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INTERVIEW: Greg Doran on the RSC's 2017 Rome season

Cleopatra-to-be Josette Simon with publicity images for Titus Andronicus and Coriolanus
Cleopatra-to-be Josette Simon with publicity images for Titus Andronicus and Coriolanus

After the RSC announced its spring/summer 2017 season earlier this week, artistic director Greg Doran chatted to Gill Sutherland about the exciting new Rome-themed programme

RSC Artistic Director Greg Doran
RSC Artistic Director Greg Doran

How and why did you decide upon the ‘Rome season’ for spring/summer 2017?

In terms of working our way through the canon, I’d always planned on putting the Rome plays together — like Trevor Nunn did in 1972. There’s a real conversation between the plays. There’s a reason why Shakespeare starts to look at Rome for the source of his material rather than British history, which he had done up until that point. His greatest source material is Ovid’s Metamorphoses. I have always loved Ovid and always wanted to do something on him, and I noticed he died in AD17 — so, 2,000 years ago. Yes we’ve got centenaryitis!

So 2,000 years on you want to reintroduce the audience to Ovid?

There is a serious reason to celebrate him. His stories provided Shakespeare ‘the landscape of his imagination’, but I’ve noticed over the years that actors and audiences have less understanding and access to those stories. When that happens there comes a point where directors start cutting out these classical allusions because they don’t mean anything to anyone. But surely the better thing for the RSC would be to find ways of reinvigorating and retelling his stories.

So we’ve been working with other companies, poets and storytellers to think of ways of reengaging with Ovid. We’ve chosen ten of those stories over the year we can relook at; which includes my revival of the Venus & Adonis puppet masque [from 2004].

These are fraught political times — Brexit, the American election, Syria — will the staging of these Rome plays capitalise on that?

I think whenever you do a Shakespeare play he acts like a magnet that attracts all the iron filings that are going on in the world — so you can’t not, in a way, reference current events. In July, for instance, we did an event at Downing Street a week after Brexit when Gove had stabbed Boris in the back and there were just so many references to Julius Caesar!

These plays are not exactly fluffy — how are you going to draw an audience in that are less entertained by the heavyweight stuff?

There’s a balance over the whole programme. Opposite what’s on at the main house, we are looking at Plautus’ comedies — Shakespeare of course looked at his play The Menaechmi as a source for The Comedy of Errors. I thought it would be great to go back to them because they are so little known, except tangentially via Up Pompeii! or A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.

So Phil Porter [The Christmas Truce writer] has done an amazingly delightful adaptation, Vice Versa, inspired by Plautus. It’s hysterically funny, and Janice Honeyman is directing, and she’s one of the funniest people I know.

We’re also doing Salomé at the Swan. I wanted to find some way of marking 50 years since the decriminalisation of homosexuality in England and Wales, and as Oscar Wilde [who wrote the play] was in Reading Gaol when it was first performed [in 1896] it seemed a good moment. Then Dido is really the last of the major Marlowe plays — it’s taken us 30 years to get through the canon. It is based on Virgil’s Aeneid, so again great to look at that in context.

Angus Jackson, who recently directed Don Quixote and Oppenheimer, is the Rome season director, has it been easy to hand over the reins?

Absolutely! I’ve been longing to do it! We knew 2016 was going to be huge and busy and that we’d damned better know what we were doing in 2017. I have done all those Roman plays and once you’ve done a Shakespeare play you always establish a special relationship with it, and I didn’t want to find myself going back.

Angus is a brilliant director. One of the important jobs as artistic director is to make sure that when I come to the end of my regime, as it were, there are other people chomping at the bit to take over the reins. That’s not imminent is it? I don’t think so! In my head most of the RSC artistic directors tend to do about ten years — so I’ve got a few more years in me yet before I’m pushed out! And I’ve still got the rest of the canon to do…

The RSC is sometimes accused of not being part of the local community. You’ve done a lot recently to change some of those perceptions — like the local actors and schoolchildren taking part in Dream 16. Is that ethos carrying on in 2017?

Most definitely. We are planning a ‘promenade performance’ of Julius Caesar, involving 14 local schools and Stratford College. It’s a chance for kids to get really inspired and engaged — not just with Shakespeare but with their own inner confidence.

What are you particularly looking forward to?

Josette Simon coming back as Cleopatra, she’s a great talent. She first joined the company in 1982, playing Iris to Helen Mirren’s Cleopatra, so it’s great she’s back, and long overdue that we have a black actor playing Cleopatra. I’m also really looking forward to The Hypocrite – it’s so funny and playwright Richard Bean is a genius storyteller.

So any hints as to other big name actors?

It’s bubbling along nicely! I’m afraid I will have to leave that to Angus.

You’ve also got the premiere of Snow in Midsummer, the first in your project translating Chinese classics for the British stage. Why should we go and see it?

Quite simply it’s a really great play. Like The Orphan of Zhao [the 13th century Chinese story adapted and performed by the RSC in 212], which was shatteringly moving, Snow in Midsummer is an amazing story about social injustice. Writer Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig has breathed new life into this wonderful classic.

See details of the upcoming season at www.rsc.org.uk

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