A journey with Greg Doran

For anyone who aspires to be a director, or is a lover of Shakespeare, then Greg Doran’s new book “My Shakespeare, A Directors’ Journey through the First Folio” is a cracking read.  Greg weaves through my life path since he gave us his Ugly Sister in Beauty and the Beast at Bristol University.  I joined him to form the British Universities Shakespeare Company producing 4 plays and a cabaret with him.  There were many sagas putting on Romeo and Juliet and some are shared at the start of Greg’s exploration of all the First Folio plays which he has directed or produced over his illustrious career.  He touches on our production of The Booke of Sir Thomas More which we played at the Young Vic, and the Winter’s Tale open air tour (which led me not to work on the opening of Cats).

This is a book about his Shakespeare life and so he misses the wonderful 9 months we had working with designer Dawn Pavitt on a national touring quilt exhibition [Pic: Doran-Grady in our Edinburgh office 1986 formally photographed for a sponsorship brochure]. Flying Colours explored the power and the purpose of the needle through a dazzling ‘cast-list’ of quilts from Sudan, Washington and gathered from across the UK.  We played London, Edinburgh, York, Liverpool, Bristol and Birmingham with each 3-4 week engagement linked to supporting the local hospice.  He touches on joining the Century Theatre in Keswick as their last Artistic Director as I joined him working towards the opening of the new Theatre By the Lake.  It was as he entered his second season playing in our now temporary home that he got the call from Adrian Noble to re-join the RSC and progress from actor & assistant director to take on directing Henry VIII in the Swan.  As can happen with that illustrious organisation the call seemed to need him instantly and within a few days I was left trying to find a replacement director who knew the obscure Michael Frayn play The Good Doctor he was due to direct for Keswick in a couple of week’s time.  Our cast wished him well but his presence as the creative driver and company leader was deeply missed.  I continued to work with the Board and the designers of the new building until I handed over to the inspiring double act of Stephen Gilchrist and Ian Forrest as CEO and Artistic Director. They led the company into the new building and created a phenomenal success over many many years.

Lady Hestor Stanhope gets a mention but not the one woman play he presented at the Hen and Chickens. Our work to create a Children’s Theatre Company in Harrods commissioned by the Disney Corporation never saw the light of day because of Lady Diana’s death (but that’s another story).  Our Doll’s House for Shelter project to create a Queen Mary’s Doll’s House for the 20th Century and tour the UK in aid of homeless charity didn’t reach beyond nearly getting Richard Rogers as lead architect.  And although Richard Sharples Greg’s oldest friend did design Romeo and Juliet and gets honourable mention through the early part of the book, we never got to realise Skin Deep an exhibition of bodypainting which would have followed on from our Flying Colours quilt exhibition.

Sadly our joint plan to create a Festival of Shakespeare Musicals at Buxton Opera House with Artistic Director Designate Judi Dench launched in 1992 supported by the amazing late Martin Tickner was scuppered by a board that couldn’t see the potential, and a BBC Radio abject failure to give credits to our sponsors.  I love that Jude and Greg worked together so wonderfully into the future and that he did, in the end, create Merry Wives the Musical.  When we made our list of existing Shakespeare Musicals there was one play missing – Titus Andronicus seemed never to have been turned into a musical.  Greg planned to write a 20 minute dark comedy/tragedy Titus! as part of the festival output.  There’s still time Mr Doran.

Greg was my Best Man when I married Helen. He is Michael’s godfather. Mike doesn’t get any mention in the book because, although he has been a regular actor in the RSC company over many years he has never played in a Shakespeare play directed by Greg.  My daughter in law Mariam was in King John and I had the joy of watching her understudy run where she played two characters who end up having a major scene together – the Assnt Director and Greg approved that she could deliver both these roles simultaneously – it brought the house down.   Mike’s first RSC job was in Cardenio which is featured in the book, understudying the title role. Unlike Ed Bennett understudying Hamlet who went on and saved the day,  the young actor playing Cardenio never went off.  It is always wonderful getting to see these understudy runs which give the Assnt Director their chance to pull together a full performance of the play with the understudies stepping up and the leading players filling in the gaps I got to see Mike as Cardenio and as Oppenheimer in Stratford and London. When Mike was in Jonathan Slinger’s Hamlet, it was a joy to watch Jonathan giving us an outrageous Grave Digger so that the originating actor could step up to his understudy role.

This book has given me a chance to remember so many projects. In 40+ years of knowing Greg it is wonderful to have seen his passion for Shakespeare acknowledged with the eventual challenge of leading the RSC, and for his great sense of theatre pageantry and storytelling to be revealed through this book.  There is laughter and there are tears – especially as we reach the stage where his life partner, the massive stage presence of Sir Anthony Sher,  fades from the world stage.  Tony left a phenomenal legacy of work but he has also left a massive hole in Greg’s universe.   I hope, Greg, you will find wonderful ways to continue to make work in extraordinary ways and extraordinary places. As you told the Richard III Arthur Hughes company, “Tony has been on my shoulder, like a bad prosthetic hump, not letting me get away with anything, pushing me to see things freshly, to look harder, explore deeper, fail better”.  In our times together you have always given me crazy challenges so that we can fail better.  I wonder whether we will work on a project again ?

Do grab a copy of this book for yourself, for your students, for any aspiring actor in your family, for your own development as a director, or just for the joy of seeing one life lived to the full.

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