INTERVIEW: Gregory Doran on The Boy in the Dress and the RSC Winter Season

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RSC artistic director Gregory Doran. Inset, David Walliams and Robbie Williams

Last week, the RSC announced what’s ahead for the 2019 Winter Season. Here Artistic Director Gregory Doran talks to Gill Sutherland about Brexit, boys in dresses and hanging out with Robbie Williams. See this week’s Stratford Herald for the second part of this interivew

Before we chat about 2019, perhaps you could reflect on 2018 at the RSC, what have been your highlights?

It’s been an extraordinary year all round really. I loved Timon of Athens, for me that was a real highlight; and working on Troilus and Cressida. Because of the way Shakespeare addressed the divisions in the world, you don’t have to make these plays relevant, they just are. They are about now, in ways that are extraordinarily surprising.

Neither play is among Shakespeare’s most popular, but they gain in resonance by doing them. We do them as a company with an open heart and aware of the context in which we are doing them.

I think actually, in the same way, the revival of A Christmas Carol was even better than it was last time. It also caught the same sense: of trying to find optimism in the surrounding dismay — it has a real social relevance.

I was really pleased with the whole of the season and indeed the summer season too, so it’s been a great year.

Speaking of relevance, you are doing the canon through in a certain order, but when major political events take place is there a temptation to think ‘Damn, it would be good to revisit that’, or is it really just as the cards land?

Not quite as the cards land, and obviously as we get further through the canon there are fewer plays coming up. Having said that, I am about to direct Measure for Measure and I couldn’t wish for a more contemporary play: young woman finds herself compromised by a man in authority. She says ‘I’ll expose you’; he says ‘who will believe you?’; and she says ‘to whom shall I complain?’, #metoo! There’s always a relevance within what we are doing. And I’m glad we’re starting a new season this year with As You Like It and indeed Taming of the Shrew — you kind of want a bit of relief from Brexit and the divisions within the country it’s stirred up.

There is a common opinion that Shakespeare would have been very anti-Brexit, have you got any thoughts about that?

[Laughing] No, I haven’t really. I would be damned if I say either way! I think his perspective is always surprising and always leftfield. He’s never trying to preach or speak for anybody — more individuals caught up in the centre of something.

Shakespeare would understand the sense of division very powerfully, and I think that would engage him, but I don’t think he would have a view whether we were better in or out of Europe, because of course Europe was in itself in division in those days between Catholic and Protestant — as was England itself, and he certainly knew about that.

That brings us on nicely to King John…

King John is a very European play; it’s about who has the rights to the throne and divisions between England and France. Almost more relevantly King John has an analysis of the political process. I remember when I did it I just loved the play — at that time, in 2001, Pandolf [the Pope’s troublemaker] could have been modelled on Peter Mandelson [the then Labour cabinet minister] who would come in and say ‘black is white’ and then the next moment ‘no white is black’. It wittily captures that sense of how political rhetoric is used.

It’s being directed by Eleanor Rhode, who is new to the RSC, do you know what her vision for the play is?

I don’t know is the answer to that but I’m what she will do is create a production that is a mirror to what is going on in the world, simply because you can’t but not! What I hope is that we will see the play as sophisticated as it is. We used to think of King John as not very well written play. When I did it it was only the fourth time the RSC had done, and now this will be the fourth production this century. When John Barton did it in 1974, because of John’s rewrite, it was hailed as the best new play of the year! Now we see it as a much more sophisticated play, it is much more subtle and flexible.

On to The Boy in the Dress — at last we can talk about it [the Herald broke the news that it was being performed at the RSC early in 2018]…

You rumbled us!

Well it’s now an entry in Wikipedia, so the cat is definitely out of the bag!

Actually David Walliams outed us himself — he let the news out.

Well he’s not one to keep things to himself.

So I can now officially announce we ARE doing The Boy in the Dress!

That’s really exciting. Tell us the timeline of how it all came about.

Back in 2011 Mark Ravenhill suggested The Boy in the Dress to me – I had some reservations as it’s a children’s book, but I read it and loved it, it’s a classic with great characters.

Mark Ravenhill has adapted Walliams’ book for the RSC stage. He’s written some very explicit, adult-subject plays, and perhaps is not exactly thought of as a family entertainer, what has he brought out in the story?

The book is a celebration of difference. It has a really strong and simple message about difference. It’s not about transitioning or transgendering or about being gay, it’s just about being different. Perhaps you like football and fashion — it’s a celebration of difference and individuality and that’s what I loved about it.

In the book David Walliams captures that very carefully – and weirdly for me the television film made for the BBC didn’t get it. There’s something very strong and sweet about the story — it’s a very connected piece of work and it very much captures a zeitgeist.

[Songwriter and composer] Guy Chambers came on board, and then rather gloriously Guy phoned me up one day and said ‘Hi Greg you know I do a lot of work with my mate Robbie Williams, I was telling him about Boy in the Dress and he asked me to ask you if it was possible for him to be involved in the writing?’ So rather wonderfully he came on board.

To begin with I was rather nervous because I thought does this mean that we’re never actually going to get the musical done? And indeed at the end of summer 2015 we had intended to do it for Christmas 2018, but I decided that I had a great script and great lyrics but hadn’t heard any of the music yet, so we decided that we should just properly wait and see, after all it had taken seven years… So that’s why we decided to revive A Christmas Carol, which I must say was very successful thank goodness — you couldn’t get a ticket for it.

Then weirdly about six weeks after we decided to delay it somebody handed me a CD of Robbie Williams singing all the songs — which was extraordinary. Listening to them, they are phenomenal, they are fully realised and really capture the spirit of the book; which I think is a lot to do with Robbie Williams’ own character — in a way he is the Boy in the Dress — he’s a grown up kid, he connected with what being that teenager was like.

Had you been familiar with any of Robbie’s work before – had you seen him in concert?

Personally not.

I hadn’t put you down as a big Take That fan!

We’ve promised each other that he’s going to see a Shakespeare play and I’m going to go to a rock concert AND a football match. It will be a voyage of discovery for both of us.

Robbie is of course a big Port Vale fan, I love the vision of the two of you standing in the stands with your matching scarves on…

[Laughs] Yes, that’s right.

How is the music being incorporated in the show?

It’s an absolutely classic musical structure that follows the story as laid out in the children’s novel.

The two boys in the story, Dennis and Darvesh, have to be 12 years old (the rest of the cast are adults) and the music has been written for them, and the first number that Dennis has is a real heartbreaker – a tearjerking number about the fact that his mum has left and he feels lonely and different, and it just gets right to the heart of what it’s about. I’m very excited about that.

Is David Walliams still involved in the devising process?

He’s still involved, he’s been with us at various readings and he loves the script and what Mark has done with it. He’s very excited about the music.

David has performed in his own stories before, is there any question of him taking to the RSC stage for this?

No, there’s not. I think it would be quite a big commitment for him.

The book has the look and feel not dissimilar to Roald Dahl, so there’s the Matilda factor — are you trying to emulate that in any way?

I’ve not been thinking about Matilda, clearly there’s some things in common there, but in a way you have to think about what’s best for this particular book, it is very different to Matilda, which is very clearly a primary school whereas this is senior school. It is very interesting that each stage of school life has different aspects.

What are you thinking of its future, obviously it’s quite a big budget number…

Yes, Christmas shows tend to cost a bit more than other shows during the year. We are really just making the best family musical of this book that we can. Obviously secretly we would like it to be successful but what you can’t do is try and follow the same pattern — you’ve just get down to doing the best job you can, so it won’t be anything like Matilda — it’s got a different perspective and voice, and it’s certainly been a great experience so far.

What stage is it currently at?

We’ve had a lot of workshops based on the design, which Rob Jones is doing; and we’ve been working with choreographer Aletta Collins, who is absolutely fantastic and joyful and the workshops for that have been brilliant.

Next we have another workshop at Easter and for that what we’ll do is basically take the whole thing through: the script and the songs and make sure it’s playing to length and the way themes thread through the piece are really working and we’ve got the whole shape, so that when we start rehearsals we know exactly what we are doing and can put the whole together. Obviously with there being young people in it there’s a time pressure because you have got to rehearse different teams — there will be three or possibly four teams of young actors playing Dennis and Darvesh. Casting will take place in spring, then rehearsals begin in August.

Well it sounds magical — can’t wait to see it.

We’re hoping all four cylinders will be firing!

Public booking for the Winter Season opens 18th March. See www.rsc.org.uk