Define the Royal Shakespeare Company
Mark Lawson caught me out a little while ago, when he said he'd asked Michael [Boyd] to put the letters ‘R.S.C' in order of importance. Is it the Royal, the Shakespeare or the Company? Thinking Michael would have said ‘C' for company, I asserted it's the ‘S' for Shakespeare. "Actually Michael said ‘they are all equal'", said Mark. And of course that's the right answer - but it's a bit of a trick question!
Prior to getting the RSC artistic director job, what was your proudest professional achievement?
To be honest, it was being an associate of the RSC. When I got the artistic directorship someone sent me a Greek epigram by Archilochus who said that some people are foxes that know many little things, and some people are hedgehogs who know one big thing. I recognised that I was a hedgehog. I have always been obsessed by Shakespeare, and therefore being able to be part of the company, and to be able to do some of those great, great plays at Stratford with great actors and actresses - Judi Dench, Patrick Stewart, Timothy Spall, Harriet Walter, David Tennant, Penny Downie etc - is my proudest achievement.
How do you assess your predecessor's tenure?
Very successful. He and Vikki Heywood achieved the transformation in Stratford, and they created the Courtyard Theatre as the temporary space while that was going on. Stratford is very secure, and of course they put on Matilda too and gave me some financial security, so thank you Michael Boyd!
Did you go for the job ten years ago?
We both went for it in the crisis following Adrian [Noble]'s refusal to renew his contract. I remember we were both sitting in a room together, Michael Boyd and I, and I said to him "so, what do you feel like?". And he replied "I feel like one of the ten green bottles left hanging on the wall". That afternoon I was in Stratford antiques market, and there were two Stratford-Upon-Avon green bottles, so I bought one for me and I gave one to Michael and said "we'll see which one accidentally falls". But the first thing he did as artistic director was to ask me to be his chief associate, and when Michael decided that he wouldn't stay beyond ten years, it felt as though this was the time I did it or that I should go.
What do you identify as your biggest challenges?
I think the relationship with London is hugely important. When we left the Barbican we cut a tree down in the forest, and in the clearing that it left a number of shrubs have grown towards the light, but if we don't get back to London, we'll no longer be necessary to that ecology. I think it's a very important, different thing that we do, and I want London to have the opportunity to see what we have in Stratford because otherwise we are only showing half the story. So London is very important to me, and of course The Other Place and creating that laboratory space is also key, to have new work running alongside the Shakespeare.
What was the first production you ever saw at the RSC?
It was 11 August 1973, a Thursday matinee with Eileen Atkins playing Rosalind in As You Like It. I know this because I still have the schoolboy diary in which I wrote down my enthusiasm. Apparently as we drove back up to Preston on the M6 in my mother's beige mini, I turned to her and said, "That's what I want to do when I grow up".
What's your overriding vision for the RSC?
Excellence, it's got to be. It all starts with how we do Shakespeare on the main stage; everything else is a pyramid beneath that. We aspire to be the best, we may not always be the best, we may not always get there, but we always strive to be the excellence that Shakespeare deserves.
Name three highlights of the newly announced summer season
Working with my partner Antony Sher on Henry IV, of course; I'm thrilled about The Roaring Girls season and the plays Erica Whyman's team is working on; and I'm very excited about Two Gents having a go on the main stage after a gap of 45 years.
How long do you envisage yourself in the job?
Ten years seems to be a natural tenure, and it so happens that 2023 is the next big Shakespeare jubilee, marking the quatercentenary of the publication of the first folio. So that would be me ten years in the job, and it would also be 50 years since I first saw a show at Stratford. So for all sorts of reasons, if I get that far, that would be a good time to leave.
How will you measure your success in the role?
Success would mean there being no question about the RSC's London base, as well as there being a sense of Stratford being the Shakespeare destination. Those two things are my priority.
Gregory Doran's production of Richard II, starring David Tennant in the title role, opens in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre this week (17 October 2013, previews from 10 October). It will be screened live to cinemas on the 13 November, with free streaming into schools on the 15 November. Following its run in Stratford it transfers to the Barbican Theatre, London from 9 December 2013 to 25 January 2014.
The RSC's 2014 summer season goes on sale to associate members today (14 October).