Regional Focus: Northampton TheatresDate: 28 March 2005
Over the past three years, Northampton’s twinned Royal & Derngate theatres have built up a national reputation under artistic director Rupert Goold. On the eve of a 14-month overhaul, Goold speaks to Judi Herman about keeping Northampton in the spotlight.
It’s 60 miles up the M1 from north London to Northampton, a journey to be dreaded during the evening rush hour – unless you’re lucky enough to be heading for one of the town’s twin theatres, the Royal and the Derngate.
The theatres have long been worth a visit, not just for the Royal’s Victorian grandeur, but also for the extraordinary variety of theatre and entertainment on offer. And, during the three years that Rupert Goold has been artistic director, a growing number of critics from national organs have hacked their way to every Northampton press night, from a dazzlingly provocative update of Faustus to this year’s Christmas show, an equally imaginative Hansel and Gretel.
Going out with a bang
The theatres are about to close down for 14 months for a much-needed redevelopment. But it definitely won’t be a case of out of sight, out of mind. For not only are there plans for all sorts of events and activities during the closure, but also both theatres are going dark in twin blazes of glory on 3 April 2005.
The Royal Philharmonic, which the multi-purpose Derngate boasts as its resident orchestra, will play the theatre out with a Tchaikovsky Gala that has the 1812 Overture as the climax - complete with explosives. Meanwhile, the Royal will end a three-week run of Goold’s production of Hamlet with a cast that is a great example of the talent attracted to spend time living and working in this ancient market town. Northampton is famous for its cobblers – but currently it’s the chance to step into Gertrude’s shoes that’s tempted the iconic Jane Birkin (accompanied by her beloved dog) – to exchange France’s midi for the English Midlands (See News, 10 Feb 2005).
It’s typical of Goold that he’s conceived a way of making his production of Hamlet resonate with the closure - he and designer Laura Hopkins have set the production in a disused theatre that looks strikingly similar to the Royal …. “Hamlet is about acting and about the nature of performance in some sense,” avers Goold. “It’s also about decay – a world or a regime that is rotten. So it seemed appropriate to a theatre that has certainly got a rotten floor anyway!” Goold’s love affair with the Royal began as soon as he visited it – and so did his ambition to stage Hamlet there. He recalls, “I said to my wife, ‘this beautiful embracing theatre will be perfect for Hamlet’. And over the time I’ve worked here, it’s been a joy to discover how it manages to combine the intimacy of a studio space with the potential to do something grand and make it look epic.”
The theatre-loving citizens of the town quickly came to return the admiration, and Goold appreciates the relationship he’s been able to build with his audience. “Northampton’s a pretty insular town, and when you do something culturally exciting, it becomes the main talking point. The unique thing about being somewhere like Northampton is you can build up a relationship with an audience over a body of work.”
Body of work
That body of work is an alluring one. Northampton Theatres has collaborated on the premiere of award-winning new work like Shared Experience’s After Mrs Rochester with Diana Quick and Justin Butcher’s Scaramouche Jones with Pete Postlethwaite. Goold himself has staged timely revivals of modern classics like Insignificance and Stoppard’s Arcadia as well as his own revolutionary overhauls of classic texts - Paradise Lost and a Faustus that interweaves Marlowe’s play with a cheeky modern fable worthy of its lead characters, those outrageous artists, the Chapman brothers.
Visiting productions - Kathy Burke’s production of Roy Williams’ Little Sweet Thing and Sheffield Theatres’ production of Joe Penhall’s Blue/Orange featuring Roger Lloyd Pack - also give useful pointers to Goold’s strategy. “When I arrived here, I wanted to try and enlarge the repertoire so that audiences would come because of the artists making the work as much as the writers they knew, like Ayckbourn and Coward, Wilde and Shakespeare. And I think Faustus really unlocked younger audiences for us.”
Certainly the auditorium is regularly packed with enthusiastic young audiences – and not just for obvious classics like Othello. “New writing enriches classical work and vice versa,” Goold explains. “You want audiences to get to grips with writing of the last 20 years as well as from the earlier part of the last century. I think people will look back at the Nineties in this country as a great flowering of British playwriting and I hope that will continue with the new money that’s come into the theatre in the last few years – although regional audiences have seen less of that.”
Goold does admit there’s a way to go to make audiences trust the material. “Productions tend to get very sold out towards the end of the run, but it’s a matter of trying to get them to take a chance at the beginning.” But Northampton’s strategy includes shared productions destined to transfer to another part of the country, which means that at least once they’ve received rave notices, other audiences get a chance to see them – and the costs are shared.
Casting the net wider
The team are together again for Hamlet. And attracting Jane Birkin is not Goold’s only casting coup. Hilton Macrae plays Claudius, Poppy Miller, Ophelia, and Michael Shaeffer (a sexy Macheath in the National Theatre production of The Threepenny Opera that went down a treat with young audiences at the Royal) plays Laertes.
Goold always wanted Tobias Menzies as his Hamlet. “He’s going to be a very big star,” the director predicts. “He’s been filming a mini-series in America (Rome) – in ten years’ time people will look back and wish they’d seen his Hamlet!” As for Birkin, “Jane brings a natural regality to the role of Gertrude, but she’s unbelievably down to earth and open and sweet. The bottom line is she’s absolutely gorgeous, she carries not only grace but also a natural sex appeal which I think is very important to the role.”
The twin pillar of Northampton Theatres is the Derngate, a receiving house versatile enough to accommodate dance, musicals, opera – even an ice rink! You really don’t need to leave Northampton to get fantastic variety almost every night. Goold agrees: “Some of the best nights I’ve had in Northampton have been contemporary dance in the Derngate on a par with anything internationally and some great live music especially from the Royal Philharmonic. There’s such a good acoustic in there.”
Nevertheless, both spaces are desperately in need of an extensive overhaul, so they must close temporarily. But Goold is keeping faith with Northampton. Interim plans include a large scale community play, a dance piece at the Castle in Wellingborough, and the Royal Philharmonic will move into a local school theatre.
“A year is not such a long time, and we’re hoping people will be so excited about the reopening that they won’t have forgotten about us. But it’s also our job to bang the drum about the fact that we’re still here!” The sound of that drum carries to London – and beyond. Faustus is scheduled to start a UK tour at the Bristol Old Vic in 2006.
Hamlet continues at the Royal in Northampton until 3 April 2005.