Rupert Goold nearly got out of the directing business when he was 29. If he had known what was coming, the thought would never have entered his mind, for in the eight years since he has become about the most courted interpreter of plays in his gifted generation. Someone else would have had to direct the Pete Postlethwaite King Lear last year, and the Michael Gambon No Man’s Land, and the Patrick Stewart Macbeth in 2007, and they would not have been the same thing at all. They might not even have taken place, since Goold’s name has become a magnet for leading stars who exert a similar pull over audiences.
He is now routinely touted as a future head of the National Theatre or the Royal Shakespeare Company. He waves such talk away as if it is an idle casting notion. He can afford to; he is already an associate director of the RSC, for which he will direct Romeo and Juliet next year. At the same time he is the artistic director of Headlong, which changed its name from the Oxford Stage Company because, as he says, “everyone assumed it was students”.
Shakespeare’s romantic tragedy holds a particular romance for Goold because he met the actress Kate Fleetwood during a production ten years ago, bucked the plot and married her. They now have a four-year-old son, Raphael. She has since played a number of roles for him, including a much younger spouse for Patrick Stewart’s Macbeth. That production is one of five or six in the past few years that have caused Goold’s reputation to soar. His was a terrifying Stalinist vision, set in a space like an abattoir, with a kitchen fridge of industrial dimensions and taps that ran blood. With its mighty conceptual stamp, its high-energy effects and clear referencing of horror movies (Saw and The Shining in this instance), it was covered from top to toe in his distinctive fingerprints. It also drew from Stewart a performance at least the equal of Ian McKellen’s, his current co-star in Waiting for Godot at the Haymarket Theatre.
There was Goold’s polar transposition of The Tempest, also starring Stewart, and his bold splicing of Marlowe’s Faustus with the story of the contemporary shock-artists Jake and Dinos Chapman. Last year he reworked Pirandello’s 1921 drama Six Characters in Search of an Author to incorporate the story of a film being made about a terminally ill 14-year-old boy in a Danish euthanasia clinic. Here, too, was a powerful cinema influence, this time from Andrew Jarecki’s candid 2002 documentary Capturing the Friedmans.
Goold’s new production is called Enron. This is as good as its word, telling the story of the huge corporate scandal involving the US energy giant in 2001. With a script by the 28-year-old Lucy Prebble (voted most promising playwright by the Critics’ Circle for her 2004 drama The Sugar Syndrome), it shows how the rapacious US financiers of the 1990s fell from being masters of the universe to convicted fraudsters with the speed of a collapsing building. Though commissioned before the recession bit, the story’s portrayal of money as a commodity with a knack of vanishing has chilly parallels with the present. As Goold says, the play is less concerned with demonising the main players in the scandal, in particular Jeff Skilling, the chief executive officer (played by Samuel West), and Ken Lay, the chairman (Tim Pigott-Smith), who died before he was sentenced, than in showing the catastrophic results of misplaced trust.
“Headlong has always tried to give new writers the brief to be provocative and theatrical,” Goold says. “Lucy said she was going to write a musical about Enron, and we said ‘Great’. Then, when we got the first draft, we thought there wasn’t really space for songs and it might be better as a play. What I enjoy most is working closely with the writer, losing sleep over how it’s going. The point about Headlong is that there has to be an intellectual argument that you can really engage with. The great challenge for me is to do that and at the same time make it theatrically exciting.”
His own hallmark is impeccably middle-class; born in Highgate in leafiest North London, the son of a London professional couple, father a management consultant, mother a children’s author; school at the independent University College School in Hampstead; English at Trinity College, Cambridge.
He seems to be extraordinarily popular, and you can see why. There’s charm without smarm, a fine mane of floppy hair and a self-effacement that has not been bolted on for appearance’s sake.
“I’ve done some terrible work in the past ten years,” he says with a laugh. This is the acceptable (and intellectual) face of Hugh Grant. When it comes to his own success, he’s right there in the middle between pride and modesty, insisting that he has never been a natural leader. “I’ve been incredibly fortunate,” he confirms, “with Macbeth going so well that my star leapt up.” Then he adds, rather ruefully: “I’m not sure that Headlong’s stuff hasn’t sometimes been lost under the Rupert Goold Show.”
This “show” was quite late opening. He says that at Cambridge he felt intimidated, partly by the wealth of talented people around him, partly by the legacy of the brilliant departed, none more so than Simon McBurney, founder of the ground-breaking Theatre de Complicite. “The place was a beacon,” he says. “There was this idea that if you want to be a director you go to Cambridge. I didn’t leave with any sense of expectation. I look back now and I think, ‘Well, what was I going to do?’ There were a couple of pub theatres that students seemed to do stuff at. I did a late-night one, which got terrible reviews and lost a lot of money. I was going to give up, once then, when I was just out of university, and then again about eight years later.”
The most influential figures at Cambridge for Goold were not in the drama crowd but among the academics — Professor Adrian Poole, Dr Eric Griffiths “and a wonderful man called Jeremy Hall, who no one has heard of, although everyone who met him would bow down to him. What he taught me was the cultural contexts of art, the way in which particular pieces of great literature had come to be written.”
Goold’s route to London was not as direct as such earlier graduates as Peter Hall and Trevor Nunn. He got there via stints at the Salisbury Playhouse and the Royal and Derngate Theatres, Northampton. Perhaps, as he suggests himself, he and his contemporaries such as Thea Sharrock, Rufus Norris, Marianne Elliott and Dominic Cooke took a while to come through because an earlier generation wouldn’t move over.
“It [directing] is like a pyramid,” he says. “There’s a huge base, consisting of the many people who want to do it. Then it narrows sharply into some who are making an adequate living, then it narrows again and it’s very tight there because everyone is working. There aren’t many of you there, and your real, crucial value is your ability to attract the big actors. That’s always what actors ask before taking on a play: ‘Am I in safe hands?’ Well, the odd thing about me is that I am not safe hands; my absolute mantra is the ditching of the dull.”