Category: Theatre

Interview: Robert Icke, one of Britain’s youngest theatre directors

Sarah Hemming writing for the Financial Times

With Robert Icke’s Hamlet currently playing at the Almeida Theatre, we look back to Sarah Hemming’s interview with the young director in 2016, for the Financial Times:

Theatre is the great art form of now,” says Robert Icke. “It happens to you live; we cook the food live. And if it’s not doing that, there’s a teenager in me that starts rebelling and going, ‘I just don’t know what that is for.’”

 Although he is not yet 30, Icke has already proved his originality as a stage director. His 1984 (co-created with Duncan Macmillan for Headlong and currently touring the US) reshaped Orwell’s dystopian novel into a disturbingly timely stage work about surveillance and thought manipulation. The production won Icke and Macmillan the Best Director accolade at the 2014 UK Theatre Awards.

Another Best Director award followed last year, after Icke launched the Almeida Theatre’s Greek season with a revelatory and electrifying new version of Oresteia that approached the 2,500-year-old tragedy as if it were a contemporary text. Icke configured the theatre as a courtroom where nothing was certain — justice, narrative, the role of theatre itself — making us wrestle with our own judgment on the desolate central story.

So how do you follow such a harrowing, blood-soaked epic? In Icke’s case, rather surprisingly, with Chekhov. He’s back in the Almeida rehearsal room with Uncle Vanya, which, in contrast to Oresteia, with its cast of royals and deities, depicts a rundown rural estate peopled with disconsolate misfits.

“I really wanted to do something that was less bleak,” he explains. “Which seems hilarious now I am working on it! I spent 14 months working on nothing but Oresteia, which was blissful — but it’s a dark place to live. So I wanted something that was a bit more emotional; more microscope, rather than telescope. And this story is the opposite [to Oresteia] in a way: nothing actually happens and there really is no plot in the traditional sense.”

We are huddled beside a portable heater in a spartan back office at the Almeida’s north London rehearsal space. On the other side of the door, two cast members are practising lines, committing to memory the farewell scene between Astrov and Elena. Even when delivered with no emotion, it is heartbreaking — one of the many pinch-points in Chekhov’s humane masterpiece of misdirected love, wasted potential and thwarted hopes.

It’s the Russian playwright’s sheer daring that fascinates Icke. “Chekhov talks and talks about how you make it real,” he observes. “He says in a letter — this is paraphrased — everyone runs around on stage firing guns; too much stuff happens. There should be plays where people just eat and then fall asleep and get a bit drunk and say things that they don’t really mean.

“[In Uncle Vanya] characters keep doing things that you wouldn’t expect them to do in a traditional plot structure. So they say something and then don’t do it. He is so good at the unfinished sentence and the thought that nobody responds to. There’s just nothing like it. I can’t think of anyone else now who can achieve that sort of observation.”


Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo

The stage adaptation

Katherine Boo’s excellent Behind the Beautiful Forevers, an account of life in a Mumbai slum, has been adapted for the stage by David Hare. (Here’s Pankaj Mishra’s 2012 review of the book, too.)

In a National Theatre rehearsal room, a stagehand is dumping a hundred or so empty plastic water bottles from a bin liner onto the floor. Set dressing tends to be a bit more fastidious, even decorous. The main reassurance that this isn’t theatre being done on the cheap is the presence of playwright Sir David Hare, artistic director elect Rufus Norris and the esteemed actress Meera Syal.

For 20 minutes, Syal leads the cast of 25 South Asian actors in a run-through of the National’s forthcoming epic, Behind the Beautiful Forevers. It is perhaps the biggest play about waste ever mounted.

The source material is a remarkably powerful book by Katherine Boo, a New Yorker journalist who spent more than three years meticulously documenting lives in Annawadi, a teeming slum in the shadow of Mumbai airport. Behind the Beautiful Forevers was published simultaneously in the US and India in 2012, was widely hailed and won numerous awards: it shone a torch on endemic corruption and abject poverty, refusing to sentimentalise its subjects while giving them their humanity: Boo’s Annawadians quarrel and joke, strive and connive like the rest of us, but with a much shorter life expectancy.

The book was bound to journey away from the page and the first person to pounce and option it was the omnivorous New York producer Scott Rudin. He gave the idea of staging it to Hare, who for Rudin had adapted Michael Cunningham’s novel The Hours. But Boo was not initially persuaded.

“I just wasn’t sure what it would be like to fictionalise lives,” she says. “I was uncomfortable with it. But then other people in my life said, ‘You’re being silly, these are very serious people with interesting points of view.’ I thought, I need to know what the people who are in my book think about this.”

So she went to Annawadi and asked around. She remains a frequent visitor anyway — she went eight times in 2013. And she found that the characters in her book — the ones who are still alive, that is – were keen.

“In some way they found the idea of theatre more accessible than a book, because many of the people I wrote about were illiterate or semi-literate.”

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