Dominic Dromgoole: Globe's artistic director on a lifelong love affair
Friday 14 April 2006
As a child, Dominic Dromgoole would lie in bed being lulled to sleep by his father reciting whole scenes from Shakespeare. Later on, the Dromgooles' Somerset farm was regularly invaded by actor friends his theatre-director father brought home for the weekend - Freddie Jones, Peter O'Toole - who would compete at quoting Shakespeare. As a schoolboy, Dominic practised Mark Antony's speech ("Friends, Romans, countrymen...") on the family's mixed herd of Jerseys and Guernseys.
These days, it sometimes seems that publishers try to turn every book into a memoir, convinced that the reading public is only interested in the personal touch. But quite early on in Dromgoole's memoir Will and Me: How Shakespeare Took Over My Life (Allen Lane, £16.99), I was persuaded that he couldn't have approached Shakespeare any other way: since childhood, his life has been so bound up with Shakespeare that it would be unnatural to try to write about the two separately - like Romeo without Juliet, or Rosencrantz without Guildenstern. After the success of The Full Room, a pugnacious and shrewd survey of contemporary British playwriting, he was casting about for another subject,"and I thought, what's the presiding obsession of my life beyond theatre? And Shakespeare was there, and always has been there."
The idea that Shakespeare is the guiding force of his life may come as a surprise to those who have followed Dromgoole's career as a theatre director. He has recently been installed as the new artistic director of Shakespeare's Globe in Southwark, in succession to Mark Rylance, and it was in his office there that I met him a couple of weeks ago; before that, though, he had been associated almost exclusively with producing new writing. As artistic director of the Bush Theatre in Shepherd's Bush from 1990 to 1996, he had pushed forward the careers of writers such as Conor McPherson and Jonathan Harvey, before going on to a brief spell in charge of new plays for Peter Hall's company. So when his appointment at the Globe was announced last year, it was widely regarded as, in the word of our own Paul Taylor, "counterintuitive".
I had assumed that the new book was a response to the Globe job, a manifesto for his regime. In fact, Dromgoole says, he'd already done the epic Stratford to London walk (part pilgrimage, part philosophical-critical perambulation) that forms the book's final section and done most of the writing before the Globe came up. One reason he applied was that he was feeling "Shakespeared up", and the book formed part of his application: "I was able to say to them, I've got no great track record as a bona fide major Shakespearean... but if you want to know about my passion for the man, I'll give you a 350-page manuscript."
To say he has no great track record as a Shakespearean is an understatement. One of Dromgoole's virtues - in conversation and on the page - is a willingness to see the funny side of himself, and some of the funniest passages in Will and Me are his accounts of floundering attempts at directing Shakespeare.
There have not been many: towards the end of his school career, he put on a disastrously stripped-down and pretentious All's Well that Ends Well, which played to a largely skinhead, notably impatient audience, and had to be cut short to avoid violence. Later, at university, there was a less pretentious but catastrophically under-rehearsed Richard III, which played to three old ladies in a tent in Yorkshire. His sole professional experience was a Millennium touring production of Troilus and Cressida for the Oxford Stage Company: on its arrival in the West End, critics complained that it was "tedious"; one spoke of "an excruciating combination of inexperience, ineptitude and capricious gimmickry". Dromgoole's own verdict is: "a bit of a car-crash, which was my fault". And this is the man they've put in charge of a theatre dedicated to Shakespeare?
"I applaud them massively for doing it," Dromgoole says - a line that might sound arrogant if it wasn't so clearly unselfconscious, and so heavily outweighed by his streak of self-deprecation. "I think they appreciated the fact that what I've done always is get behind writers, and look after writers, and make sure that writers are well produced. And I think they wanted someone here who was going to look after Shakespeare, and communicate their passion for Shakespeare, and not show the world how brilliant they are at directing Shakespeare."
Taken as criticism, Will and Me is skittish and uneven. Some acute insights - Dromgoole is very good on, for example, the theatricality of Antony and Cleopatra's passion, and how both characters deflate when they no longer have an on-stage audience - sit alongside one or two slightly barking ideas (Shakespeare "essentially pacifist"?) and rather a lot of uncontroversial plaudits for the bard's greatness and humanity. The one overriding theme is Dromgoole's insistence on Shakespeare's inclusivity, his hunger to cram in the whole of experience. The obverse of this is a distaste for exclusivity, in performance of the plays or writing about them: "What I get hacked off by is people who think that their knowledge of Shakespeare makes them uniquely qualified to understand Shakespeare, and makes Shakespeare uniquely available to them. You get an awful lot of that, you get it in directorial circles, and you get it in academic circles and certain critical circles. It's as if there's some sort of strange select, elite club where uber-Shakespearean people can go, and I find that very hard to take." What he admires about the Globe under Rylance has been its commitment to education, to making Shakespeare accessible - "Not in a sort of 'Eurgh, take Shakespeare to the people' sort of way, but just saying that it's common to everyone."
Though Will and Me is by Dromgoole's own admission an extended piece of Bardolatry, he is not overprotective of Shakespeare's reputation. At one point he peddles a theory, borrowed from Peter Hall, about "the first ten lines of the day": you can plot the day-by-day writing of the plays by looking for the patches of really plodding, anonymous blank verse - that was Shakespeare churning the stuff out first thing in the morning, before he'd got over his hangover. Dromgoole sees these prolix patches as part of his greatness: "He's not about being revised, he's not about going to some literary manager who goes 'Ooh, well I think you're a bit flabby in the fourth act.' He's about getting the thing on - just get it on, bash it out, see what it's like.
"Now what you get with that is you get a lot of rubbish and you get a lot of mess. But you can't have your glories and you can't have your heights without that unfettered freedom. Because the moment you start applying any of that three-act, five-act, transformational arc, journey, heroic myth-path-bollocks - which is what all American film is driven by - to Shakespeare, it falls to pieces."
Dromgoole's own writing is similarly messy, packed with far too many verbless sentences, jarring colloquialisms and insanely muddled metaphors. Will and Me reads as if it was written at a terrific gallop, and then untouched by an editor's hand. The upside of this is that the author has evidently never entertained the possibility that others may be less excited by Shakespeare than he is: there's no jollying along, no softening of the edges or false simplification, just a roistering pleasure in the plays.
And now, at last, he is going to be immersed in directing them. He is starting out this year with Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus. Why that pair? "There are certain things, I think, you feel you're ready for, and there's certain things you don't feel you're ready for." I wondered which ones he isn't ready for: "I don't think I'm really ready for King Lear, I don't think I'm really ready for Hamlet. I don't know if I'll ever be ready for Hamlet [...] I don't think I'll ever be able to do Love's Labour's Lost." This last is interesting - not usually considered one of the toughies: "You need a sort of light, high-sheen wit that I can't do. And you need a sort of poise and a sort of agility, word by word, that I'm not very good at. I'd love to be able to do it, but I don't think I can." But he has a long wishlist, including A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Merchant of Venice, Othello... "Oh, there's lots. There's too many, aren't there?" He's getting excited again.
Dominic Dromgoole was born in 1964, son of an actress turned schoolteacher and theatre director (his father's credits include the first production of Joe Orton's Entertaining Mr. Sloane) turned television executive. He spent his childhood on a farm in Somerset; after Cambridge, where he read English, he started working part-time as an assistant director at the Bush Theatre. In 1990 he became artistic director of the Bush, and stayed there for the next seven years. After an interlude in charge of new plays for Sir Peter Hall's company at the Old Vic, he ran the Oxford Stage Company from 1998 until last year; he has just taken up the post of artistic director of Shakespeare's Globe. His only previous book was The Full Room. Dromgoole is married with three daughters, and lives in London.
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