‘Elephants and anarchy’ – Gregory Doran on the RSC Winter Season 2020

RSC Artistic Director Gregory Doran

A magical musical and top war stories come to the Royal Shakespeare Company for its winter 2020 season. Here artistic director Gregory Doran tells Gill Sutherland about The Wars of the Roses and The Magician’s Elephant.

The Wars of the Roses is exciting stuff! Why now, and how are you condensing the plays?Michael Boyd finished his Histories Cycle (2007/08) so brilliantly with his Henry VI plays, and did them in a different way. It’s ten years since then, so Owen Horsley, who’s directing the cycle with me, and I thought long and hard about how to approach them.
It’s an interesting one because we think that Shakespeare wrote Henry VI Part 2 first, then Part 3 and then Part 1 afterwards, as a kind of prequel. Part 1 is a completely different play. It has great characters, like Joan of Arc and Talbot, but it feels like the boys are thrashing around in the playground, and so we’ve condensed that one into a long first part.

Owen Horsley

It sounds like it’s going to be an epic watch; tell us about the adaptation.
I liked the pattern we did on Imperium – where you had an hour, break, another hour and break… so we’re going to do a two-interval break, which allows the audience to relax, and it means that we condensed the whole of Part 1 into the first part of the evening.
It must be said it was a pretty easy condense! Some Shakespeare plays are almost impossible to make any cuts – A Midsummer Night’s Dream for example – and sometimes they just yield easily. Often that’s because it reveals the presence of a collaborator I would say.
Henry VI Part 2, which in a way is the strongest of the three plays, we’re going to do in the second part of the first evening, so it takes you through Jack Cade’s Rebellion, and the arrival of Margaret is the third part of the first evening. We then condense the very end of Part 2 and Part 3 into the second evening. So it’s quite a familiar structure, it’s roughly what both John Barton and Adrian Noble did with The Plantagenets – so there’s an honourable precedent.

What is going to follow on from The Wars of the Roses?
When I became artistic director, I wanted to stage every Shakespeare play in the canon once, and anyone who has noticed which plays we’ve been pursuing over the entire cycle since we began with Richard II in 2013, will realise we are on the last lap as we get into next year. And so it will be no secret to tell you we are going to finish with All’s Well That Ends Well in 2021.

Wow, the end is nigh – exciting stuff.
I’m excited thinking about that and also how with these very early Shakespeares you have a sense of it being a bear pit – there’s a real kind of anarchy and a free sense of playing with the history, and I think there is something very exciting about seeing them altogether.

Given that the plays are so epic, tell me about the choice of the Swan.
I love the Swan. The very first Shakespeare I did in the Swan was 1996 – Henry VIII – and for me the excitement of the Swan is that it can be both epic and intimate – it can open out to be The Field of the Cloth of Gold, an epic scene, and then can close down to a chamber with just two people in it with no problem. It acts as a camera that zooms in and out, which allows for very swift storytelling.

And I understand you are reconfiguring the Swan, in what ways can it be reworked?
It’s a really interesting space. For Imperium I created a sort of forum of debate… for this it will really be entirely dependent on budget, and we’re still costing that out. The Swan is getting quite old now and it is actually in need of a bit of attention, which we are going to have to address at some point – everything from the fixing points in the roof to the upholstery on the seats.

What will be the look and feel – are we seeing traditional 15th-century wear?
No I don’t think we are. We are doing a bit of a mash up – although of course that comes with a huge health warning! On board we have designer Stephen Brimson Lewis and costume designer Hannah Clark, who did those glorious costumes for The Taming of the Shrew. So it might be that the conjunction of the costumes and the technology is what provides a fresh perspective.

Are you doing anything to pull in the post-Game of Thrones younger generation?
Of course Games of Thrones author George Martin has gone on record as saying the stories were really based on Henry VI – so there’s a kind of inevitable connection, we don’t need to stick a few dragons in, it will genuinely appeal. And maybe we have some distinct thoughts about how we stage the plays and how you experience them – although I don’t want to say just yet as it might not work! I think there are really exciting ways of taking part in this great epic.

Can you tell me anything about the casting?
We have got some exciting news, but the contracts are in process. If some of the offers that are out there are taken up then we’ve got some great RSC alumni returning.
We always have diversity in the front of our minds. Looking through these plays there’s some fantastic female characters; and when you get to Richard III I don’t think he wrote as many great women’s roles into any other play than this.

The Magician’s Elephant director Sarah Tipple – not forgetting to mention the elephant in the rehearsal room

And on that teasing note, let’s move on to The Magician’s Elephant – what can you tell me about it?
We’ve been working on it for some time. We have a list of potential Christmas shows – some big scale like The Boy in the Dress, and some that are much more chamber pieces, I guess. We thought this was the right one to follow The Boy in the Dress.
It’s a lovely story – it has a kind of magic gothicality to it and the music is just beautiful, really heartbreaking and dark. It’s a quest, and also about what it is to be young in a chilly world.
We’ve got a workshop coming up on how do you make an elephant disappear on the Royal Shakespeare Theatre stage. So that in itself is a reason to come and see it.

The RSC is keen to be on forefront digital endeavour and experimentation – are you bringing in agencies to help you disappear the elephant?
Yes, but I’m not at liberty to tell you! I can’t give away the secrets yet!

RSC Winter Season – dates

The Magician’s Elephant, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, 29th October 2020 to 17th January 2021

The Wars of the Roses Part 1 and Part 2 – Henry VI Parts 1, 2 and 3 told in two parts, Swan Theatre, 10th October 2020 to 2nd January 2021


First Encounters with Shakespeare: Twelfth Night, Swan Theatre, 24th to 26th September 2020, and touring

To find out more about what’s on at the RSC and to book tickets, click here.