a real chance for two young guys to go toe to toe with each other.
Do you ever have the opportunity to take some time off?
This year has been quieter! I have calmed down a bit… But the itch is there to scratch.
Words: Mark Kebble
The Almeida Greek season started with Oresteia on 29 May – see full details at almeida.co.uk