No time to beat around the Bush: Dominic Dromgoole has made a success of the Bush Theatre by fibbing and attacking his critics. Sabine Durrant risked a face-to-face meeting

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The Independent Culture
Several people are a bit frightened of Dominic Dromgoole. 'Ooh no,' said one, 'he certainly doesn't like me.' 'Ouch,' said another, 'whatever you do, don't mention my name.' 'I don't envy you,' winced a third.

The artistic director of the Bush looks hounded, put out. 'I can't help myself,' he says irritably, more bumble bee than tiger (even his deep nasal voice is a little buzzy, like a radio). 'I just keep writing the letters . . . I know I should rise above it, I know I should. The thing is I can't be nice to them. I'm physically incapable of being nice to them. It's just a problem I have.'

To your average person, Dromgoole is charm in a tatty cardy. He looks like a cuddlier Griff Rhys Jones and, stuffing his hands in his pockets and scuffing his DMs, he growls, but also throws back his head and guffaws. Not much to frighten one off here. His problem, though, is his relationship with the critics. He doesn't have one.

On press nights, he stands at the top of the stairs, scowling at their departing backs. Unfavourable reviews he answers with long letters, needling back, anatomising each complaint. 'Mostly they reply,' he says, 'though Michael Billington (of the Guardian) has stopped answering my letters now. I think perhaps I wrote to him a bit too much . . .' Reviewers raise their eyebrows at his correspondence, but he thinks that they look less favourably on the Bush as a result.

'It makes me unutterably miserable,' he says stridently, 'and it's the thing that will make me stop at some point. We've done some terrific work here, important work here, and it hasn't become as central to the agenda as I would have liked. And the main reason for that is my relationship with the critics.' Isn't that a bit self-regarding? 'Bollocks,' he says.

Dromgoole is part of the new generation of artistic directors; he studied at Cambridge in and around the same time as Sam Mendes (the Donmar Warehouse), Abigail Morris (the Cockpit), Tim Supple (the Young Vic), Julia Bardsley (until recently the Young Vic); and he later directed at the Old Red Lion in the same year as fellow sparks Stephen Daldry, Hettie Macdonald and Katie Mitchell (with whom, he says, he's always been bound by 'tension and rivalry - pathetic really').

'There was a generation in control of the theatres,' he says. 'They'd all come alive together when they were 18 or 19 or 20 at the Oval House in 1972, and they all took their clothes off and they all made love to each other. And for 20 years they had alternative theatre in a stranglehold. Then there was another generation coming through, most of whom were at the Old Red Lion, all desperately wanting their own theatre. In 1990, the Bush management took a flying gamble on me - which opened the door for the others.

'I wasn't the best, but I was the flukiest. The Bush was in slight retreat and I think they thought they'd get this young thug (he was 26 at the time) and he'll wander around making trouble and either we'll be in a bigger mess and that will be quite spectacular, or something will happen.'

In the event, something has happened. Dromgoole's first move was to raise the Bush's profile by lying about his mailbag. 'Everyone lies now. But I started it. When I arrived, all the theatres were saying that the average amount of unsolicited scripts they received a year was 500. I wanted to push the Bush up a bit, so I said 600 and immediately the Court came back and said 700 and the Hampstead said 800 and now there isn't one of them that will say less than 1,000 . . .'

Since then, with the help of his mailbag, he has produced 38 new plays in less than four years. He has nurtured the Bush's special association with such playwrights as Billy Roche. He has stumbled upon some highly promising new writers such as Roy Macgregor, Helen Edmondson and Jonathan Harvey. And Harvey's play Beautiful Thing has just completed a national tour - a first for the Bush and, as such, a triumph for both Harvey and Dromgoole, who 'found' him.

Dromgoole says he brings nothing but 'taste' to the job and a guiding rule that 'every Bush production should be absolutely different from the one that went before'. But there is certainly an ambition, stylistic or thematic, behind many of his commissions that is sometimes exhilarating, sometimes cataclysmic, but rarely dull. To a certain extent, Dromgoole has put the Bush back on the A-Z: one of his biggest sadnesses, though, is that it doesn't appear within the boundaries of the Circle Line - 'then we'd get the tourists'.

If Dromgoole hasn't achieved the centrality that he'd like ('Hampstead and the Court are considered steps up from us,' he says with a grimace), he's still fighting for it. The Bush, he claims vehemently, is the only proper theatre in London. 'We're bedevilled by theatres that are just about the talent of the people involved, great big ego soups. If ever you see a classic, deconstructed and souped up, all you're seeing is a lot of people showing off. I don't think new writing is a form of theatre, it is what theatre is. It shouldn't be ghettoised at places like the Bush. It should be central to the whole operation.'

This belief in the all-importance of new writing may be what sets people's backs up; it certainly pushes him into a corner, blinding him to the value of his contemporaries' productions of Lope de Vega or Racine or Chekhov: 'The idea that they mean a lot to us is such cock. It's museum theatre; it's academic theatre; it's speciality acts.' Or, for that matter, of Brenton or Edgar or Hare: 'just dire, miserable'. But this hard-and- fast distinction between 'new' and 'museum' is not one made by the best writers; one of the reasons that Brian Friel, for example, is a great contemporary dramatist is because he understands the value of reviving Chekhov. In fact, you can get the impression that Dromgoole would be hard pushed - on principle - to say anything nice about anything that wasn't actually, dare one say it, at the Bush.

His problem then, if he has one, is not the critics, it's his own stated belief in new writing as the only thing of value, a belief that, in conflict with many of his contemporaries, is bound to lead to disappointments; making such high claims himself, he's always going to feel let down by others. But his belief is also one you suspect he's pumping self-consciously hard for the sake of the Bush. You've got to admire him for trying.

'There's no sense in which this is a theatre,' he says, waving his arms. 'This is just a ridiculous room above a pub with police cars going by, it's not a theatre. The only way it becomes a theatre every night is by an act of communal will. You will it, everyone - stage managers, actors, the audience - wills it to make it a theatre. You can't do it by money, you can't do it by coercion and you certainly can't do it by being clever or showing off. But by ferocity of will you can make something happen.'

'Beautiful Thing' is at the Donmar Warehouse, Thomas Neal's, Earlham Street, London WC2 until 23 April (box-office: 071-867 1150)

(Photograph omitted)

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