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
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Pratt stars in Guardians of the Galaxy
film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

    The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

    What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
    Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

    Finding the names for America’s shame

    The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
    Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

    Inside a church for Born Again Christians

    As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
    Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

    Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

    Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
    Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

    Incredible survival story of David Tovey

    Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
    10 best reed diffusers

    Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

    Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

    Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

    There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
    Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

    Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

    It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little