Why have you revived An Oak Tree ten years after it was first staged?
It's been revived 295 times; every performance is a revival because there's a different actor in it every time. So I don't feel like I'm reviving anything that I've done already. I've made some alterations for the National run, I've done a little bit of additional writing and a little bit of clarification and I hope a little bit of deepening of certain ideas. There has been a four year gap since the last time I performed it so I've had to relearn my lines. I've revived my knowledge of the lines.
It must be a logistical challenge to line up a different actor each night
I try not to get overly involved in it. I don't want in any sense to 'cast' these actors. The National's casting department have been fantastic in that I've spoken with them at length about qualities the show asks of an actor, and they supply actors who are in the rep there. So logistically it all goes to the National. Sometimes I don't know who's doing it until 15 minutes before they walk up to the theatre, which is in many ways the purest expression of the show.
Do you have any stand outs of the actors you've worked with?
I won't single out any of the 295 actors. There have been extraordinary performances where I have felt that the second actor has led me rather than I have led them … There have been some actors who have taken it and run with it and just been heavenly really. But every actor brings themselves to it and that fundamentally is what the play requires.
What inspired you to create the show initially?
The first thing I wrote was My Arm, in 2003. In that piece I invited the audience to donate inanimate objects that represented the characters of the story. I was interested in creating a disparity between what we say something is and what it actually is. This is a disparity that exists in art and also in hypnosis which operates on the subconscious. When we are operating on the subconscious then anything can be anything. It's a particularly freeing state of grace in a way to make work that functions on that level… it requires the audience to have a job to do, which in terms of Michael Craig-Martin's artwork is to turn a glass of water into an oak tree, and in terms of theatre is to turn an actor into a character. People say I'm a radical but that transformation is a fundamental tradition of theatre.
Do you get frustrated being pigeon-holed as an experimental theatremaker?
I don't find [this reputation] at all useful as it starts a relationship [with the audience] before the play begins, and as far as possible I would love there not to be anything before the play begins. It can be difficult when you come with a reputation. People test what they are seeing against what they have read, and possibly miscomprehended, previously, and then there is a hurdle to jump in order to get to an interesting place.
Do you think the general theatre landscape has shifted in the time you've been working?
I would like to think it has. I've worked with these two wonderful people, Andy Smith and Karl James, and we talk a lot about theatre; perhaps we talk about it a little differently than some people, but we think carefully about what we do before we put the work out. It's always interesting when we go and see other work and see there has been no tangible impact of anything we've done. But then I'm not really in the game of wanting to revolutionise theatre, I'm just interested in making my work and I'm excited when people engage in it.
So there's been no shift?
I think over ten years there has been a loosening of ideas and form, though there are some very resistant pockets to that who are still traditionally ploughing their furrow. I have a major anxiety around the 'capital' of theatre, particularly the economics of scale and celebrity, all those things that I think impair that lovely relationship around a live piece of work being placed in front of an audience. It can be very difficult now because people are paying a lot of money for tickets and expecting to see, to some degree, money represented on stage. That's not getting any better, it's getting worse. I'm not in the position to address that problem but it's always rather chilling when I see how culture is manipulated around capital; that's a sadness to me.
Where would you like your work to go next?
I'm very lucky that I have a solo performance strand as well, a series of solo pieces around Shakespeare [including I, Malvolio]… Sometimes when I just need to itch the performance scratch, this enables me to do that. So I want to keep doing it. I'm also doing some directing in the next year. I'm directing a piece at the Unicorn in January, a Gary Owen piece for ages 3 and above called Jeramee, Hartleby and Oooglemore, which is just beautiful. I'm also directing a piece with Spymonkey, we're doing a project called The Complete Deaths, which features every onstage death in Shakespeare performed in 90 minutes. We're touring next spring to mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death.
You started out as an actor – would you ever go back to that?
On the press night for An Oak Tree I was joined by an actor called Conor Lovett, an exceptional actor. A couple of years ago he and his wife Judy did a production of Waiting for Godot for the Dublin Theatre Festival and they asked if I would be in it and play Pozzo… that's as close to heaven as I could get as an actor. They asked me three months ahead of the run but I couldn't do it, because now I schedule everything much further in advance. But having said that I'd never rule anything out. I've had conversations at various times, and it's a thing that I still love to do. The live moment between the audience and the performer is for me still one of the greatest joys imaginable.
An Oak Tree is at the NT Temporary Theatre until 15 July and at the Traverse Theatre as part of the Edinburgh Fringe (4-16 August)