Gregory Doran: 'Shakespeare was an outsider'

The RSC’s artistic director on Shakespeare 400, the highlights in the year to come and how the Bard died of a birthday binge

Gregory Doran, artistic director of the RSC
Gregory Doran, artistic director of the RSC
© Ellie Kurttz

If you had to pinpoint a year specifically designed to give Gregory Doran 365 sleepless nights, it would have to be 2016. As you're probably now aware, 2016 marks 400 years since Britain's greatest playwright died: an anniversary that is being celebrated up and down the country in myriad forms. And, as artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Doran is responsible for a dauntingly large chunk of the celebrations.

As well as directing his husband Antony Sher in King Lear, overseeing the celebrations in Stratford-upon-Avon over the weekend of 23 April – which happens to be both the Bard's birth and death day – directing The Tempest – which stars Simon Russell Beale and features cutting edge digital technology – he's also putting together the centrepiece of the year's celebrations: Shakespeare Live! From the RSC. It's a live TV broadcast on BBC Two, hosted by David Tennant and Catherine Tate, which brings together a lot – a lot – of people and performances associated with the man himself.

When I talk to him early in the year, Doran has just ensured that the English National Opera Chorus will be part of the programme. And he's giddy. "I was tearing my hair out about how to get an orchestra and chorus big enough to represent Shakespeare's legacy in opera," he explains.

"It's such a huge event and at the moment, when I wake up in the middle of the night, it's that. I think: My God, I've forgotten to phone Rufus Wainwright," he says. (He didn't forget, by the way, Rufus will be performing.)

The upcoming events, as well as those already begun this year, have been the result of years of careful planning. Doran met with BBC director Tony Hall four years ago to talk about the possibility of partnering more with the RSC. But Doran was keen to make sure Shakespeare Live! was not just a 'variety bill.' "I don't want just a lot of Shakespeare speeches, I want it to be something more vital than that," he says. And by all accounts it should be; you can expect ballet, musicals, jazz, opera and comedy. The list of national treasures making an appearance includes Ian McKellen, Judi Dench, Meera Syal, Joseph Fiennes, Simon Russell Beale and David Suchet. On paper, it's a luvvie's wet dream.

'Shakespeare is a passport to different realms of understanding'

Shakespeare, Doran says, likely died as a result of a birthday night out with the lads. The director, with a glint in his eye, explains how a vicar at Holy Trinity church wrote in his diary that Shakespeare, Ben Johnson and Michael Drayton had a 'merry meeting' and 'drank too hard' and the poor Bard died of a 'fever there contracted'. "He died of a birthday binge," says Doran, "that's what we're celebrating."

So it's 400 years since the great poet popped off and we're still raving about his plays. The reason for this, thinks Doran is partly to do with his ability to empathise with those on the margins of society. "He gets into other people's skin. I think Shakespeare, and I would say this wouldn't I, was gay," he says "Shakespeare had the perspective of an outsider and I think that includes women, moors like Othello and Jews like Shylock."

Regardless of how much we know about who Shakespeare was and who he loved, the plays are beyond doubt. It's the stories within them, says Doran, that are the main attraction. That and the language, on which Doran borrows a quote from Pope: "He articulates what was oft thought, but ne'er so well express'd".

There have been many highlights since Doran took over running of the company in 2012, but one he picks out is a version of A Midsummer Night's Dream with Google . It was performed in real time over one midsummer weekend in 2013 and broadcast out via the internet, social channels and Google : "We had 32 million hits and I didn't even know what that meant when I started that job!". He's continuing the foray into digital innovation this year with The Tempest, which sounds monumental. Created with the help of Intel, and Andy Serkis' company The Imaginarium Studios, Doran's Tempest will have the magical island's spirits literally fly through the audience. "You will see Ariel fly, the ship sink, and in the masque Juno will descend on her chariot drawn by peacocks," Doran says. "It's new, it's risky, it's exciting, it seems so precisely right for the play."

'I think Shakespeare, and I would say this wouldn't I, was gay'

Ultimately, the RSC's main intention this year is to reach new audiences. "I was very lucky I had a fantastic teacher and the bug bit very early," Doran explains, "But we want to turn more people on to Shakespeare who were put off at school for whatever reason."

Doran grew up in Preston, Lancashire and as a boy was a regular visitor to the Guildhall and Charter Theatre in Preston, as well as The Dukes Theatre in Lancaster where he saw Harriet Walter as Goody Proctor in The Crucible. Having the likes of the Bolton Octagon and Nottingham Playhouse within easy reach was vital for the young Doran: "I became aware that [theatre] was a profession," he explains. "The importance of regional theatre is both that you can have somewhere that is close to you, but also that there is a community focused around that building."

For Doran, Shakespeare has always been there: "Shakespeare has been a passport through my life. He's a passport to whole different realms of international understanding and communication," he says "and that's what I think we should celebrate in 2016."

King Lear runs at the RST from 10 November to 23 December. The Tempest runs from 8 November to 21 January. Shakespeare Live! will be broadcast live on BBC Two on 23 April.

For all our dedicated Shakespeare content and our coverage of Shakespeare's birthday weekend head to our Shakespeare page

Regional Theatre Focus