Theatre: A killing combination

Director Greg Doran and Antony Sher have proved to be a formidable RSC double-act. How will their relationship, both on- and off-stage, affect Macbeth?

Greg Doran has two unusual qualifications for directing Macbeth. He played Lady M when he was a schoolboy at a Jesuit establishment in Preston and he's the long-term partner of the actor Antony Sher, who assumes the role of the hero in the forthcoming RSC production. So, domestically and professionally speaking, Doran hasn't entirely washed his hands of the Lady M part. And that could be a considerable benefit when exploring a tragedy which is so acute on the overlap between married intimacy and criminal complicity.

So how was his own rendering of the "fiend-like queen". Did she affect red dress and raven tresses in the trusty Scotland's-answer-to-Cruella- de-Ville manner? "I remember wearing my mother's shoes and falling off the heels in my first scene," laughs Doran when we meet during his lunch break from the technical rehearsal.

Tossing the kind of luxuriant mane that is not so much follicly-challenged as follicly-challenging, he's warm, open, and highly articulate and doesn't seem to mind at all being dragged back to his boyhood. "There was a little stream just behind where we lived in Lancashire and I used to walk the dog there at night, saying Lady Macbeth's lines. At a time when I was dealing with things like my own sexuality, I found her articulation of hidden desires and ambitions weirdly empowering and liberating".

But there was no erotic tension, Doran reports, between himself and the "resoundingly heterosexual" youth who played Macbeth. You feel, though, that Cocteau might have rustled up quite a frisson-inducing scenario from the trip the two boys made to London where they delivered the murder scene to each other across the whispering gallery of St Paul's. Not surprisingly, after his many school Shakespeare performances (which included Lady Anne in Richard III but not, he regrets, any of the sexually ambiguous breeches roles), Doran's first instinct was to head into acting. Indeed, he met Sher while playing the bit part of Solanio to the other man's Shylock, an experience about which he has written an insightful, amusing essay.

The switch to directing was effected via an associate directorship at the Nottingham Playhouse and over the past decade Doran, now 40, has clocked up an increasingly impressive track record with the RSC. This year alone, he has staged critically acclaimed productions of The Winter's Tale on the Stratford main stage, Oroonoko (the Biyi Bandele adaptation of Aphra Behn's novel about slavery) and an excellent main stage production of Timon of Athens, a Shakespeare/ Middleton rarity that was a big enough gamble even before its scheduled star, Alan Bates, had to pull out because of a chest infection just two weeks away from previews.

The new Macbeth sees Doran and Sher returning to the Swan where they had a big hit three years back with a panache-packed production of Cyrano de Bergerac.

His last two Shakespeare productions have drawn great strength from the shrewdness of their setting. The Edwardian Winter's Tale portrayed a court that was a highly plausible breeding ground for Leontes' mad jealousy, both in its repressiveness and in the protective ring of fussing protocol - the ironic reverse of a cordon sanitaire - that surrounded the king, allowing him to indulge his disturbed fantasies undisturbed. Likewise, Timon of Athens was relocated to the Jacobean world of conspicuous consumption and homoerotic court favouritism such as obtained at the time of the play's composition. It afforded a very fresh sense of the essential loneliness of the hero, showing both the male domination of a society where the only women visible are whores and the cupboard love of his hangers-on.

On the subject of setting, Doran has a rule: "Never sacrifice resonance to relevance". Some updating becomes so detailed (he cites Trevor Nunn's Thatcherite Britain Timon) that "the metaphor is lost and people stop listening. But there are also productions where non-literal settings hijack the play just as badly. You don't know where you are."

With Macbeth, a top priority, along with securing Harriet Walter as Lady M, was being able to do the piece in the Swan Theatre rather than on the Stratford main stage "where you have to put a set and that means you've already made a statement". At the Swan, he argues, you don't have to go into rehearsal with the discovery process already cramped by a predetermined design. Its naturally stripped-back look allows the language to create the world and gives the audience the creepy sense of being enfolded in the Macbeth household.

There have been some very bizarre stagings of the play in recent years - supremely, the Mark Rylance production that transferred the proceedings to a Hare Krishna sect and gave us the thrill of seeing Jane Horrocks's Lady M peeing for real over the floor. Doran thinks the problem is that directors are often so anxious to create a plausible context for the supernatural that they neglect other vital considerations, such as conjuring up a world where kingship matters. As for the equivocal non-determinist function of the witches, he explains the nightmare nexus of temptation, superstition and ambition with a showbiz analogy. "Somebody stops you in the street and says `you know that film you've just done, well you're going to win the Oscar'. And you go home and say `I've just been told I'm going to win the Oscar'. Then there's a telephone call in which you're told `by the way, you've been nominated for the Oscar'. Do you fly out to Los Angeles and do all the corrupting hype or just stay and let the Oscar happen?"

Rehearsals, he reveals, began with the actors exploring their own deepest fears. "That really located the starting point of the play in ourselves," he says. In Woza Shakespeare!, their very readable, jointly written account of the Titus Andronicus they created at the Market Theatre, Johannesburg, Sher tells an anecdote about how Doran unnerved him one evening when the production was playing at the National Theatre. Doran came into his dressing room to announce, queasily, that both Adrian Noble and Terry Hands - past and present RSC artistic directors - were seated in the audience. The ensuing conversation then ran: "Thanks a bunch. Why the hell did you have to tell me?" "Why should I suffer on my own?" "Because you don't have to go out and do it."

Doran laughs when I say there are shades here of Macbeth before the murder of Duncan (Lady M as back-seat driver), but he looks relieved when I add that, unlike Lady M who is ambitious only for hubby, Doran's productions aren't distorted by favouritism. He can integrate the naturally dominant Sher into the proceedings more successfully than many other directors. He reckons he's discussed Macbeth as much, if not more, with Harriet Walter whose strengths make the play's earlier sweep "a genuine double act". He grins: "Tony sometimes blames me for neglecting him."

I met Doran on the day that the negative reviews began to hail down on the Nigel Hawthorne/ Yukio Ninagawa King Lear. He makes a nervous allusion to them and says: "The funny thing is that when we began working on The Winter's Tale, Antony and Cleopatra opened at the National [the notorious disaster with Alan Rickman and Helen Mirren] and there was a similar sense, not of Schadenfreude, but of just how difficult these plays are to do. And with both those productions, you thought `how can they fail?'"

The word "fail" tolls ominously in any discussion of Macbeth. "If we should fail?" cries the hero. To which the wifely reply is: "We fail!/ But screw your courage to the sticking-place/ And we'll not fail." But, then again, killing a consecrated monarch in cold blood is a doddle by comparison with achieving a successful production of this hexed masterpiece.

At the Swan, Stratford-upon-Avon (01789 403403) to 22 Jan; Brighton Theatre Royal (01273 328488) 25-29 Jan; Bath Theatre Royal (01225 448844) 1-5 Feb

Arts and Entertainment
The starship in Star Wars: The Force Awakens
filmsThe first glimpse of JJ Abrams' new film has been released online
News
The Speaker of the House will takes his turn as guest editor of the Today programme
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Jude Law in Black Sea

film

In Black Seahe is as audiences have never seen him before

Arts and Entertainment
Johnny Depp no longer cares if people criticise his movie flops

film

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Scare tactics: Michael Palin and Jodie Comer in ‘Remember Me’

TVReview: Remember Me, BBC1
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Will there ever be a Friends reunion?
TV
News
Harry Hill plays the Professor in the show and hopes it will help boost interest in science among young people
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A Van Gogh sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month
art
Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
It would 'mean a great deal' to Angelina Jolie if she won the best director Oscar for Unbroken

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

Arts and Entertainment
Winnie the Pooh has been branded 'inappropriate' in Poland
books
Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

music
Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

music
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

    Christmas Appeal

    Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
    Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

    Is it always right to try to prolong life?

    Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

    What does it take for women to get to the top?

    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
    Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

    Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

    Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
    French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

    French chefs campaign against bullying

    A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

    Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
    Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

    Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

    Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
    Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

    Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

    Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
    Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

    Paul Scholes column

    I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
    Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game