Features Q&A and Interviews Published 27 July 2015

Simon Godwin: “After years of new plays, I thought, ‘I can do whatever I like’”

Royals, improv and old writing with the Richard II director.
Tim Bano

There’s a buzz on the intercom and I push at the huge metal gate that leads to the Globe’s stage door, tucked in behind the Thames. One man is brandishing a bookcase with fake books glued to it. Two others are trying to push a huge cart, laden with props, over a speed hump. It’s not going well. I’m led through the backstage maze and suddenly find myself on the Globe stage, glittering with gold for Simon Godwin’s production of Richard II. In my head I pretend I’m Mark Rylance and start mumbling the only Shakespeare speech I know: “But Brutus says he was ambitious, and Brutus is an honourable man…If you have tears, prepare to shed them now…” The groundlings are going wild. “He’s nailed it,” they shout. Then I’m ushered off and into a little office. I’m buzzing from the thrill.

Simon Godwin, on the other hand, has just had a nap. For just a minute or so, he’s a little groggy. I don’t mind – to be honest, I nodded off as Man And Superman, which he directed, entered its third hour. Besides if he’s tired it’s completely understandable: in the last couple of months he’s had two major productions at the National (The Beaux’ Stratagem and Man And Superman) and press night for Richard II at the Globe is in a couple of days. A nap is the least he deserves. When you’ve directed Ralph Fiennes in a four-hour epic, dominated London’s Southbank and you’re one of the most high profile directors in the country, what could possibly be next? “I’m not going to do one for a bit now. I think I need to take some time off in the autumn just to calm down and get ready for next year.”

Since directing Eugene O’Neill’s Strange Interlude at the National in 2013, Godwin has become known for tackling mammoth plays with Wagnerian running times. Despite perennial complaints that Twitter and YouTube are stunting our attention span, still Godwin has faith that audiences will be willing to switch off technologically for four hours and switch on intellectually and emotionally. “It reminds us that we can concentrate. Let’s not forget that the attention span of the human being, in some sense, is infinite. It’s not like there is an end to it. There’s only an end to what is interesting.”

For Godwin, this is at the heart of directing. “It’s related to attention span. You are meeting the attention span of a group of people, strangers.” The principle is evident in his productions, which don’t linger long before offering some kind of variety in tone or register or design – something that can keep the audience from drifting off. Another fundamental of Godwin’s directing style is that he tries to bring the same life to the rehearsal room that there will be on stage, a concept he learned while training at the Lecoq-inspired LISPA in his twenties. “Thomas Prattki, the founder of the school and a fully-fledged genius, said that a show reflects the director in ways that are conscious and in ways that are unconscious, so that even how you sit in the rehearsal room will somehow be reflected on the stage.”

Man and Superman. Photo: Alastair Muir

Man and Superman. Photo: Alastair Muir

It doesn’t sound like he allows too much sitting in his rehearsal rooms. Godwin prefers not to make it too much of a cerebral process because, “it’s more like talking about that which ultimately is experiential. And theatre is at its best when it’s an experience. The more vivid the experience on stage, the more vivid the experience in the rehearsals has to be.” But however hard he tries to make rehearsals feel like the finished product, there is an essential element missing: the audience. “However carefully you watch something in the rehearsal room it’s just a different thing in front of an expansion of minds.”

This is particularly true of the Globe, where the audience is so visible and, often, so vocal. “There are no lights, there’s no fourth wall. What’s the correct balance between including them – you realise when you come to the Globe how often Shakespeare makes references to the crowd built into the writing – how much do you constantly smash down that wall?”

There’s a fine line between a Globe show acknowledging the audience, and just being broad. Broadness works in comedy, but often you’re looking for an actor or a production to take advantage of that bare, bright exposure. You can see everything – not only the details of a cast member’s face, but the couple mumbling amid the groundlings, or the guy fainting because he didn’t want to buy a bottle of water, or the woman laughing a little bit too loudly at Shakespeare’s ‘jokes’. It’s easy to tell when a comedy is getting it right because they laugh, but Godwin thinks it’s possible to tell with tragedy too: “there’s a quality of listening, when we get it right, which is also palpable, as tangible as laughter in fact.”

So where should that final sense of ownership of a production lie: with the audience, the actors, or the director? “It’s sort of split. It’s directing the actors and it’s directing the audience. Yes it has to exist as a spontaneous event beyond the control of a director, and yet inevitably it will reflect the he preoccupations, interests, fears, loves, the personality of the director in many, many peculiar ways.” For Godwin, it’s most exciting “when a director’s really owned up to that and you feel like a piece of work is authored somehow.”

Despite what Kenneth Tynan called ‘an embarrassment of Richards’, from Rylance to Redmayne, Godwin is keen to approach his production with a clear mind and a blank slate, untainted by hollow crowns gone by. So what does he want the play to say to an audience today? I suggest that the idea of divine prerogative and monarchic succession is more topical than ever: royal babies are appearing with such frequency that it looks like we’ll be lumped with Windsors ’til kingdom come.

What is the metaphor of a king now? As usual Shakespeare’s come up with the greatest, most powerful example of a universal predicament: what happens when our public persona is stripped from us? What do we do when that which we’ve identified most strongly with is taken away from us? The question then becomes: ‘who am I in my core, not my external existence?’”

I suppose there’s a reason Godwin is a director and I’m not: he looks past the literal and seeks out the figurative. “We have somebody who’s very deeply – in fact more deeply than we could ever imagine – identified with what his role is: that of a king. he feels that he’s God’s presence on earth. I would like the audience to live that journey with Richard about going ‘when push comes to shove and I am in the prison cell in one way or another, what gives me strength?’”

The Beaux' Stratagem. Photo: Manuel Harlan

The Beaux’ Stratagem. Photo: Manuel Harlan

Godwin likes to tease out these universalities with improvisation. “It’s especially helpful when you’re doing 20th century plays. You can go ‘what would he be like if you went to the pub with him?’ and suddenly you’re able to access a whole world with confidence. But if you’re going ‘why don’t you improvise the moment when Northumberland’s talking to you about the deposition document of King Richard II?’ people are like ‘fuck!’” He puts a hand to his mouth, “Oh, excuse me.” Godwin sees his role as being “a monitor of truth. One thing that bores an audience is when they think it’s not really very true.”

For someone whose work is so rooted in text, who has directed all the greats of contemporary British writing – Churchill, Crimp, Kirkwood, Horwood, Payne, Franzmann, De-lahay, Reiss – it seems odd that improvisation plays the part it does. Texts seem like closed, finite pieces. “But then we get back to that striking relationship between the frozen reality of text and the experiential atmosphere of putting that story on stage. Anything that gives us access to understanding where those words emerged from, great.”

Who’s better to work with: living or dead playwrights? “At the Royal Court I loved being in a world of new and everything was about now,” he elongates the words ‘new’ and ‘now’ and it’s possible he’s being really sarcastic, “but when I came to O’Neill after doing three years of only new plays, I thought, ‘I can do whatever I like, he’s not here, I can cut it up and change it.’”

“The writer at some point has to collude in the magic that it’s come from the character and not from them. So if the playwright is sitting there all day in rehearsal, the poor actor is constantly going to be thinking ‘hang on, they wrote this, this is their words not mine.’” Theatre needs that collusion from all parties. The ability to hold several ‘truths’ in the mind simultaneously: these are the writer’s words, these are the character’s words; this is real, this is fiction. “It’s an amazing idea, isn’t it? It’s extraordinary that we ever manage to do it for even five minutes. It’s such a piece of magic.”

Simon Godwin’s Richard II is at the Globe until 18th October 2015.

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Tim Bano

Tim is a freelance arts writer and theatre critic. He writes regularly for Time Out, The Stage and other publications. He is co-creator of Pursued By A Bear, Exeunt Magazine's theatre podcast.

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