“At best illogical, and at worst destructive.” Robert Icke, the wunderkind of British theater – or enfant terrible to some – is talking about the Arts Council England cuts that, earlier this month, left several institutions (including the Donmar Warehouse and Newbury’s Watermill) without subsidy, and the English National Opera effectively drummed out of London. “Arts are proven to be a very, very good investment, and in the age of Brexit you would think they would be one of the important things for Britain’s soft power.”
When Icke speaks, the Arts Council should listen. The 35-year-old director, mastermind behind fresh-as-paint new takes on The Oresteia and Mary Stuart, has been the most exciting voice in British theatre for over a decade. His once-in-a-generation style, which glides seamlessly between subsidized venues and the commercial West End, encompasses both erudition and excitement, as he cleans away the accumulated layers of performance dust on classic texts – his version of Hamlet starring Andrew Scott was thrillingly urgent, despite its lengthy running time – to return them to a sparkling, new-born state.
Although he has been a critics’ darling, Icke has not always been so complimentary of our theater scene, once saying that he found much of it boring. His punchy views have not softened. “One of the problems with doing classic plays is that we call them ‘revivals’, which is getting a dead thing to live. That’s a long road between death and life. Sometimes we sit the corpse there with some make-up on it and you think, ‘It’s still dead though!”
Certainly his production of The Doctor, currently in the West End, is anything but boring. A dazzling modern spin on Arthur Schnitzler’s 1912 medical-ethical drama Professor Bernhardi, it stars Juliet Stevenson on career-best form as the uncompromising yet embattled Dr Wolff, and has been recalibrated as an eviscerating examination of identity politics.
Icke is keenly aware that discussions about labels and identity have become even more of a tinderbox in the three years since the play premiered at the Almeida Theater in north London, a venue where he held the position of associate director for six years. “In The Doctor, the question is: what is identity and is it important,” he says. “When does it matter and when does it not matter?” When is it central and useful and when is it a bit stupid?
“Is the question profound enough to merit weeks and weeks of thinking and exploration?” If it isn’t, then don’t do the show. If I know what I think about something, that’s an essay, not a production. I’m not in the business of sermons.”
I ask Icke what he makes of the ingression of cancel culture into the world of theatre, such as the Old Vic’s jettisoning of Terry Gilliam’s production of Into the Woodsin light of controversial comments made by the director about the MeToo movement and diversity.
“When you say ‘cancel culture’, it sounds unfairly applied, but sometimes someone being canceled is simply the consequence of their actions,” he says. “As the play evidences, I feel double-edged about it.
“There’s definitely a generational culture change within our industry that feels largely positive to me. It feels like a load of things are no longer permissible that shouldn’t have ever been permissible anyway. You talk to young women who say they felt really preyed upon.”
One of The Doctor’s bugbears, as Stevenson’s Wolff entrenches herself ever more deeply in a public-relations crisis, is the anonymous social media pile-on. Icke knows what this feels like: he received considerable backlash after his award-laden breakthrough in 2015 with The Oresteia.
“Suddenly you become somebody on the internet whom people think they can just slag off,” he says, mentioning “envy and hatred as a constant presence like radiation… there’s nothing you can do.”
Icke has always been a polarizing figure. “Arrogance” is a word often used, with one leading industry figure telling me: “He is very confident in his own rightness and very dismissive of others.” Yet others such as Dominic Cooke, who cites the “dazzling energy and intelligence” of his work, are considerably kinder.
My impression of Icke, when we met on an unseasonably warm November day near his north London home, is of a calm, kind and thoughtful person. Regarding the “arrogance” tag, he says: “‘We’re all slotted into archetypes, especially in interviews. I’m still pretty young to do the job I do, so the available archetype is aggro, the ‘destructive young Turk’ thing. I’ve never really felt that.” He smiles mischievously before adding, “When I was an assistant director, I remember someone saying to me, ‘In this business, you’re either lovely but a bit rubbish, or talented and difficult. They’ll view you one way or the other.’ I guess I’d rather be talented…”
Icke is also “white, male and Oxbridge”, things which have suffered a particular backlash in the industry in recent years. Yet he does not fit the stereotype: as someone who grew up in distinctly unstarry surroundings in Stockton-on-Tees, with parents who started as teachers and then became a tax inspector and an accountant, and went to a comprehensive school, he has much to say on the matter.
“White and male is how you’re born, so that seems to me like a difficult thing for anybody to have to answer on any front. The Cambridge thing I will defend, which is wildly unfashionable in British theatre. Cambridge costs the same as any other university… Sometimes I feel it gets confused in people’s minds with ‘privately educated’, and I didn’t go there because I’m rich. I’m not rich.”
He pauses and gestures around him: “You couldn’t buy a flat in this street even if you sold my mum’s house, my dad’s house and my brother’s house and put all the proceeds together. So I think Cambridge falls slightly into that bit of the British psyche [which conflates wealth with opportunity]”.
For the past few years, Icke, who began his career working with Rupert Goold at touring company Headlong, has been working in Europe, primarily with Ivo van Hove’s Internationaal Theater Amsterdam. “My process suits European theater really well,” he says, citing the ensembles of salaried actors with whom he can work organically to create productions, in a manner which he likens to “making a couture dress”. Content though he is on the Continent, he doesn’t see this as a permanent move and has plans to direct his first feature film next year.
Theatre-wise, it seems obvious that his next step would be to run a building, in order to have complete creative control. Yet he is adamant that this is not the path for him. “If you do one of those jobs now, you spend a lot of time worrying about money,” he says. “I could do that at home.”
“I think the climate’s tough in British theater currently, and I don’t think people are excited about people who look like me running buildings. I don’t say that with any sense of pity, by the way”, he says, before softening into a big smile.
“Also, I want to be a really good father. I don’t want to bring up a person who goes, ‘My Daddy was never there because he was always at rehearsal.’”
Icke has a one-year-old daughter with his long-time partner, actress-turned-writer Zara Tempest (with whom he is collaborating on a film adaptation of Zadie Smith’s On Beauty). He proudly shows me a video of her toddling, displaying all her father’s fearlessness, across the living room. Let’s hope that this young girl will be a deciding factor in bringing Icke back permanently to these shores. If British theater allowed a rare and precious talent like his to slip away, it would be a crime.
The Doctor is at the Duke of York’s Theatre, London WC2, until Dec 11. Tickets: 0844 8717623, thedoctorwestend.co.uk