My Shakespeare: A Director’s Journey through the First Folio
Judging by this lovely volume and Oliver Ford Davies’s recently published An Actor’s Life in 12 Productions, the current vogue among Shakespeareans is to combine autobiography with information about theatrical life and an insight into the art form.
Greg Doran spent 35 years working at the Royal Shakespeare Company including a decade running the RSC so is undoubtedly an expert in his field. He also has the valuable knack of conveying his skill and enthusiasm in highly intelligible language.
My Shakespeare is divided into 36 chapters theoretically covering the author’s experience in directing every play in the First Folio and including Venus and Adonis, neglecting only Two Gentlemen of Verona.
As with all good prodigies, the story starts early with youthful involvement in Romeo and Juliet, directed in the West End while Doran was a 20-year-old student. It then runs through the canon in chronological order of production through to the COVID years, eventually concluding with an epilogue acknowledging Cymbeline.
At one level, this is a biography of Greg Doran starting with schooldays in Preston through university and drama school followed by a brief acting career. It then expounds on half a lifetime of directing at the RSC, eventually culminating in the top job as Artistic Director, at which he excelled by any measure.
Since this tale is told via Shakespearean productions, along with trips into byways of works by other playwrights, there is also an opportunity to get into the mind of a director, understanding the artistic and casting decisions that have to be made and also the pitfalls that can waylay even the most careful plans of mice and men.
Then there are the personalities, of whom the most significant in both theatrical and personal terms is Doran’s partner and eventually husband, Sir Antony Sher.
The couple seem to have been blessed by both deep love and mutual respect that allowed them to conquer so many major theatrical presentations, primarily a series of great Shakespeare productions including unforgettable visions of Macbeth, Othello and the Henry IV plays, in which under meticulous direction the actor excelled, respectively portraying the title figure, Iago and Falstaff.
Other actors also thrived under Greg Doran’s influence, with the likes of Patrick Stewart, David Tennant, Harriet Walter, Alexandra Gilbreath, Dame Judi Dench and Simon Russell Beale all making their mark at various times, often more than once.
Whether you are looking for insights into both major and minor works by the Bard, the story of two theatrical giants or a history of the RSC over the last few decades, My Shakespeare is a must-read and must-buy, since this is the kind of thoughtful, well-written and consistently entertaining book that any lover of serious theatre would be delighted to read or receive as a gift.
For any budding director who wants to bring Shakespeare to the stage, it could also act as a highly readable manual, offering morsels of intelligent guidance that only come with a lifetime’s experience.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher