When Dominic Dromgoole, the new artistic director of the Globe, was working at the Bush theatre, he observed a crowd of intense theatrical types milling about the pub below the venue. They were talking in deeply academic terms about the production they'd just seen, when one of the drug-addled pub habitués began darting among them, offering "nonsensical phrases of agreement". But the real peculiarity lay in the blown-up condom which the addict had tugged over his head like a cap. For all the angst and wonder, magic, mysticism and fierce political awareness Dromgoole identifies in Shakespeare, this remains for me the central image of the book.
For Dromgoole, Shakespeare is the great high priest of the inconsistent, the anarchic, the life-loving. His book is not an autobiography, nor even really a memoir. Rather it is the living chronicle of a relationship: his own passionate and turbulent love affair with Shakespeare. An inevitably one-sided affair, but one shouldn't quibble.
Like all such relationships, it had its dips and disillusions. His wide-eyed childish love gave way to adolescent cynicism. A series of gurus taught him that to get to the fertile valleys you had to pass over some very dry rocks. The critics Bradley and Leavis, both now derided by the modish Pharisees of modernism and postmodernism, taught him the value of character and textual analysis respectively.
In tandem with these influences, he had the precedent of his parents and grandparents, whose response to the theatre was both ferociously visceral and priestly. His father, an accomplished and revolutionary director (he gave the world a brutally cut production of Julius Caesar in which he "starred" as Mark Antony), taught him about the twin poles of pantheism and nihilism in Shakespeare. He learned just how intractable audiences could be when, his family having had their fill of his soliloquies, he declaimed to their herd of cows. Bovine applause came in the shape of plops. He learned the art of Shakespearean dialogue - and uneasy insights into grown-up stuff - from sparring with his sister. He learned about the permission the stage can grant. In Shakespeare he found a universal guru, a balm for his hurt mind, a human hero and a cheeky accomplice. He's chucked into hedges, he's "crap" at sport, he can't play "cowpat frisbee", but he sure knows his Shakespeare. The grand consolation offered is that the geek will inherit the earth.
Three motifs predominate: people "stiffen", "sob", "shake". Almost everyone in Dromgoole's cast has a fittingly physical response to Shakespeare. He speaks often of laughter, but you end up suspecting that he, like many of us, lets the comedies in for the sake of the tragedies on their arm. The second is that to eschew the extremes of wispy reverence and sombre political subversion in productions of Shakespeare is not to settle for a leaden mean, but simply to let Shakespeare carry you; it's not perhaps the most original observation, but sometimes it needs to be reiterated. This in turn informs another preoccupation: the religious, or, at least, numinous, potential in Shakespeare. Both his parents rejected faith, but in passionate people the spiritual impulse will out, and they found its outlet in Shakespeare. So it is for Dromgoole.
One of the most endearing qualities of this book is its author's genuine modesty. This is seen partly in the many passages which threaten to swell into great cysts of self-regard only to deflate with a deadpan, "it was crap", but chiefly in the fact that he mentions directing, as such, so little. He gives his attention to Shakespeare and to acting. There's a lovely passage on artistic hubris where he points out that "Any sensitive actor knows the speed with which a moment of arrogance is followed by a moment of calamity. In one instant you think you're an elegant, intelligent sex-god; in the next you're failing to pull a cork out of a bottle." He's opinionated, sometimes slapdash, but never arrogant. He writes approvingly of Peter O'Toole's contention that the rule of the actor-manager - for all its temptations - was infinitely preferable to the directocracy which succeeded. I don't know whether these precepts inform his modus operandi in the rehearsal room itself, but the signs are very encouraging.
In the main, Dromgoole writes with a bright, breathy eloquence: lyrical flights carry with them terms of irresistibly seductive bathos: he loves the word "daft", and makes you love it, too. Only very rarely does he turn into Dad at the disco.
In Dromgoole's first book, The Full Room, a fiery and humorous analysis of contemporary theatre, he got pretty well everything right. This book doesn't always it get right. Here, the author shows a fondness for sleepy commonplaces, airy generalisations. Also I wonder whether Shakespeare can be quite the guide to life Dromgoole suggests. But if Shakespeare has here been deified, he's not a god who can be blasphemed - only misunderstood by the doctrinaire and the dull of heart.Reuse content