Dominic Cooke: 'I like dissent'

Fresh from the RSC, Dominic Cooke is returning to the scene of some of his best work. Paul Taylor meets the Royal Court's provocative new artistic director
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Though a little pale around the gills, Dominic Cooke is coping well with a truly punishing schedule, as I discovered when I caught up with him at Stratford-upon-Avon this week. Wearing one hat, as associate director of the RSC, he is putting in long hours rehearsing cross-cast promenade productions of two of Shakespeare's late plays, Pericles and The Winter's Tale, in the specially reconfigured Swan Theatre. During every other waking moment, he is planning his first season as artistic director designate of the Royal Court, where he takes over from Ian Rickson on 1 January.

Cooke has "previous" at the Court, having been part of the team there during Stephen Daldry's regime and after. He directed a slew of premieres by authors as diverse as the American dramatist Christopher Shinn (Other People) and the Siberian Vasily Sigarev, whose hard-hitting piece Plasticine (about violence and indifference in post-Communist Russia) Cooke helped to develop under the auspices of the Court's excellent international department.

In 2003, he moved, at Michael Boyd's invitation, to be an associate director of the RSC where, in addition to directing classics (Cymbeline; a rare revival of Marston's The Malcontent, starring Antony Sher), his producing brief was to re-establish, through an annual New Writing Festival, the connection with living authors that had lapsed during Adrian Noble's tenure. If this project got off to a shaky start, by the second year it had hit its stride with plays that spoke to the times in terms of subject matter (American high-school killings, female sex-tourism, the horrors of the Mugabe regime etc) and spoke for themselves in terms of quality. The apogee of his RSC career to date was his superb production, earlier this year, of Arthur Miller's The Crucible, in which he drew from Iain Glen the performance of a lifetime.

I first met Cooke when he was deputed to show me round the beautiful, new, partly Lottery-funded refurbishment of the Court's Sloane Square venue. He struck me as very intelligent and charmingly direct and open. Increasing power has had time to corrode these qualities in the intervening years, but they still seem to be in good nick when we sit down in Stratford during a lunch break to talk about the tricky transition period from associate director of one company to artistic director of another, and about what he may be able to take with him to the Court from what he has learned at the RSC.

As an early recruit to Michael Boyd's team, Cooke was able to witness first-hand the skill and sensitivity with which the new director handled the regime-change from the Noble era. Cooke is full of praise for Boyd's "patience, the collegiate spirit, the genuine welcoming of dissent, and the creation of an atmosphere where if you say what you think, it doesn't count against you".

I suspect that history will be kinder to Ian Rickson's tenure in Sloane Square (1998-2006) when we've managed to get a proper perspective on it than it has been to Noble's legacy. All the same, most would agree that the last few years at the Court have been a time of consolidation and kept faith rather than of elating intrepidity. Cooke plans to disband the old team of associates and appoint director Sacha Wares as his new associate. But he's also mindful that Boyd wisely kept on board Gregory Doran, his main rival for the top job. So while there will be some sizeable changes (about which Cooke is understandably reticent at this stage), I think we are likely to see continuity and enhancement in some areas of the current Court.

Take the international department, run by the indispensable Elyse Dodgson, who has collaborated on many projects with Cooke. "There's going to be more airspace for that work to land on stage," he says, revealing that Dodgson is about to embark on a major tour of the Middle East in search of talent and stories, and that one long-term project is a piece about the foundation of Israel.

He will certainly transplant to Sloane Square one important thing that he learned about commissioning and development through running the RSC New Writing Festival. At his instigation, playwright Debbie Tucker Green and Sacha Wares researched and worked together on Trade, a partly devised work about female sex-tourism, which ran for 20 minutes and opened to acclaim as part of the Festival, later transferring to Soho Theatre.

Its success brought home to Cooke the benefits of that way of working. "It took away the daunting pressure that comes from the commission to write a full piece for a major company and in so doing it released a sense of play that might not otherwise have been there." The idea is to let more dramatists loose on such projects at the Royal Court and - here's where it differs from the experimentation in the National Theatre Studio - to present these works-in-progress to the public in cheap-seat nights in the Theatre Upstairs and elsewhere.

This fits in with Cooke's philosophy that too much is made of the division between the work produced by text-based writers and the theatre generated by auteur-directors. I think that we can expect more pieces at Cooke's Court that attempt to bridge that supposed gap via different methods of development.

The Monsterist movement, composed of younger dramatists who want to prove their stuff on big main stages with large casts, has his sympathy - and at the RSC he has been involved in exercises where contemporary playwrights have "come in and done movement and fight classes, voice work with Cicely Berry and workshops with rhetoricians - yes, rhetoricians still exist and are very powerful in a world where so much depends on public speaking - and had the chance to get the measure of a large house".

The Royal Court, though its stage combines the intimate and the epic, has only 400 seats, which is one of the reasons it can afford to take creative risks. "It's actually about the same size as the Swan," says the director, who has temporarily gutted this much-loved Jacobean-style Stratford theatre to create a dislocated space for his paired promenade productions of The Winter's Tale and Pericles. The concept came "from the dynamic between the public and the private in The Winter's Tale and a desire to implicate the audience in the action".

With his access to Royal Court writers, Cooke has been able to tap the wisdom of Caryl Churchill (who wrote a radio play, Pauline, based on The Winter's Tale). "Caryl said she thought that these were the works of someone who was writing in a very free way - almost by free association at times - and that there is a great sense of testing the limits of what an audience will accept." So while Cooke's productions will attend to psychology and history (they begin in the McCarthyite Fifties and move, by degrees, to today), they will also play up the creative suddenness and surprise in these tragicomedies.

In her ability to illuminate new social phenomena in dramas that are also masterpieces of formal innovation (Cloud Nine, A Number), Churchill represents an ideal for an artistic director of the Royal Court. So here she makes a nice segue between Cooke's two worlds. Asked what he takes to be the defining raison d'être of the theatre he is soon to run in Sloane Square, Cooke replies with an answer that neatly balances purposeful retrospection and the eye trained alertly on the future: "Well, since the days of its great founder George Devine in the Fifties, I suppose that its purpose is about pushing the argument forward."

'Pericles' and 'The Winter's Tale' are in rep until 6 January 2007 at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon (08706 091 110); Caryl Churchill's 'Drunk Enough to Say I Love You?' is on at the Royal Court Theatre, London SW1 (020-7565 5000) 10 November to 22 December