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)

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