Whatever you do, don't ask Ian Rickson if Stephen Daldry's is a hard act to follow. Sarah Hemming meets the new man in charge at the Royal Court

When the Royal Court announced last August that Ian Rickson was to be its new artistic director, a ripple of polite surprise ran round the arts media pond. One of the most significant jobs in English theatre had been given to a director who was "unknown" or "little-known", depending on which paper you read. Rickson now responds to the description with a phlegmatic shrug. "It's far more interesting for the papers to say `Man on Street Given Job' than `Safe Internal Appointment'," he says, good- naturedly.

In fact, to regulars at the theatre, his work and name were anything but unknown. As an associate director to Stephen Daldry, he helped to navigate the Court's passage through the past five years, surely one of the most exciting periods of the theatre's history. He staged some of the critical new plays, most significantly Jez Butterworth's Mojo, which he read, seized upon and steered straight on to the main stage - a daring manoeuvre with a debut script. His most recent production is The Weir, Conor McPherson's award-winning piece, which is about to reopen on the larger stage. His instinct and passion for new writing is as evident as his pride in the theatre he works for.

"I think that, where the Court is, that's where playwriting is in the country," he says. "When I arrived, there'd been six new plays downstairs, the theatre upstairs had been shut, and playwriting was in a rather depressing position in the culture. The energy was with classics and directors as auteurs. And I think that, as the Court has altered, playwriting has moved into a position of centrality in the culture. What I'm hoping is that we've really won ourselves a mandate for consolidation."

Though his statements can sound a touch New Labour, Rickson is a warm and instantly likeable person. He is not in the least pompous or affected, and he addresses questions with genuine concentration. His style is courteous but informal - he conducts the interview curled up on a sofa in his stockinged feet - and he clicks his fingers impatiently when searching for a point.

But while he is approachable and disarmingly modest, one also gets the impression that he is pretty focused. This is a man who can talk energetically about the state of theatre while eating sushi - with chopsticks - with uncanny dexterity.

He will need all his energy and determination when he takes over his new job in April. His pronouncements about the Court's role might sound grand, but they are largely true. The wave of young writing that has poured out of the theatre during Daldry's leadership has brought a fizz and excitement to new drama, reasserting its relevance.

The theatre's temporary exile in the West End, while its Sloane Square building is refurbished, has lent a buzz to the area. The theatre has worked hard and is riding high. But this is a precarious position. The very essence of its success lies in unpredictability. If audiences start to know what to expect, the theatre's programme could soon seem as stale as a season of boulevard comedies. The impetus, Rickson agrees, could vanish in a moment. But, he adds, "the thing about waves is there is always another one coming. You've got to be clever enough to work out what it is."

So what of the next wave? Can we expect more of the youthful anger that has surged through the most recent one? Rickson, pointing out that what fuels such anger is a deep-felt compassion, maintains that the Court has "a duty" to present that work. The Weir, however, has proved a complete contrast: a haunting and profoundly moving piece about loss, set in an Irish pub.

Rickson admits it was a relief not to call in the fight director for once. "In The Weir the most angry moment is a slight argument which is very quickly hushed up with a handshake," he says, laughing. "It's so hard to be general about movements... but I think there is a more personal, even spiritual, strain coming through now, which is perhaps part of the seeking time we're living in. You do want to work against preconceptions all the time. The trick is always to be as responsive as possible."

He is mindful, however, of the dangers of being overly seduced by the new. Part of his brief, he feels, is to keep faith with existing writers and provide continuity and security for them. In his first season, a new play by Sarah Kane, who wrote the notorious Blasted, will be mounted on the main stage, and he has already commissioned a third play from her. His dream for the Court, he says, is clear: to transfer "that energy that has been so potent in the theatre upstairs to the theatre downstairs".

The challenge doesn't end with the programming, however. Rickson has to step into the shoes of the charismatic Stephen Daldry, whose charm alone has been the subject of an entire newspaper feature. It must be rather like coming up behind an older brother who was captain of the rugby team. Is Daldry a hard act to follow?

"In the first interview I did I might have said something like that," says Rickson, sounding just slightly defensive. "It's become something of a cliche and something I wish I'd never said. You want things to be a hard act to follow because that makes it much harder. It would be much easier to take over something that was really rundown and spruce it up."

Rickson's strongest card when he applied for the job was his track record on stage. He seems to have a rare affinity with new writing and a talent for working with it. Every production of his has a different feel to it; you can seldom see his hand in the finished product. He seems able to get under the skin of a play and can find the moral centre and the compassion in even the toughest piece. He starts when he picks up the script.

"The first question," he says, "is `does it touch me?' I always start from an emotional basis. And then I look for the feeling of being taken into another world."

When he is rehearsing, he literally takes his cast into another world by going on field trips. This is a strategy that is more fun with some plays than others: for The Weir, he got the cast to practise drinking the exact amount of alcohol that is consumed in the play; for Joe Penhall's Pale Horse, however, he had them visit a morgue.

"Ian's approach is very holistic," says Conor McPherson, author of The Weir. "He wants the playwright present at auditions and a cast who will get on well. So the atmosphere is very good in rehearsals, and the actors always look comfortable on stage. I think he's a very secure person in himself, so he's not afraid to let things go. He's a brave director, too. He brought out a tenderness in my play that I would have been too embarrassed to point out, if I had directed it."

Rickson's ability to put one at ease and his infectious passion for the work will clearly stand him in good stead as artistic director. But there remains the personal danger, experienced by many fine directors, that running a building can steal creative energy. Rickson is determined that this won't happen to him - despite the fact that he has to raise another pounds 4m to complete the theatre's refurbishment and oversee a smooth transition back to Sloane Square.

"I really want to protect the purely creative side of the job - being in rehearsal and working with playwrights - because that's what it's about," he says. "But actually, running a building is a very creative thing. If you are in rehearsals, that is the bottom line of what the theatre is about. And bringing that energy into discussions about toilet-roll-holders is thoroughly appropriate."

`The Weir' previews from today and opens on Monday at the Royal Court Downstairs, Duke of York's, London WC2 (0171-565 5000)

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