Stephen Daldry has been the victim of a poison pen campaign, was responsible for the most 'disgusting' play of the year and has just been given pounds 16m. And nobody has a bad word to say about him

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The Independent Culture
There was a bravura performance last week at the Royal Court. It happened mid-morning and none of the critics showed, so while the facts were well reported ("Court scoops lottery jackpot"), the substance was not. So here goes. Stephen Daldry, spotlit centre stage in unfamiliar suit and boots, expecting bovver, is cutting a contrived dash, neither too flash nor too Oxfam. "This is a theatre full of ghosts," he begins, and one by one he summons them. Shaw, Olivier, George Devine (who famously said, "My God, what a dump, but it's perfect, we'll take it," and moved in), Storey, Wesker, Bond and Hare. Down there, the drains flood just as they did in Shaw's day; there, Laurence Olivier got an electric shock in 1924; here, says Daldry, marking a spot with ludicrous precision, stood the ironing board for Osborne's Look Back in Anger. It's all blarney, but the audience is lapping it up. Now, he says, for the future, and he turns to the architect's pristine model of a Royal Court for the next millennium: "this bold scheme, this imaginative scheme, this vital scheme". (His scheme, of course, but he doesn't rub it in.) Given such a showman, no wonder the Arts Council wrote him a cheque second only to that given to the Royal Opera House (a building some hundred times bigger than the Court). Nobody animates a stage quite like Daldry; nobody pulls rabbits out of hats quite like Daldry, not rabbits worth pounds 16m.

His latest coup merely proves what Daldry has so often proved - the bigger he thinks, the wider he forces eyes, then wallets, to open. Where others might have been content to put in for the funding of a feasibility study to explore the rotting Court's options, he has gone for blanket modernisation and refurbishment of the backstage areas and front of house and thrown in a restaurant which will tunnel under the road and pop up in a periscope bar in the middle of Sloane Square. If his reputation fades, his immortality is guaranteed in bricks and mortar.

Daldry's audacity has no bounds. Moreover, it never did. As the artistic director of Notting Hill's tiny, unsubsidised Gate, he consistently confounded expectations with his vast casts and extravagant sets, while simultaneously challenging his audiences to take on the works of little-known, seldom- produced, dead European writers. While other theatres retreated financially and artistically, he won plaudits, sponsorship followed and his schemes became ever more outrageous. His new production of Ron Hutchinson's Rat in the Skull, which kicks off the season of Royal Court Classics in the West End, is no different. It pretends to flirt with minimalism - "just four actors and no set" - but it's minimalism as only Daldry might define it, involving total deconstruction of the Duke of York's Theatre: the stalls will be completely covered to create the "effect" of no set.

Part of his success stems from a refusal to submit to the culture of poverty that, under the Tories, has hampered the arts and turned too many of our practitioners into whingers. "It's a culture which has crippled imaginations. I never saw the point of saying I could do fantastic things but haven't got the money. Money follows ideas and it always has done," says Daldry. "You can't just sit back and wait for the money to happen."

Today, he's looking ridiculously chirrupy - and it's not the pounds 16m. (The initial euphoria of that has turned into concern that he gets it right. "Physically, we mustn't turn a Morris Minor Traveller into a Vauxhall Cavalier, and artistically, we have to avoid institutionalisation, which can happen when you rebuild an institution.") No, today Daldry is wildly excited about his new toy - a headpiece for his mobile telephone. From now on, as he beats the traffic on his bike, he can wheel and deal simultaneously.

People call him an incorrigible flirt, a terrible old tart, the archetypal bamboozler, but there's always warmth in their tone. Profiles invariably end up as "herograms", and he has an awesome talent for self-promotion. But peer as you will behind the tortoiseshell specs, you do not spy a bulging eye for the main chance, nor a glint of the careerist monster, nor a glimmer of a shy and intimidated boy (only a born swaggerer orders lunch - in one breath - "Chicken korma with pilau rice two popadums some mango chutney a bottle of fizzy water and a coffee on the side as well" without a glance at the menu, and then chases every other mouthful with a fag). What you see is a dimpled, punkish Rupert Brooke, an engaging 34-year-old in total command of the public persona he is peddling (which might well have a passing resemblance to the real Stephen Daldry).

Caroline Maude was beguiled early on when she helped him produce Von Horvath's Judgement Day at the Old Red Lion. The play done, he went back to washing up in a Greek restaurant in Camberwell, she to temping; then he got the Gate and tracked her down to be general manager. "He has extraordinary natural charisma which he has refined and made more of an art," she says. "Nobody is immune - cleaners, actors, money-bags - they're all charmed. Stephen brings out the best in people. He brought raw energy to the Gate, a remarkable belief in what he's doing and a single-mindedness about his work. His enthusiasm is contagious, his dedication is frightening - he doesn't ever stop."

One suspects that he has surprised himself as much as everyone else by what he's achieved. A West Country childhood (his father farmed, became a bank manager and died when Stephen was 15; his mother dazzled in the local am dram soc), a label of "serious dunce" (one doubts the serious), Sheffield University, a course in clowning, the Crucible and the Gate doesn't automatically lead to the Royal Court and the sort of fame and good fortune Daldry has found. (His production of what he calls An Inspector Bores has already bought a large house for him and his partner, the designer Ian MacNeil; with every new production - LA and Las Vegas are in the pipeline - he gets richer.) "I've no master plan. Never have had," he says. And yet almost unaware, he has redefined the context within which subsidised theatre must operate, and given theatre itself the kiss of life. If Daldry is involved, theatre becomes a must rather than a musty duty.

Without intending to do so, he has also silenced all those who said his necrophiliac Gate made him the wrong choice for London's shrine to new writing. A theatre as deeply in the black as the Royal Court can afford to have more new plays and playwrights than ever before blasting their way across both stages. Daldry's application for the job promised a diet of international work and he's done nothing but contemporary stuff. "You respond to the work around you, and there's lots out there that is good."

And yet Daldry himself has directed only one new work here - Meredith Oakes's The Editing Process. Critics said his inappropriate mainstage production squashed the piece. Oakes, however, has nothing but praise for him. "He knows exactly where to find the energy of a scene, the central line of a play and its perspective," she says. "Perhaps we didn't have enough time to work out what in the play was style and what was content."

"I wouldn't do it the same way again," says Daldry, gallantly taking responsibility for the failure. "It's an exceptionally good play. The Royal Court must be able and willing to put new playwrights on downstairs, which means being willing and able to fail." He believes passionately in "creating a ladder of development. If you're going to have playwrighting workshops in Eastbourne with the Young People's Theatre, in the end there should be a possibility of the work being put on the main stage. The only way for that is to keep the writers' group flourishing, the theatre upstairs going. If this happens, extraordinary things can happen and are happening. There is a generation beginning to emerge who can actually get their work on. And that means that theatre writing becomes absolutely the most exciting, sexy thing to do. In America, it doesn't happen. There's a deadening effect that surrounds theatre."

He says he's "getting better" at reading new work blind. (He's been clever enough to appoint lieutenants, James Macdonald and Ian Rickson, who are experts in this minefield.) "It's too easy to get lit-critty and better to have an intuitive response. The most crucial thing, though, the thing that makes or breaks a play, is the right marriage between the play and the director." At the time of The Editing Process, he was pencilled in to direct Sam Shepard's new play, Simpatico, and Phyllis Nagy's The Strip. That he withdrew was perhaps a loss of nerve or, another possibility, a failure to feel what he calls "the emotional commitment you must have to produce a play, so that if it is a success, you can celebrate it and if it isn't, you can stand behind it." No thanks to people's high expectations, he arrives at this point extremely rarely and with total unpredictability.

Clearly, it happened with Priestley's An Inspector Calls, Wesker's The Kitchen and Sophie Treadwell's Machinal - plays with nothing in common beyond a capacity to respond in spades to his brilliant, bold re-invention and astonishing visual panache. It appears to have happened again with Rat in the Skull. It's the only feasible explanation, outside sheer impertinence, for his decision to direct a play originally staged by his Royal Court predecessor, Max Stafford-Clark.

"I just wanted to do the play," says Daldry. "It's a fantastic, very distressing play about Protestant Unionism which feels entirely right to be doing at the moment. I checked it out with Max to see that he didn't feel weird and he said, 'Carry on.' If you put yourself in a situation where you worry about being compared, you're lost, really." Reckless, feckless? Who knows, but he might well give a feck when the critics contrast his production with Stafford-Clark's highly topical, low-budget, wonderfully cast (Brian Cox) hit. The burnish of one director can surely only be the tarnish of the other.

Daldry has ridden rougher storms, though not always of his own making. (The metaphor is appropriate since, when he arrived at the Court, he made a speech to the staff in which he compared the place to a "pirate ship, sailing dangerous dramatic waters, pushing back boundaries, creating the theatre of dissent": it spawned the production of an in-house magazine, titled Shiver-Me-Timbers, with a drawing of Daldry at the top of a mast in requisite eyepatch.) In his first year, he was the target of a vicious and vile series of poison-pen letters, sent to Stafford-Clark and others, which suggested that he "bluffed" his way through script meetings and was out of his intellectual depth. ("Distressing, but you mustn't internalise these things," says Daldry.) Then there was Blasted, Sarah Kane's appallingly violent play, which provoked such mutterings as "a grave error of judgement" in the Telegraph and squeals of disgust from the tabloids, and caught Daldry entirely unprepared. "The violent reaction was a surprise," he admits. Quite probably because he hadn't read the play. But with typical dexterity, he turned the controversy into a triumph for the theatre. More recently, he banned publication of Christine Eccles's fly-on-the-wall view of behind the scenes at the Court. From the published extracts, its sin appears to be no worse than dullness. "It did no service to the Royal Court," he insists. Someone snidely suggested that Daldry's silly objection was because he didn't feature in the book, which was researched before his time. It's not true, but indicative of the jealousy that success such as his invariably excites.

His team at the Royal Court clearly appreciate him and return his loyalty. Indeed, in two years, he's revolutionised the atmosphere at the theatre. Under Max Stafford-Clark, it was comparable to Gordonstoun - cold, hierarchical, unfriendly. "New boys" talked of being overwhelmed by insecurity until, all of sudden, they were accepted as part of the gang; tales abound of how Stafford-Clark used to sneak in to switch off the central heating, of how none but the hallowed few dared to venture along the Artistic corridor and, when they did, it was only in response to a summons from the headmaster. With Daldry at the helm, it's perestroika, open doors and "non-artistic" staff invited to contribute to script meetings. In other words, smart office politics.

What drives this most driven of men remains hard to fathom, however. There's no single revelatory moment that explains why it's theatre and not, say, farming, like his father, that seized him. (He remembers only one visit to the theatre as a stroppy teenager and he can't remember the play, just the player, Michael Pennington, who was obviously irritated by his noisy game of battleships and told him to shut up or get out.) Clearly, he likes being at the centre of things, being the talk of the town (lucky it wasn't farming), but theatre offers that to very few. "All I know is that when something begins to work in a play, it is the biggest high. When it doesn't, it's worse than watching paint dry," he says. "If I could get a better experience from taking heroin, I'm sure I'd be a major heroin addict, but I can't. Theatre is the best drug I can possibly have."

But, as any addict will confirm, that high gets harder to find. Offers pour in (his agent, Pauline Asper, says he could fill his life with work seven times over) and he tosses most of them aside ("This is more fun, more of a challenge, more interesting than a Cy Coleman musical on Broadway"). And when he says, with the straightest face he can muster, "I really genuinely have no aspirations towards the National," he undoubtedly means it for the moment. It's Hollywood that will get him in the end. He has three projects - all his own ideas and not adaptations of existing plays - currently in development, two in America, one over here. "And nothing may come of any of them." While Daldry doesn't agree with those who insist his vision is filmic ("I'm interested in creating a world which has a dynamic relationship with the context of a play and inverts or subverts theatrical convention. It's always to do with theatre but we're such a visually illiterate country that people mistake it for an obsession with film"), he freely admits to his "fascination" with the cinema. The only thing you can predict with total certainty about Stephen Daldry is that he will do precisely what he wants, the way he wants. So what's he got? "Class!" he yells, only half teasing, but more than half right.

'Rat in the Skull' opens at the Duke of York's Theatre, London on 5 Oct (0171- 836 5122)

'An Inspector Calls' opens at the Garrick Theatre,

London on 24 Oct (0171-494 5085)