Dominic Dromgoole: Shakespeare's rule-breaker
As artistic director of the Globe, Dominic Dromgoole is the official keeper of the Bard's flame. But don't expect him to play it by the book.
Thursday 01 May 2008
"Excuse the mess," says Dominic Dromgoole. His apology for disorder – an office strewn with the detritus of his activity as artistic director of the Globe – is uncharacteristic. Dromgoole, more typically, celebrates mess – or, as he also calls it, chaos, diversity, ragbaggery. His penchant for the loose and wild is partly philosophical, partly genetic. "There have been naughty and renegade Dromgooles throughout history – we even have a pirate in the family."
The start of Dromgoole's third season testifies to the success of his embrace of multiplicity, of plays that are large and shaggy (in both senses), productions that wear their hearts on their sometimes patchy sleeves. Income last year was up 12 per cent from the year before, and the present season's advance sales of £2m is higher than that of 2007. Fundraising for a new education centre, library, and indoor theatre is marching ahead. All this has been accomplished without government aid, whose absence Dromgoole does not regret."It's a huge advantage, actually. I find it intellectually liberating. Last year I put on two plays [Holding Fire, about the Chartist movement, and We, the People, about the drafting of the US Constitution] that were very Marxist. I don't know that that would have happened if we were dependent on an Arts Council directorate – groups like that seem to have a commonality of taste, which is inhibiting and dull."
Dromgoole, 44, signed a new contract that will keep him in charge until 2011, directing as well as producing. This year the play he has chosen to direct is Shakespeare's biggest and messiest, King Lear. Dromgoole has written, "There's an exhausted indifference to the way Shakespeare ties up his own loose ends", dispatching one character, then another with an offhand bang-you're-dead. But, he says, it's important not to convey at the beginning of the play the feeling of its end. "The world of Lear has been called a society that is poisoned. But, to begin with, it's a place that works. It's an essentially benign world, where an old man, out of good will, comes up with a scheme that's a disaster."
This unusually sympathetic view will take shape in the Lear of David Calder, whom Dromgoole says he chose for, among other things, his "feminine" quality. "He plays it gently, in a very confused, moving way."
The season also includes The Merry Wives of Windsor, which Dromgoole calls the first TV sitcom – "It's the world of the burgeoning middle class, a very enclosed world, where the action is confined to domestic shenanigans" – and the rarely performed Timon of Athens. Also on the programme are two new works. Liberty, by Glyn Maxwell, is another historical drama, this time about a French revolutionary, a man of peace, who becomes an advocate of terror. Che Walker's play, The Frontline, set in the streets of Camden Town, will be a panoramic play "in the tradition of Bartholomew Fair. There will be drug dealers, bouncers, strippers, a Somali-Ethiopian gang war. The language is very contemporary, very rude, very wild, full of electricity, with a florid, Jacobean energy." There's a shorter description, posted as a warning, in the promotional copy: "bad language". It's clear from Dromgoole's own vocabulary, in writing and speaking, that the phrase is one he finds ironic, even contradictory.
"I love profanity. I find it joyous, liberating, dynamic. A lot of my understanding of writing comes from American writing of the Fifties and Sixties – Kerouac, Ginsberg, Brautigan, Vonnegut, whom I loved when I was in my late teens – writers who were happy to link high, artistic language with the demotic and filthy. But it's not something limited to modern writing, and it's certainly true of Shakespeare. He's been sanitised and treated as if he's a safe place to hide from vulgarity. But Love's Labours Lost is one of the filthiest plays ever written."
Far from discouraging the love of dirt among young playgoers, Dromgoole sees it as a way of getting them to appreciate Shakespeare. "I can see the crowd looking for smut – they're alert to the possibility of hearing it, so they're listening very closely. So what happens is that they pay an almost forensic attention to the verse, and, as a result, get more out of it in every sense."
Although some patrons complain that they cannot make out the words, Dromgoole bluntly says: "I find the can't-hear lobby is led by elderly people whose hearing is on the decline." He concedes, however, that there is sometimes "a problem in quality", brought about by lack of training and by our anti-heroic times, in which "mumbling is seen as authenticity". The Globe, he says, tries to combat this with training of its own. "We take teaching people seriously here. We have to get them to relish the verse".
There are two groups of people who have no trouble hearing Dromgoole's own words. He scandalised and delighted readers with The Full Room, an overview of British playwriting that pulled no punches and went in for plenty of biting and kicking. David Hare was described as a vain man and a hypocrite, his plays as only apparently liberal and meant to reassure the Establishment. But, if Dromgoole's taste for mischief has lessened recently, it has hardly vanished. In Will & Me, his book about his love of Shakespeare, there is a reference to Peter Brook's "Obi-Wan faux religiosity".
And has he changed his mind about the critics, or his reactions to them? Dromgoole is noted for sending critics hate mail ("I would call them letters of outrage and fury") and confronting them with resentful remarks. He has condemned critics en masse as "shrivelled spirits" who fear the new, and last year replied to an article critical of the Globe with a letter ending in an obscenity ("I would call it a robust response").
And has he ever decided that a critic who hated one of his shows was right? "I do know what's wrong with things, but, if I obsess about that, I end up destroying everything around me. If I concentrate on what's good, it's more generative. I can be very cruel to myself about my own work – but only in the middle of the night."
'King Lear' runs in rep at Shakespeare's Globe, London SE1 (020-7401 9919) to 17 August; the current season runs to 4 October
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