Doctor of Letters
Friday 22 July 2011 - Orator: Professor Martin White
Greg Doran is the Chief Associate Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, the largest classical theatre company in the world. He is not only one of the RSC’s, but also this country’s leading directors, whose award-winning work has been seen and admired internationally.
Greg was born in Huddersfield, but brought up in Preston where he attended the Catholic College and it was there that he discovered what, to me, looks like the chemical reaction that occurs when he comes into contact with Shakespeare. At school, a Shakespeare play was performed each year (he particularly remembers playing Lady Macbeth), added to which there were enough theatres within one and a half hours of home to feed his growing appetite – in one day in 1975, for example, the 17 year- old addict saw a film version of Macbeth in the morning, a stage performance in the afternoon, and yet another, different production in the evening. By 1979, he had seen every play in the canon.
In 1977 he came to Bristol to read Drama and English. It was clear that here was a student who knew the broad direction he was going in, but it wasn’t at all clear exactly which particular aspect of the theatre he would focus on. I worked with him on a number of productions and found him to be an accomplished director, actor and stage designer, while Greg remembers the stimulation of the links between intellectual and practical approaches, between reading plays and making theatre that his joint degree course fostered.
He had a strong entrepreneurial streak in him, too: at school he had founded his own theatre company, the Poor Players, kept it going while he was at Bristol, when he ensured they weren’t in fact that poor by securing £30,000 – a considerable sum now, let alone then – in sponsorship from International Computers for a play he wanted to stage.
On graduation, he enrolled on the two year actor training course at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, and from there joined the Nottingham Playhouse, first as an actor, before becoming an Assistant, then Associate Director. Then in 1987 he moved back to performing when he was invited to join the acting company at the RSC. One of his roles was the minor one of Solanio in The Merchant of Venice. At the top of the cast list, playing Shylock, was Antony Sher. It was the beginning of their long-standing relationship (that has also included working together on a number of productions), and they were among the first couples to take advantage of the new Civil Partnership in 2005. We are delighted to welcome Sir Antony, as well as Greg’s older sister Jo, and his friend, Dawn Pavitt to Bristol today to share in this celebration.
At Stratford, Greg became increasingly aware that acting might not in fact be right for him, and when he came across a sentence by the French author, Flaubert, suggesting that ‘most people end up in life doing what they do second best’, he realised that there were lots of actors he would cast in a play before he’d cast himself and that directing was really what he was cut out for. He accepted an invitation from the RSC to become an Assistant Director and in 1992 directed his first solo production, a version of Homer’s Odyssey commissioned from the West Indian poet, Derek Walcott.
To an outward eye, it might seem that here now was a career sorted, shaping itself around his passion for directing. But it didn’t yet feel like that to Greg. Many of his contemporaries seemed already to have settled into successful career paths, their achievements known to themselves and others. And then, as part of his preparations for The Odyssey he read the Greek poet, Cavafy’s poem, To Ithaca, where he writes:
So Greg decided that for him, too, the journey, the getting there, would be his focus, rather than concentrating only on the destination, the end result. This, it seems to me, is reflected in his career decisions, in the very way he structures rehearsals to be exciting, enjoyable voyages of discovery, and also in his desire always to find new paths to follow, his willingness to pursue inventive and innovative diversions from the main route.
Shakespeare has, of course, lain at the heart of his work and since 1996, when he directed his first Shakespeare play for the RSC, Henry VIII, he has directed over half of Shakespeare’s plays for the company. But there is also a range of work that is startling in its sheer diversity: in 1995 he and Antony Sher (in the title-role) staged a ground-breaking production of Titus Andronicus in South Africa (followed by a book they wrote together unpicking their different perspectives on the experience); he has directed a musical version of The Merry Wives of Windsor starring Judi Dench; created two full seasons at Stratford of neglected plays by Shakespeare’s contemporaries that in 2002 brought him an Olivier Award for Special Achievement; made film versions of his stage productions of Macbeth and Hamlet; and to celebrate the millennium directed the York medieval mystery plays in York minster, with a huge cast of amateur actors and over 50 children. Then there is a puppet version of Shakespeare’s poem Venus and Adonis, a stage version of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, a spectacular adaptation of Sir Thomas Malory’s epic medieval poem Morte d’Arthur, another book, The Shakespeare Almanac, a day-by-day account of the customs, beliefs and historical events in the Shakespearean calendar that reflects Greg’s own insatiable curiosity about the playwright and his time and, still running in Stratford, his rigorously researched and beautifully delivered production of Cardenio, a possible ‘lost’ play by Shakespeare, ‘re-imagined’ by Greg.
But I want to end with his recent production of Hamlet. It started with some inspirational casting. One evening, Greg was watching the television programme, Who Do You Think You Are?, and there was David Tennant -- well known to television audiences of course as Dr Who, but also with a very successful career as a classical actor -- in a church, wearing a black coat, and holding a skull. Greg immediately texted him – ‘Saw your audition for Hamlet on the telly. How about lunch?’ A year or so later, the two of them worked together on a landmark production that became a cultural phenomenon, the presence of Tennant, now joined by Patrick Stewart, attracting audiences many of whom were new to Shakespeare. Greg is passionate about broadening access to Shakespeare, but abhors attempts to patronize audiences. So everyone, whether familiar or unfamiliar with Hamlet, was presented with a multi-layered production that revealed the very qualities that make Greg a great director. He is, I think, an emotional intellectual, a man whose feelings and thoughts are closely aligned, and by bringing these to the production in equal measure he created a mesmerizing piece of work that freshly minted the most famous play in the English language. Watching the production was revelatory, like walking through a house you thought you knew well, coming across a door you’d never noticed, going into a room you didn’t know existed, and then from a window in that room, gazing out on a completely new and unexpected landscape. It was truly wonderful directing, an example of the work that has made him one of the great Shakespearians of his generation.
Mr Pro-Vice-Chancellor, it is with the very greatest pleasure that I present to you Gregory Doran, theatre director, as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa.