“There’s every type of director in Europe, just as there’s every type of director here.” As we chat over the phone (she’s taking a well-earned holiday after opening her first show at the Gate Theatre) Ellen McDougall bandies around names like Luk Perceval, Frank Castorf and Thomas Ostermeier, pointing out that even within the German theatre scene, “It’s very difficult to put them all in one category. It’s hard to articulate, but I suppose I think that when you see a very small amount of something, it’s easy to be reductive about it.”
It’s a timely discussion because, over the past few years, ‘European Theatre’ has become a bogeyman for some sections of the theatre world, a kind of nameless, formless threat to established ways of doing things that haunts David Hare and the letters page of The Stage. And paradoxically, this has all happened while very few directors from Europe actually work in the UK, Ivo Van Hove’s wildly prolific run of adaptations excepted.
This year, Ellen McDougall took over from Christopher Haydon as Gate Theatre’s new artistic director. It’s a venue that’s both a tiny room above a West London pub and, miraculously, a kind of portal to some of the most exciting new and international theatre out there. So far, McDougall’s vision is one that calls back to the Gate’s history as a champion of European theatre. “I got an Arts Council and British Council joint fellowship to go to Germany for a few weeks, and in doing that I saw a huge range of work that’s had a really big influence on the way I think. Not everyone’s as lucky as me to get that opportunity. So I feel like one of the things we should do at The Gate is to bring these hugely exciting artists from Europe and around the world to London. It’s just about pushing the boundaries of what else theatre can be, what theatre can be like.”
Her first season deliberately doesn’t just include plays from Europe: she’s made a concerted effort to recruit directors and designers from outside the UK, too. After opening her season with The Unknown Island, her own adaptation of José Saramago’s short story, she’s bringing French director Jean-Pierre Baro to London to direct Suzy Storck. The work of French playwright Magalie Mougel, who’s all but unknown in the UK, it’s “a very intense, haunting, painful, play – and funny too, I should probably add”. Reading the synopsis, I sort of mentally linked it to a whole strand of works that show women suffering under the crushing weight of social expectations, not least Yerma. But it’s a welcome counterpoint, too: “It’s the polar opposite of Yerma because Suzy Storck has children, but over the course of the story she starts to admit to herself the possibility that maybe she didn’t want them.”
The production team also includes translator Chris Campbell and British-trained designer Cécile Trémolières – who created the luminous, hugely memorable design for This Beautiful Future at The Yard earlier this year, along with Iphigenia Quartet at the Gate Theatre. It’s an exciting prospect, not least because one of the joys of the venue is the way that each time you go, it looks utterly different: “We’re funded by the Jerwood Foundation which means we can make really brilliant high concept design, as it costs a lot of money to completely reconfigure the space each time.”
The international team brings a fresh energy, too. It means that “assumptions that have been made on either side have to be challenged, and that’s really exciting. Never mind who the other person is, it’s a thing of ‘If you come from a totally different background from me, we have to question everything’. And that’s a really healthy way to work, I think.”
The season also includes German playwright Falk Richter’s Trust, directed by Jude Christian. And Effigies of Wickedness, which stages Weimar cabaret songs in collaboration with ENO. And there’s also Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 – a work that seems particularly likely to resonate with the London that surrounds the theatre, in its exploration of police violence and racism. I want to book tickets to everything. And that’s sort of what McDougall’s been aiming for. “One of the drawbacks of being a freelancer is that you parachute in to a venue which you don’t know very much about and make a show for an audience you maybe don’t know that well. I was excited about building a season of work that would be a longer conversation with an audience.”
And hopefully not just an audience of theatre nerds, too. She’s genuinely excited about the potential of both the space, and the community around it. “One of the first conversations I had when I took over the theatre was with Stella Duffy, who runs Fun Palaces. It was really galvanising. One of the things that she pointed out to me was that if you’re funded by the Arts Council, you’re owned by the people, because it’s their money that keeps the theatre running… you want that building to feel as accessible and open as a public library.”
One of Christopher Haydon’s boldest achievements as artistic director was the consistent, dedicated moves he made to increase the diversity of the people involved with the Gate Theatre, at every level: not just the bodies on stage, but the audiences, and the admin staff, and even the theatre’s board. The kind of unshowy work that doesn’t win prizes (but probably should). And it sounds like it’s going to continue. McDougall explains that the theatre is “on the faultline between some of the most wealthy people in the world and some of the poorest. I love the idea that it’s possible to bring them all through the doors, into a small space that means you can look everyone in the eye.”
What this means in practice is audience development and partnerships with local community organisations: “One of the lovely things about that is that it’s a kind of slow burn, you have to listen and you have to build projects carefully and delicately to make them meaningful.” But to me, it feels like there are also complicating factors on the Gate Theatre’s ability to act as a community space: both because of its tiny front-of-house area and lack of bar, and because of the kind of huge artistic pressure that comes with the venue’s history, both recent and further back.
Since it was founded in 1979, it’s a space that’s nurtured talents like Katie Mitchell and Rupert Goold, and has looked to the world, as much as to the streets around it. McDougall says that “one of the things that happens when you take over the artistic director role at somewhere like The Gate is that you get inundated with stories of brilliant things previous artistic directors have done.”
She mentions former AD Stephen Daldry’s determination that “small spaces don’t need small ideas – that’s always been true of the Gate actually, but for him it meant doing these massive Golden Age texts. I really do think there is something about epic scale big ideas in that tiny room that really brings them to life. In my interview for the job I pitched a production of War and Peace. As I was doing it, I thought ‘I know this is ridiculous, but I’m going to do it anyway’.”
The theatre also has a strong (and pretty unusual) roster of female artistic directors among its formidable alumni, including Erica Whyman, Thea Sharrock, Natalie Abrahami and Carrie Cracknell. The big question that’s sort of hovering over my head, the obvious one, is about the gender imbalance in UK theatre. It’s present at playwright level. But it’s even more glaring at artistic director level: even now, only a few of London’s 100-odd theatres have women in leadership roles. McDougall agrees that quotas are the way forward and talks about unconscious bias. But she sounds a welcome note of caution, too.
“It seems to me that a dangerous pattern can emerge with these conversations, whereby women get asked a lot what they think about gender parity, and people of colour get asked a lot what they think about diversity, to the point where you can start to feel you can only represent or talk about the issue you’re physically related to. Whereas if you’re a default man, to use Grayson Perry’s term, you’re allowed to talk about anything, you can talk about your art. It’s absolutely important that we don’t limit people, or say that the work you’re allowed to make if you’re an artist of colour or a woman or whatever must always boil down to those politics.”
The Unknown Island was a perfect start to McDougall’s tenure at Gate Theatre: outward-looking, international, a story of forging a creative vision with no map or compass. But in the context of her words, it also feels like an act of defiance. Her Othello at Shakespeare’s Globe changed the way I saw the play for good. It was both endlessly funny – laced with pop songs and wobbling codpieces and drunken brawls – and furiously feminist. To use another favoured term of Grayson Perry, it reeked of toxic masculinity, in its unsparing focus on male violence and the women who the story leaves brutalised and killed.
The Unknown Island, by contrast, is an unapologetically beautiful, thoughtful, playful – and almost apolitical thing. Told by a chorus of four performers, it’s a multi-layered fable about a man and a woman who set off on a voyage of sea discovery. It unfolds in a dream-like space, the outlines of the theatre’s walls coated with blue tarpaulin, in an artful design by Rosie Elnile: “pleasingly the fabric was the same stuff they make sails out of – it’s one of those things you really hope people notice, because it’s just joyful.”
This lightness is refreshing, a cool breeze in contrast to Othello‘s densely worked engagement in social politics and inequality. “It all feels really important, but really complex sometimes, when you want it to be simple – can we all just make a play that we love?”
This muddied binary between art and politics, simplicity and difficulty is just one of so many to be held in balance during McDougall’s reign at the Gate Theatre. There’s also the battle between a tiny space and a will to do huge things: “I really do think there is something about epic-scale, big ideas in that tiny room.” There’s the battle between local and international, too – the difficult balance between looking to Europe and speaking to the experiences of a Notting Hill Gate audience. Somehow, McDougall’s first season at Gate Theatre contains and holds all these questions. I can’t wait to see it unfold.
See full details of Gate Theatre’s season here.