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Fearless 30-year-old writer-director Robert Icke is the great hope of British theatre, reinvigorating our stages with his uncompromising West End hits ‘1984’ and ‘Oresteia’. His next project is an adaptation of Schiller’s ‘Mary Stuart’ for the hip Almeida Theatre. Lia Williams and Juliet Stevenson toss a coin each night to determine who plays Elizabeth I and who plays Mary, Queen of Scots.
Why this play? Why the alternating leads?
‘The actual reason is that Juliet Stevenson rang me at about 3 o’clock in the afternoon on the very last day of ‘Oresteia’ and said, “oh my god have I missed it?” And I said “no, come tonight and have my ticket”. I went backstage afterwards and there was all this noise coming from Lia’s dressing room and the two of them – who had never met – were dancing around like kids and I was thinking: the two of them together, that would be exciting. What can we do?’
Your CV is a sort of mad mix of aggressively new stuff and reinvented classics…
‘When I first got to Cambridge I wrote to [director] Michael Grandage: “I only went to this university because you went here and the theatre’s terrible”. I’d write to Michael Grandage to ask what to do about anything, he’d sort out Brexit. But he said “just remember everything you do should be different from the last thing you did” and I’ve retained that as a sort of modus operandi.’
You’re seen as quite anti-establishment – how was directing Sir David Hare‘s current National Theatre show ‘The Red Barn’?
‘Sir David was brilliant – every time Sir David arrived for work he said [posh voice] “I hope you’re not viscerally reimagining me!”.’
Rob Icke, Juliet Stevenson and Lia Williams © Miles Aldridge
‘Finding really great actors is rare’
You tend to keep a lot of the same actors from show to show…
‘Finding really great actors is rare, actors who in a small room like the Almeida can really generate the electricity to make you gasp and aren’t just a guy doing a funny voice. So often you just get a guy doing a funny voice. I think part of the problem is the breakdown of criticism. Directors are very used to getting this heavy criticism and reference to their past work, and actors aren’t.’
Do you see what you do as reinventing classics?
‘No, just cutting away the baggage. There’s just such an assumed way of doing them in this country: for Chekhov it’s posh English actors correctly pronouncing Russian names even though they’re talking in posh English, wearing linen suits with fucking stupid props like a samovar – which nobody knows what it is or what it’s for. The British theatre has turned a genuinely radical artist into something deadly boring, it’s vandalism.’
You’ve had a few actual commercial hits now – does that make you braver?
‘I did this interview a while back when I became the poster child of walking out of the theatre. It was a stupid thing to say. But I’m kind of okay if having a limited amount of profile means I can say it’s alright to be more exciting more often. Because if you look at opera and you look at most ballet and you think, these are art-forms that have become irrelevant. You look at what’s happened at Shakespeare’s Globe and you think “it’s not impossible that theatre will die out”. Anyone who pretends we’re in a golden age just because a lot of people are going to “Harry Potter” is naïve.’
What can you say about your next Almeida project, ‘Hamlet’ starring Andrew Scott?
‘It’s one of the ones I’ve been thinking about for a long time. I’m doing it because of Andrew, he came to see one of my plays and sent me a message saying would I like to have coffee. We got along very well and he said “what should we do?” and I said are you interested in “Hamlet”? He’s only ever done weirdo stage projects, because he’s brilliant and oppositional. He’s never even done professional Shakespeare before. And that’s amazing.’