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Coping with the Apocalypse


Daily Telegraph, 23rd August 1999, Katie Bassett


“There is an almost apocalyptic vision at the end,” says Greg Doran, associate director of the Royal Shakespeare Company. He is talking about his forthcoming production of ‘Timon of Athens’, Shakespeare’s riches-to-rags tale of a lavishly generous man who is let down by fair-weather friends, heads out into the wilderness and dies cursing mankind.


Doran, 40, describes this late play as “a parable with a vast simplicity” and “difficult to pull off”. The RSC attempts it only about once every two decades. But Doran seems relaxed when I meet him with a fortnight of rehearsals to go – legs up, flip-flops off, bare tows wiggling, flamboyant curls shining. He is chatty and soft-voiced, with a touch of the raconteur.


“I think I’ve solved the play’s difficulties through the casting of Timon,” he says. On this occasion his leading actor is not Antony Sher – Doran’s long-standing ‘significant other’ – with whom he often teams up professionally. For Timon, Doran has chosen Alan Bates. “This play is about dancing round the abyss,” Doran remarks. “It is very bleak, but Alan makes it incredibly funny.”


That paints a happy enough picture. However, on returning home, I find a different message on my answer machine: “Remember we were talking about dancing round the abyss? Well, Alan Bates has now withdrawn from ‘Timon’.”


Bates had to pull out because of a chest infection. “I thought the whole thing had blown up in my face,” says Doran. But disaster, it seems, has been averted, following a call to Michael Pennington.


“I left a message asking if he could do it. He rang back and said three words that I shall never forget: “It’s not impossible”. He came into rehearsal and he virtually learnt the lines in one week. It’s fairly hairy,” he says. “We are definitely dancing round that abyss, but Michael is extraordinary.”


Sher had driven up from London he tells me, when he heard about Bates pulling out. “He spent the weekend saying, ‘It’ll be fine’ while I screamed and wailed.”


The opening night was postponed to give Doran and his new Timon more time. Tomorrow, their version of the problematic play will be revealed.


Doran, who comes from Preston, is not from a theatrical company. His father used to manage the Windscale nuclear plant. It was a trip to Stratford that was formative. “I must have been 13. I saw Eileen Atkins in ‘As You Like It’, and on the way home I said t my mum, ‘I want to work there when I grow up’.” He became a “complete Bard nut”.


His Jesuit school in Preston staged a Shakespeare every year, in which he would act. Later on he directed them, touring the region’s mansions. Then, while at Bristol Old Vic drama school, he established the Poor Players Troupe, and dug up the apocryphal Shakespeare play, ‘Sir Thomas Moore’. That, eventually, got him to London’s Young Vic.


Soon, he was at the RSC as an actor going on director. He met Sher (10 years his senior) when he was playing Solanio to Sher’s Shylock. I ask if he has ever felt like a mere ‘attendant lord’ to his star partner. It transpires that he wrote a chapter about playing that very part for a series of books about Shakespeare in performance.


But in life, he says, he has never seen himself in that role. His and Sher’s first project, ‘Titus Andronicus,’ was a bumpy ride and involved some crockery-hurling domestic tiffs. But Doran says that he and Sher enjoy collaborating and have sorted out the ground rules. “I only slam doors occasionally now,” he says. Moreover, he reminds me that he had a strong CV before he met Sher. Prior to joining the RSC, he had risen from young actor to associate director at the Nottingham Playhouse.


What was he like as a performer, I ask? “Rather good, actually,” he says, putting on the full luvvie voice. “I had to have thought I was good to keep going at it.” Why did he stop? “I got tired of fluttering my eyelashes in romantic leads.” He also cites Flaubert’s aperçu that, while most people end up doing what they do second best, the trick is to know what you do best.


Doran’s directing has certainly become increasingly impressive. His RSC productions of ‘Henry VIII’ with Jane Lapotaire and his recent ‘Winter’ Tale’ with Sher were both acclaimed, and he has a lot of work lined-up. His hit West End double-bill – Tom Stoppard’s ‘The Real Inspector Hound’ and Peter Schaffer’s ‘Black Comedy’ – is being revived. He’ll be staging ‘Macbeth’ with Sher and Harriet Walter. He is directing the ‘Mystery Plays’ in York for the Millennium and, finally, ‘As You Like It’ is on the horizon.


Meanwhile, I ask, why did he pick ‘Timon’? “It’s an astonishingly modern play,” he replies, “with resonances for the end of this century, it being about – if you like – losing our moorings. Timon, who has no family, believes in the value of friendship and society, and then sees those values collapse.


“In a way the 20th century is like that. After the confidence of the Victorian era, suddenly there were two world wars, Hiroshima, the Holocaust and a disintegration of the moral order. It’s significant,” he points out, “that ‘Timon’ was, in 1947, the first Shakespeare performed here in modern dress.” Does he feel his own modern life is like that? “Luckily,” Doran says, “unlike Timon, I have lots of cushions against the abyss. My family is very loving and close-knit.” He refers to the RSC as a family too, and his relationship with Sher, in its 12th year, is hardly fair-weather.


Doran’s vision, too, is far from bleak. Though no longer a practising Catholic, a religious strain still informs his work. “I believe in grace,” he says, “and I think Shakespeare did too. Even in ‘Timon’ there’s an element of redemption at the end.”


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