Dominic Cooke: 'Where are the brilliant films about life in London?'

The Royal Court artistic director is going out on a high. But Dominic Cooke isn't swapping Sloane Square for the South Bank, he tells Fiona Mountford

One shouldn't draw conclusions about a person from the choice of cushion on his office sofa, but in the case of Dominic Cooke I'm tempted. A colourful piece of embroidery with a picture of a caravan on it, the unexpected tagline reads "Fuck the New Estate". It is a line from Jerusalem, the Jez Butterworth/Mark Rylance mega-hit that is just one of the many successes of Cooke's regime at the Royal Court. This most affable of artistic directors might have a cushion-cosy manner, but he hasn't negotiated six years at the helm of this theatre without having veins of steel.

Cooke's tenure at Britain's premier new-writing venue started with a memorable press conference in which he vowed to "explore what it means to be middle-class, what it means to have power". ("The middle class are the decisive class in any social change. It wasn't me that said it, Marx said it," he adds now, somewhat weary of the topic.) Since then, the hits have kept on coming. Jerusalem, Enron, Posh, Clybourne Park, That Face, Sucker Punch, Spur of the Moment, recent Evening Standard Theatre Awards winner Constellations. Why, when things are going so splendidly, is he stepping down next spring, when it's traditional for artistic directors to serve a 10-year stint?

"If you add it all up in terms of how long I've been in the management of theatres it'll be 13 years, because [before the current job] I was here for four [as associate director under Ian Rickson] and at the RSC for four [again as associate director]. I'm really lucky and I can't complain, but it is quite exhausting.

"The Court is in a strange place in terms of the scale of theatres in London. We're producing about the same number of productions per year as the National and they're on £16m of annual subsidy and we're on £2.4m."

Goodness, I say, I didn't realise there was such a discrepancy.

"We've only got about 490 seats across both spaces and we keep our ticket prices very low [top price £28, against the National's £47]. They've got two 1,200-seat spaces plus the Cottesloe. They've got a massive financial yield and therefore a huge staff, about 700 to our 70. So everyone here is very stretched and it does take its toll. I don't think I'd be able to sustain it much beyond now."

So what about harnessing those ample resources on the South Bank by taking over at the National when Nicholas Hytner leaves? Many thought this was both Cooke's aim and destiny, with an ebullient production of The Comedy of Errors there last Christmas his calling card. He's adamant this is not the plan. "One of the things that's very hard when you're running a building is directing and having enough time to prepare. This is my preparation week and I've been in [the office] three days. It's very hard to immerse yourself when you're thinking about the whole picture, so that's what I want to focus on."

The (lack of) preparation was for Cooke's forthcoming production of In the Republic of Happiness, Martin Crimp's excoriating free-form satire on our modern-day cult of the individual. Part of the reason it appealed was for its "formal innovation"; a sadness of Cooke's is that he has been unable to present more such experimental writing at the Court. "There's a correlation between rough times financially and formal conservatism. I think there's a desire to address the emergency head on," he says.

Of his proudest achievements the 46-year-old Cooke flags up Jerusalem ("When things are as successful as that you think it was written in the stars, but it wasn't. I was given a half-finished play [commissioned by Rickson] which evolved"), and the work he's done in bringing on a new generation of writers − among them Mike Bartlett, Bola Agbaje and Polly Stenham. Stenham has nothing but praise for a "fair and straightforward" man who "never patronised me, ever. I was very young, so it would have been easy to do that".

Cooke is also pleased to be leaving the venue "in good shape financially". The omnipresent spectre of funding hovers over all venues, but the Court was fortunate that its recent trio of box-office big hitters, Jerusalem, Enron and Clybourne Park, arrived just in time to plug the funding gap left as private sponsors withdrew when the economic downturn hit hard. "I think the future of public funding is looking very worrying," he says. "We have gone backwards in the arguments, having to make an argument for the most basic idea of why it's necessary to fund the arts. It's depressing."

Some have even knocked Cooke for being too successful at the Royal Court, for programming shows that are comfortably mainstream. Wryly, he compares such critics to school friends who reject their favourite band as soon as they hit the big time. "There's a snobbery based on the notion that if I'm in the same club as the general public I'm not in an elite group." So what advice would he give to his successor, Vicky Featherstone? "Do it your own way," he replies earnestly, before guffawing.

If he really doesn't want the National – and I still wouldn't bet against it – what's next? After time "decompressing and taking stock", he admits that he's tempted by film (his father was a film editor). Given that he has so successfully brought the middle classes to our stages, how about tackling our pathological fear of putting them on our cinema screens? "Where are the brilliant small-scale films about life in London? There are so many stories and intersections of culture. The street I live on in Acton [west London] is fascinating, such a mixture, and no one's picking up on this."

With our time together drawing to a close, I ask a final, simple question: what matters? Tired though he visibly is, Cooke's answer is fiery. "What really matters is where the fuck are we headed globally? I mean, my partner's Greek and grew up in Athens and seeing what's unfolding there is terrifying."

After taking advice about whether or not it would be compromising for him to stage The Pride, the debut play of his partner, actor-turned-playwright Alexi Kaye Campbell at the Court, he did and it went on to win awards and be the most internationally produced of all work during his tenure. "I thought, oh sod it, who cares what people think? People will think things of me anyway." It's a line good enough for a cushion cover.

'In the Republic of Happiness' runs until 19 Jan (020-7565 5000, royalcourttheatre.com)

Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

classical
Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
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.

    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine