The new Shakespeareans

Every generation has one: a stand-out crowd of directors who, for better or for worse, will define our experience of the Bard on stage. The future, says Daniel Rosenthal, has infinite variety...
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The Independent Culture

Good Shakespeare directors, like the sorrows in Hamlet, tend to "come not single spies/ But in battalions", and this summer audiences are watching the advent of a new wave. In London and Stratford-upon-Avon, the bulk of the Shakespearean repertory for May to September is in the hands of thirtysomethings who are still better known within their profession than amongst the theatregoing public. Tim Carroll, Dominic Cooke, David Farr, Rachel Kavanaugh, Edward Hall, Sean Holmes and Greg Thompson are aged 32 to 37 and come from diverse backgrounds - which will please anyone who still believes that British theatre is dominated by an Oxbridge-educated elite (only Farr, a Cambridge graduate, and Carroll, who was at Oxford, fit the stereotype). Their approaches to Shakespeare take in the spare orthodoxy of Carroll's "original practices" Richard II at the Globe, the furious energy of Hall's all-male Propeller company (responsible for last year's Henry VI adaptation, Rose Rage) and the samurai concept chosen for Farr's RSC Coriolanus. Farr is now joint artistic director of the Bristol Old Vic and probably the best-known of this septet, thanks to his own playwrighting and his spell running the Gate theatre in London's Notting Hill.

When you look at this group's narrow age-range and varied CVs (new writing, opera and revivals of Ayckbourn, Bennett, Hare et al ensure that they need not live by Bard alone), they mirror a more famous group, now aged between 44 and 52, who have been a major force in British Shakespeare production over the past 15 years: Michael Attenborough, Michael Boyd, Declan Donnellan, Greg Doran, Nicholas Hytner, Adrian Noble, Steven Pimlott and Deborah Warner.

That the emerging generation's work is competing for our attention and cash not only against Doran's RSC Taming of the Shrew and Hytner's Henry V at the National, but also against the Globe's Richard III (staged by Barry Kyle, an RSC stalwart in the late 1970s) and 72-year-old Sir Peter Hall's As You Like It at Bath Theatre Royal, illustrates the enviable longevity of a career in which, unlike actors, directors may never be too old for Romeo or Rosalind, Hamlet or Cleopatra.

Factor in the size and infinite variety of the Shakespearean canon, which often leads directors to revisit a play several times, and it's reasonable to predict that if Carroll, Farr and co continue to impress the critics and put sufficient bums on seats (or feet on the Globe's yard) they will be shaping our live experience of the tragedies, histories and comedies for decades to come.

Should that prospect make you wonder when the next Shakespearean wave will start to roll in, there may be a clue in Greenwich Park from late July, where Matt Peover directs Hamlet. He is 24.

Master of The Globe

Tim Carroll, 37

Current productions: Richard II (and Dido, Queen of Carthage)

What a difference a year makes. In June 2001, Carroll's abstract, modern-dress Macbeth at the Globe attracted reviews that would make most people pack up their pens and join the circus: one outraged audience member wrote, "You've betrayed Shakespeare and the Globe and you should rot." But Carroll was not so easily deterred. In spring 2002, his Twelfth Night, a hilarious, graceful, all-male production with Mark Rylance as Olivia, earned raves and brought him an Olivier Award nomination for Best Director (the Globe's first in this category). He has followed that up with an all-male production of Richard II that's urgent, lucid and richly detailed.

You can measure Carroll's growing confidence in his ardent defence of his Macbeth as "the best thing I've ever done. Because by going down a completely abstract, psychological route it avoided all the ersatz fear, violence and machismo which always make Macbeth profoundly boring for me in the theatre." He worked for Michael Bogdanov and Michael Pennington's English Shakespeare Company in the mid-1990s, and they taught him that "you can be as conceptually wild as you like with Shakespeare and still maintain absolute rigour with the text." It was the textual precision espoused by John Barton in his Channel 4 series Playing Shakespeare that first pushed Carroll towards directing, and he staged Shakespeare "obsessively" while reading classics at Oxford. He's particularly partial to the Globe, he says, because "you feel you're at the centre of something that people come to with enthusiasm, rather than from duty or to tick their culture box for the year."

The Latecomer

Dominic Cooke, 37

Current production: Cymbeline

For a man who's recently been made an associate director at the RSC, Cooke has staged much less Shakespeare than you'd expect - none at all, to be precise.

After a couple of years running his own company ("All I really learned was how to do VAT returns"), he had a "fabulous" apprenticeship in Stratford, assisting David Thacker and Peter Hall from 1992-94, and then embarked on a freelance regional career, "desperate" for Shakespeare assignments. "But the trouble was that for most theatres, Shakespeare are the big shows, so you can't afford to do many of them. The artistic director gets first choice and I never got to do one."

His promotion at the RSC can therefore be considered an overwhelming vote of confidence from company boss Michael Boyd who was presumably inspired by Cooke's work on new writing at the Royal Court (Plasticine, The People are Friendly and Fucking Games) and on The Malcontent in last year's RSC Jacobethan season. "It helps that Michael and I have quite similar taste in theatre and both have strong European influences," says Cooke. "We've been talking a lot about finding new ways of doing Shakespeare's plays that will work for an audience today. Because it's very, very easy to be complacent." With his belated Shakespeare debut, Cymbeline, he will follow a habitual rule: "I never think about the audience in general terms; I always direct for the most intelligent person out there. If there's passionate commitment behind a piece of work, and some competence to go with it, people will respond."

The Writer's Servant

Sean Holmes, 33

Current productions: Measure for Measure and Richard III

He knows that it has happened "more by luck than judgment", but Holmes reckons his first decade in theatre has served as an ideal, three-step training programme for his current RSC productions - an austere, 1930s vision of Measure for Measure and the forthcoming Richard III, starring Henry Goodman, which will, he promises, be "more self-consciously theatrical".

After a Text and Performance MA at King's College London and a stint assisting Max Stafford-Clark, he joined the RSC as an assistant director in 1995 and found that "spending a lot of time in rehearsal working on classical text demystifies it." Step two came in 2000 when he directed a National Theatre Education tour of As You Like It. "We were taking Shakespeare to kids aged 14 to 16, the same age as the ones who sit in the balcony for 'proper' productions at Stratford. So I thought, 'We'll do a proper production, too. We won't apologise for the verse or patronise.' It worked and I've found that a very useful way to approach Shakespeare anywhere." Step three came with Oxford Stage Company, for whom Holmes has staged excellent touring revivals of Trevor Griffiths' Comedians and David Storey's The Contractor. "I've been very lucky to work with really good living writers like Trevor and David," he says, "because when you have them in rehearsal you realise that they're the genuine theatre artists, and that my job is to make their ideas three-dimensional, not to show what a clever director I am. The same applies with Shakespeare."

Queen of Comedy

Rachel Kavanaugh, 33

Current productions: The Merry Wives of Windsor and The Two Gentlemen of Verona

It's not only actors who risk becoming typecast. Kavanaugh has staged eight Shakespeare plays and the score currently reads: Tragedies 1, Comedies 7. "A lot of that has to do with my having done so much work at Regent's Park," she explains, "because it's the comedies that seem to thrive in that 1,200-seat, open-air environment. But I'd love someone to give me the chance to prove that I can do the other plays." Whether in the sprightly 1940s setting she chose for The Merry Wives... or the 18th-century backdrop of her open air Two Gentlemen..., her prime interest "is in telling the story through the language. So when it comes to embellishing the action through design and physical 'business', I'm quite rigorous: everything must come out of the story. I was very frustrated as a teenager seeing Shakespeare productions and not understanding them. I knew that I wasn't stupid, but there was too much stuff going on around the story. I'm determined not to do that." She's been devoted to the Bard since her gap year, when she was a gofer for Kenneth Branagh's Renaissance Theatre Company. But she also has some impressive non-Shakespeare credits, including co-directing this spring's revival of the David Hare trilogy at Birmingham Rep. "It's better for me artistically and career-wise to do a balance of modern plays and Shakespeare. But Shakespeare is what I like doing best."

The Outdoor Expert

Greg Thompson, 35

Current production: As You Like It

Since Thompson directed what he describes as a "fun but not particularly subtle" A Midsummer Night's Dream in the gardens of New College Oxford in 1994, Shakespeare has taken up a huge amount of his life. His AandBC company found a niche with open-air productions on the secluded north lawn of Lincoln's Inn Fields, staging Twelfth Night, As You Like It, Pericles, The Comedy of Errors, The Taming of the Shrew and The Tempest. Comedies dominated, "because we've never had subsidy and have only ever survived on box-office. So you choose whatever shows work well in garden settings - and the tragedies tend not to." His Edwardian-dress Tempest, with Prospero's island represented by the pool of light cast by a lamp-filled helium balloon, took Thompson and his cast to Poland, Romania, Russia, Hong Kong and Trinidad, and emphasised his commitment to "the mystical side of theatre: actors share an experience with the audience, who are more like themselves by the end of the evening, their burdens temporarily lifted."

It was seeing The Tempest that persuaded Michael Boyd to give Thompson his RSC debut with As You Like It, a production which brought mixed reviews: "Some of the critics' comments were very useful in helping me to clarify Rosalind's emotional journey as the run progressed. With others, you wondered 'What exactly is your job?' But the people who really matter to me are the audience."

'Richard II': Shakespeare's Globe, London SE1 (020 7401 9919), to 26 & 27 Sept; 'The Two Gentlemen of Verona': Open Air Theatre, London NW1 (020 7486 2431), to 4 Sept; 'The Merry Wives of Windsor' and 'Coriolanus': Old Vic, London SE1 (020 7928 7616), to 23 Aug; 'Measure for Measure' and 'As You Like It': RST and Swan, Stratford-upon-Avon (01789 493403), in rep to 4 & 8 Nov; 'Richard III': RST, previews from 11 July; 'Cymbeline': Swan, previews from 30 July; 'A Midsummer Night's Dream': Comedy Theatre, London SW1 (020 7369 1731), from 7 Aug; 'Hamlet': Old Royal Observatory Garden, Greenwich Park, London SE10 (020 8858 7755), 26 July to 10 Aug