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Michael Oakley On ... Why Young Directors Shouldn't Ignore Classics

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Michael Oakley is a JMK Award-winning director who is currently directing The Changeling at Southwark Playhouse, which runs until 26 November.

Over the last year, I have been working as a workshop leader for The JMK Trust’s ‘Direct Access’ programme. By going out into the regions and meeting with directors, the aim is to try and make directing less London-centric. I have led sessions in Birmingham, Cardiff, Nottingham and Newcastle and am always struck by the fact that the majority of the participants in each place prefer to focus on new writing or devising theatre, rather than concentrating on classic play texts. Why is this?

For a young director, the logistics of mounting a production of a classic play are very hard. Say you fancied directing John Webster’s The White Devil, look at the Dramatis Personae alone and there are 29 named parts as well as additional ‘lawyers, ambassadors and attendants’. Of course even the RSC would have to double some of these roles, but if you were just to look at the core story alone and work out some clever doubling, you’re still looking at a company of at least 12. Those 12 need to paid something, they all need costumes (often more than one) and to do justice to the piece you’ll need a longer rehearsal period and larger creative team. Raising the money to do this is a daunting task for any producing team.

They are also hard to unlock. The language can be obscure and distant – the hardest thing being to make the words sound like natural speech to a modern audience. The proxemics of staging and use of space to evoke multiple settings can be overwhelming.

But I think these are all things to embrace for a young director. Learning about the complicated structure of these plays and the discipline required to rehearse and perform them is the best training you will ever get. Theatre is a collaborative process and working with a large cast and creative team is electrifying. Plays don’t come much bigger than Marlowe’s Edward II, a play I directed myself at BAC a few years back, which we did it in a tiny room on a tiny budget. I learnt so much about the craft of directing from that experience, things I know I would not have discovered had I directed a two-hander. I currently find myself directing a production of Middleton and Rowley’s masterpiece The Changeling, and feel much more equipped to deal with the complexities of the text.

Classic plays have stood the test of time and must continue to do so. The demand for producers and artistic directors to programme them is great, but very rarely do they trust them in the hands of a younger person. It is hard to do these plays justice with limited funds and experience, but theatre is about taking risks and imagination goes a long way. If young directors start having a go at them now, not only will they teach us to be better at our job but as we get better at doing them, we ensure that these vital stories continue to be told.


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