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Catastrophe averted?

The leaders of the rich countries went to Washington to save the world from sliding into deep recess

Vincent Cable

Shadow chancellor, Liberal Democrats

By the low standards of economic summitry, the G20 meeting rated quite high. There was a predictable, no doubt pre-written, communiqué, full of the usual banalities. And the meeting suffered from the absence of the world's most important politician, who hasn't yet taken up office. But, these necessary caveats aside, there were important achievements.

The first is that the meeting took place at all. The ludicrous pretence of the G8 (or G7) that the old western powers should set the global economic agenda has been punctured for good. On a purchasing power parity basis, China has the second-biggest economy in the world and India the fourth. It has been clear for some time that China is lender of last resort to the global system (by, in effect, underwriting US government paper) and the main source of global incremental demand (and commodity price inflation). The Chinese self-parody as the pupil sitting meekly at the feet of a dominant, but erring, master defies belief. It is obviously right that China, India and the other main non-G7 countries should be at the top table.

The second achievement was the clear realisation that unless governments hang together they will hang separately. Enough has been learned from interwar history for us to understand the follies of beggar-my-neighbour economics. Perhaps a warning shock was being sent across the bows of the incoming Obama administration not to reinvent the protectionist tariffs of the 1930s in a new guise, directed at China or Mexico in particular, or aiming to salvage the US auto industry through public subsidy. But this new-found concern for open markets has not yet communicated itself to EU or Indian or Chinese trade negotiators, who show no enthusiasm for lifting the block on trade liberalisation under the Doha round.

While trade policy is on the back burner, macroeconomic policy co-ordination is not. With a few exceptions - Germany notably - there is recognition of the need for aggressive monetary and fiscal policy and for large-scale intervention to recapitalise banks. These interventions can be and are being undertaken nationally. But governments acting in isolation attract critical attention from capital markets and currency speculators, as Gordon Brown is discovering. Structures like the G20 are the best safeguard against chaotic, unilateral action.

Will Hutton

Economic commentator

It was remarkable to gather so much economic and political power in one room to address a common agenda. That was the good news - along with commitments to co-ordinate fiscal expansion, to expand the lending power of the IMF and World Bank (Japan's $100bn loan to the IMF will increase the Fund's lending capacity by 40 per cent), to boost cross-border supervision, to tackle credit rating agencies, to reassess mad accounting rules and require member countries to attack the bonus culture in the financial services industry. A year ago such an agreement would have been inconceivable.

The bad news is that much of this is shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted. Four things have to be recognised: that the world has profound imbalances between high-saving, high-surplus areas in Asia and the Gulf and low-saving, structural deficit countries in the transatlantic economy (Germany excepted); that a system of floating exchange rates and private banks can no longer take the weight of recycling those savings; that unless the system is de-risked and the burden of adjustment is placed on deficit and surplus countries alike, the global system faces breakdown; and finally, that the business model used by the banks to recycle surpluses - securitisation and hedging in the $360trn global derivatives market - is broken.

In plain English, China must accept that its currency must appreciate; Britain and America, that they cannot run their economies on foreign savings; and all players that there has to be a system of semi-fixed exchange rates between the yen, the euro and the dollar.

One tough reality is that, for all their new economic weight, China, Brazil, Russia and India do not have fully convertible currencies - nor do they want to accept the discipline involved in having convertible currencies.

Ann Pettifor

Fellow, New Economics Foundation

Over the past decade, the Group of Eight leaders turned their exclusive annual meetings into jamborees. Rock concerts, protesters and celebrities added populist glitz. However, the real purpose of the meetings - international co-operation and co-ordination - was ducked. At last year's G8 Summit in Heiligendamm, Germany, George W Bush and Gordon Brown vetoed Angela Merkel's agenda item for co-operation over tighter international regulation and financial oversight of capital markets. That task, they argued then, could safely be delegated to "the invisible hand". Now that the fantastic, self-regulating machinery of free markets has proved grossly malfunctional, it is good to hear talk of enhanced co-operation and regulation.

But, in places, the joint statement issued by the 20 world leaders borders on the delusional. The phrase "We must . . . ensure . . . that a global crisis, such as this one, does not happen again" implies that they are avoiding the next war when they are still losing this one.

Even more questionable is the call for continued "economic growth". In a world of finite resources on a planet with limited capacity to absorb toxic emissions, and with bushfires encircling Los Angeles, we would have hoped that world leaders had some awareness of the threat of climate change and of the limits to economic growth. But no. The gravest threat to global security - our rapacious attitude to the earth's resources - is once again whipped up with talk of "market principles, open trade and economic growth".

Jesse Norman

Senior fellow at Policy Exchange

One might have thought the G20 summit a good moment for some straight talk from the Prime Minister. Instead, the political wind machine was cranked up to full blast. The summit would be a second Bretton Woods. Gordon Brown would forge a new global consensus on co-ordinated intervention to stimulate growth (while, of course, leading reforms to prevent the banking crisis from ever recurring). Luckily virtually none of this was true, or the summit would have been a hopeless failure. With fiscal measures already widely adopted, the G20 hardly needed Brown's leadership. No surprise that he returned empty-handed.

Labour has moved from despondency to a manic desperation to remain in office. The result is that the ever-fragile concept of truth in politics has wholly been cast aside. Thus the humiliating bank nationalisation has been dressed up as an act of far-seeing economic statesmanship. And a sensible warning from the shadow chancellor that current economic policy puts sterling at risk has been condemned for breaching an irrelevant semi-convention dating from the time of fixed exchange rates.

Alex Brummer

City editor, Daily Mail

There is a golden rule of international financial meetings. The larger the "G" number, in other words the more countries involved, the less likely it is that any worthwhile or binding decisions will be taken. So while it was wholly encouraging that the G20 summit brought a number of emerging market leaders to the top table of finance, including China, Brazil and Russia, there was never any real prospect of the event becoming the new Bretton Woods.

Furthermore, the summit took place in the final days of the lame duck administration of George Bush. Once it became clear Barack Obama was going nowhere near the confab, the event became even more of an irrelevance.

European leaders may like to blame Wall Street and Anglo-Saxon capitalism for the credit crunch and the recession now spreading through the Group of Seven like wildfire, but there is no hope of concerted international action without the new White House and Federal Reserve on board.

Almost all that was agreed could have been decided before the leaders left home. The commitment to reviving the Doha trade round is pure motherhood and apple pie. The prairie populists on Capitol Hill are unlikely to be enthusiastic.

At the core of the proposals was the commitment to use fiscal measures, tax cuts and public spending to kick-start global economies. But despite Gordon Brown's enthusiastic embrace of a new Keynesian big-spending approach - as advocated by Nobel prize-winner Paul Krugman - he neatly forgot to mention that such big-spending ways were only for those countries with a "policy framework conducive to fiscal sustainability". The UK with its ballooning budget deficit, which could hit £100bn or more next year, is clearly in no such position.

It is hard to fathom in what way the G20 was "historic", as the Prime Minister claimed in the Commons. There is little original in a bunch of old ideas designed to remove risk from the financial system and control executive pay. That is what regulators should have done before the banks ploughed into the iceberg.

James Buchan

Author and financial commentator

What is the Financial Stability Forum? What is "mitigating against pro-cyclicality in regulatory policy"? What, if anything, has the G20 summit in Washington on the weekend of the 15 November achieved?

Nothing very much, is the answer to all three questions. In the twilight of a discredited US administration, and with President-elect Barack Obama absent, the meeting was never likely to achieve a great deal or generate excitement in the US. Yet the final declaration, drafted with suspicious ease by the delegations on Saturday night, has something for everybody but not enough of anything to scare the financial horses.

Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president whose idea the whole thing was, gained some support for more institutional government of trade and finance, but no super-gendarme international of the type that has been directing financial traffic in the French imagination since the 17th century. As Jean-Pierre Robin wrote in the Figaro: "Those with fantasies of supranational supervision will need to change therapist." The US, jealous of its commercial sovereignty even when it is going about without its shirt, put paid to those Gallic dreams and also gained some platitudes about free trade.

The new commercial powers, not only Brazil, Russia, India and mainland China but also rich oil producers such as Saudi Arabia, received diplomatic recognition of their deep pockets. "The world's geopolitical structure has a new dimension," the Brazilian president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, said. "There is no logic to making any political and economic decisions without the G20 members - developing countries must be part of the solution to the global financial crisis."

I suspect the winner is Gordon Brown. The next meeting will be held under his presidency in London in April. The Washington ragbag of proposals to reform or tinker with the current system, such as reminding us about the Financial Stability Form and mitigating against that regrettable pro-cyclicality in regulatory policy, appeals to his technical vanity and plays to his technical strengths.

Paul Mason

Economics editor, Newsnight

There was a sense in Washington, despite the throbbing engines and bulletproof glass, of powerlessness. The communiqué was stronger on the causes of the crisis than on co-ordinated solutions. Policymakers are right to stay focused on the near-term dangers: these are country-level debt default, the rising cost of borrowing for non-financial companies, rapid job losses and - via feedback - further destabilisation of the banking system. We are moving into the phase of fiscal stimulus but there are powerful technical arguments that say without "quantitative easing" - that is, printing money to stimulate demand - it doesn't work. The same people who told me it would come to recapitalisation, that the TARP (troubled assets relief programme) would not work, are now saying: nationalise the banks and print money.

Despite the urgency of the focus on near-term dangers, what was obvious at G20 was the lack of vision as to the future growth model of capitalism. The problem was seen as a failure of regulation; the solution a pretty weak brew of re-regulation that will get diluted even more as the lobbyists begin to have influence. But the problem is more fundamental: the growth model based on high debt instead of high wages has failed and will be hard to revive.

Peter Mandelson

Secretary of State for Business

We have been caught in a global whirlwind of extraordinary force.

It has brought with it a fear that has gripped the world economy and taken hold here at home. We are seeing it every day, with fear among consumers that is depressing demand; fear among banks that is inhibiting them from lending; fear among small- and medium-sized businesses that banks are just about to cut off their credit lines. The choice facing us and governments around the world is this: do we act decisively to counter and overcome this fear, or do we become paralysed by it and fail to act?

The government has already shown its willingness to take the bolder course as the first mover in setting about stabilising the banks. What is needed now is action to stimulate the demand essential for recovery. The UK economy, like economies in the rest of the world, needs a shot of adrenalin.

The Bank of England has already made a significant cut to interest rates. This monetary stimulus now needs to be matched by a fiscal stimulus. And because this is a global crisis this is best done if the benefit of the measures taken nationally is maximised by the same measures being taken around the world. That was the message from the international conference in Washington, as governments recognised the need to take the action necessary to stimulate their economies.

People will say, "But you are resorting to borrowing in order to deliver the stimulus that's needed." My answer to that is, what is the alternative? We certainly haven't heard one from the Conservatives.

David Cameron and George Osborne, trapped by their desire to oppose everything the government does, refuse to accept the scale of the challenge the world's economies now face and the prescribed international action. Their stance appears to be, if the rest of the world disagrees with us, it is because the rest of the world is wrong. The result is incoherence and an Opposition at sixes and sevens. One minute this is "do all it takes" and the next it is - as we heard this week - leave the recession to "take its course".

Sitting on our hands watching houses repossessed and businesses go to the wall is certainly not the approach being urged on me by people I have been speaking to up and down the country. They want their government to act to stimulate demand in the economy here and now. With all due prudence, that is what we are going to do.

Diane Coyle

Author and economist

The G20 meeting confirmed a robust and rapid response (by past standards) to recession, even in the US operating under a rump free-market administration. Policymakers around the world have been shaken to see the financial system at the brink of collapse - on their watch.

Yet it is difficult to predict how severe the recession will be. Bank lending to businesses and individuals is virtually frozen. In many (but not all) areas of the economy, activity has come to a halt. The last financial boom and bust, ending in 2001, had surprisingly little impact on jobs and growth, as the financial bubble had become increasingly untethered from anything real. Today's vicious circle of evaporating liquidity is much more serious, but lower interest rates and bigger government deficits will help. The underlying trends are easier to outline. Some challenges are clearly unaltered, such as climate change and our ageing society.

The technological opportunities are still there, too, in communications, the internet and biotechnology. Globalisation will be less driven by finance in future, but it will not be unwound. It would take a generation to turn back the clock on economic linkages, and the cultural impacts are permanent. In fact, the crisis has underlined our interdependence across national borders.

What has changed is the political economy of globalisation. In the triad of efficiency, fairness and freedom which dominates political choice in democracies, fairness will take priority in the years ahead, and the drive for ever greater productivity gains will retreat. The semi-nationalisation of the banks has started to shift the boundary between public and private domains; we will have to think more carefully about how to govern private choices that have big social spillovers. The G20 did not touch on this profound question of governance.

Iain Macwhirter

Political commentator

The G20 was largely a throat-clearing session and was never going to put in place the foundations of a new international financial system. Progress on the stalled Doha trade talks is encouraging but provides no guarantee that protectionism will not raise its head in the coming economic slump.

It is inevitable that countries faced with financial collapse will try to defend their economies by any means possible. Britain is already far down the road of "beggar my neighbour" economics by the "managed" devaluation of the pound, a crude attempt to boost UK industry by lowering the prices of British exports and creating a de facto tariff wall around imports from abroad. It won't work because Britain does not make much of anything any more except debt, and the world has plenty of that already.

But the collapse of the pound will seriously damage what is left of UK financial services. No one in their right minds would put money into the UK economy now, with the property market collapsing, UK banks insolvent and government borrowing likely to reach £100bn in the next 18 months.

Gordon Brown seems to believe that sterling is like the dollar, and that people will buy our dud pounds whatever the likely losses. However, as we are discovering, sterling is not a reserve currency and unlike the US we cannot force other countries to pay our debts. The future for our battered island is likely to be hyperinflation punctuated by appeals to the International Monetary Fund for emergency aid. Forget about spending our way out of recession - the UK government simply lacks the resources to fund the huge borrowing that would be required. Something will have to give. Brown will have cause to regret being so beastly to the Icelanders.

Richard Reeves

Director of Demos

James Carville, the hardened political aide to Bill Clinton, said that if he was reincarnated he'd want to come back as the bond market: "You can intimidate anybody." Right now it seems odd to think of any financial markets threatening anybody. But it is one of the ironies of the current economic situation that the capital markets still have some serious muscle.

Western governments, faced with recession, need to throw a lot of money at their ailing financial institutions - money that can be raised only by selling Treasury debt, mostly to the capital-rich investors of the Far East. For Gordon Brown, this is likely to become a more difficult sell, as Prudence is given the push and the pound takes a nosedive. Even national exchequers invite sceptical scrutiny in this new, nervous world.

The financial crisis is at heart a loss of faith. The word credit derives from the Latin credo - "I believe". When the Titanic of the financial world - in the shape of Lehman Brothers - was allowed to sink, the bonds of trust stretching around the world were snapped. In an instant, everyone stopped believing in each other.

A number of sensible measures should be on the agenda when the G20 reconvenes next year, including legislation to ensure bonuses in financial services are paid on the basis of five-year performance; new "pro-cyclical" provisioning rules requiring finance houses to increase their store of capital in economic upturns; and tougher, independent regulation of the rating agencies whose doe-eyed assessments of banks built on a mountain of paper helped get us in this mess.

There is, however, no quick technical fix for such a dramatic loss of confidence. Trust can be lost in the blink of a market-trader's eye - but it will take years to rebuild.

TEN THINGS THEY ACHIEVED

  • 1 Created a road map aimed at stabilising the world economy and overhauling the banking system with targets for the end of March 2009
  • 2 Advocated Keynesian big-spending
    “fiscal stimulus”
  • 3 Expanded from a small club making world decisions to recognise the importance of the economies of Brazil, Russia, India and China
  • 4 Agreed to reform international finance institutions, including better transparency and supervision of credit ratings agencies
  • 5 Agreed that the Financial Stability Forum should include emerging economies
  • 6 Banks and hedge funds to hold increased levels of capital and cash
  • 7 Recommended “supervisory colleges” for all major cross-border financial institutions
  • 8 Return to the Doha round – trade ministers to meet in Geneva next month
  • 9 Instructed G20 finance ministers to draw up plans and timeline
  • 10 Agreed to meet again, in London next April

. . . AND FIVE THEY DIDN’T

  • 1 Agree a future growth model for capitalism. Instead they reconfirmed their “shared belief in market principles”
  • 2 Agree detailed plans for regulatory reforms of banking
  • 3 Establish a plan of action for achieving the already endangered Millennium Development Goals
  • 4 Set up an international supervisory body with sufficient power to control global markets
  • 5 Halt the run on sterling, which fell sharply against the euro and dollar

Alyssa McDonald

This article first appeared in the 24 November 2008 issue of the New Statesman, How to get us out of this mess

Robert Icke. Photo: Camera Press
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Cruel to be kind: the radicalism of Robert Icke

The Almeida's young associate director has a reputation for criticising the rest of the theatre world. But, he says, he's just trying to strip away the “plastic casing” from classic texts such as Hamlet and 1984.

By the time I meet Robert Icke, at the end of a long day of rehearsals for the West End transfer of Hamlet, I, too, feel like a dreaded sight. Biblical early-summer rain has soaked me to the skin and drummed on the windows of the Union Chapel in Islington, north London, breaking the actors’ concentration as they work out how to move the production from the Almeida, a 325-seat theatre, to a venue that holds 796.

I sit on the sofa to dry out, hoping it’s not the one that Andrew Scott plans to hide behind at the Harold Pinter Theatre in central London in a few days' time. The lead actor is here, relaxed and laughing in a blue shirt and yellow Converse; there is none of the whiff of sulphur that hangs about him as Moriarty in the BBC’s Sherlock or his extraordinary, volcanic Hamlet. As stagehands remove masking tape from the floor and the rest of the company say their weekend goodbyes, Robert Icke stands serene. There is something of the Nineties student about him: big, round glasses, black T-shirt and light blue jeans. He wouldn’t look out of place in an early Blur video.

But he’s much too young for that. After all, there are two things that everyone in the theatre world knows about Icke. The first is that he is young – disgustingly young, thrillingly young – the director of seven acclaimed shows since joining the Almeida at just 30. The second is that he thinks a lot of theatre is crap. “Certainly more evenings at the theatre are boring than not boring,” he told the Times in October. He walks out of shows at the interval, he said, “all the time”.

At the Almeida, where he is associate director, he has focused mostly on classic texts, culminating in a Hamlet that has now transferred to the commercial stage. He loves Shakespeare as much as he hates the cult of Shakespeare, all doublets and what he calls “actor voice”. He also hates period dress. “It’s about a weird kind of nostalgia for the past, because, you know, ‘It was safer then and there were no brown people to fuck things up,’” he tells me as we eat in a nearby restaurant. “I find period dress as an aesthetic choice to be like a political choice – lazy and safe.”

Icke is London theatre’s golden boy. The only other director of his generation who inspires anything like as much buzz is Lyndsey Turner, who is so publicity shy that she doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page. Although she won an Olivier Award in 2014 for Chimerica, her 2015 Hamlet – a blowsy epic at the Barbican starring Benedict Cumberbatch – had disappointing reviews.

By contrast, Icke can apparently do no wrong. His version of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four has just opened on Broadway, and his translation of Friedrich Schiller’s Mary Stuart will follow Hamlet to the West End next year. Over Christmas, while the Schiller play was running at the Almeida and Hamlet was in rehearsal, he also directed David Hare’s The Red Barn at the National. Next April, he will stage Oedipus in the Netherlands with Toneelgroep Amsterdam. He watches each production at least once a week, continually refining it.

This success is why critics worry that his click-bait pronouncements will overshadow his talents. “He doesn’t seem to have an edit function when it comes to public speaking,” says David Benedict, the former London critic of Variety. “There are times when he appears to be on some kind of mission, but I’m not sure what the mission is.”

Henry Hitchings of the London Evening Standard agrees. “He’s 30 and everything he’s done has been very successful. He’s already this grand eminence in the British theatre, but that doesn’t mean he’s the finished article.” Kate Maltby, who reviews for the Times, adds: “He is the subject of real hatred and envy by his peers – it’s the response to youthful success.”

Yet his mentor, the Almeida’s artistic director, Rupert Goold, is sanguine. “He has got a reputation for being very controversial. People imagine it must be arrogance,” he tells me. “But he’s really not. He has moments of great doubt. I remember after seeing a rehearsal of Hamlet, I had a few thoughts, and I could sense he felt he had a lot of work to do. He was having his own Hamlet moment.”

Icke sees himself not as a provocateur – theatre’s Damien Hirst – but as a radical, in the old sense of “going back to the root”. Goold says that the pair of them are always talking about the “Dyson factor”. “No one thought to put a big ball in the middle of a Hoover and, oh, look, it’s made the Hoover a million times better,” he says. “So what’s the Dyson factor for George Bernard Shaw, or Schiller? What’s the big round ball that makes it better?”

OK, so what happens if we do to Robert Icke what he tries to do to his texts: strip away the click-bait? What is it that makes so many people swoon over his productions?

Act I: Oresteia

“I hadn’t seen any of his work,” says Hildegard Bechtler, who has designed sets and costumes for four of Icke’s shows. “But straight out of that first conversation, I wanted to collaborate on the Oresteia.”

There was one problem: there was no text to work from. “I didn’t have his version, so I got a bit panicked about it. It was a jump into the dark in every sense for me.” That was because Icke was translating the text himself, creating a family saga around Orestes, who kills his mother to avenge his father.

“When I look back on Rob and his development,” Goold says, “the moment that accelerated his career was when he wanted to adapt the Oresteia himself.” The play was conceived as part of a Greek season at the Almeida in 2015, but it became the standout success.

Until he picked up his Olivier Award for Oresteia – becoming the youngest person ever to win the Best Director prize – Icke was a cult hit rather than a mainstream success. Born in Stockton-on-Tees and educated at a Church of England state school, he decided at the age of 15 to become a director after seeing Kenneth Branagh in Richard III. Returning home, he wrote to the play's director Michael Grandage, who offered him a two-hour personal tutorial. But Icke didn’t enjoy the drama scene at Cambridge, where he studied English at King’s College. He told the university paper Varsity in 2014: “There was a lot of cliquey-ness and I thought the work was rubbish.”

While still at school, he co-founded a youth theatre company in Stockton, and he repeated the exercise at Cambridge with an outfit called the Swan. By 2009, however, he was considering giving up, having been told by the National Theatre that its lower age limit for associate directors was 28.

Then he met Goold, who was the artistic director of the Headlong touring company. Their meeting has been mythologised: one critic tells me a Chinese whispers version in which Icke “went up to [Goold] in a lobby of the theatre after his play and told him it wasn’t very good”.

The real version is less dramatic: they met at a function at the Almeida. Yet there is a kernel of truth to the story. At his interview for the assistant directorship at Headlong, Icke was asked to give a “two-minute takedown” of one of its shows. He chose the phenomenally successful Enron and quickly identified a flaw in the structure that Goold hadn’t seen in two years of working on it.

“When I first met him for the interviews at Headlong, I read his CV,” says the older director now. “I thought, ‘This is the comedy version of an academic CV. The highest A-level in the country! The best degree!’”

Perhaps the apparent ease with which Icke has excelled has left him intolerant of the compromises made by others. He never reads reviews, he tells me, partly because critics get such small spaces in which to dissect a play. “A lot of them, they just aren’t good enough at criticism to be able to spot [a theme] and go, ‘That’s what’s going on.’”

For their part, more than one of the people I spoke to wondered if Icke’s oppositional stance dates back to his 2014 Almeida production of a play called Mr Burns. It was a new work about a post-apocalyptic society that has fashioned a mythology around The Simpsons. The bad half of the sharply divided reviews called it boring, unintelligible and too long. “In the final act, it all got really weird with the actors putting on gold outfits and playing out some sort of Nativity scene,” wrote Tim Walker in the Telegraph. “This bit looked like it was directed not so much by Robert Icke as David Icke.”

But Mr Burns sold well, and the Almeida’s audiences – who were notably younger than the critical establishment – liked it. (A friend of mine who saw it recalled sitting next to a critic who proudly announced that she had never seen The Simpsons.)

“There is a slight generational divide, as much to do with the receptiveness of younger generations to a more European style of theatre as anything,” says Andrzej Lukowski of Time Out, who is close to Icke’s age. “Mr Burns got very polarised reviews. He was quite distraught by some of the reception to that.”

Although Oresteia was more rapturously received, the notices didn’t change Icke’s opinion that much theatre criticism is shallow. “I had a thing in Oresteia which nobody has noticed at all,” he says. “Because the ancient Greeks believed that sneezing meant that the gods had gone into your body in some way, and the sneezing was a sign of the presence of a god, there is a series of strategically placed sneezes in Oresteia.”

Come on, I say. Presumably everybody thought: he’s worked this company too hard and they’ve all caught a cold. He pauses. “I don’t know,” he says. “I never asked them.”

Act II: Mary Stuart

Two women, dressed identically in black trousers, white shirts and black jackets, walk up to the stage. There is silence in the theatre as one drops a coin into a bowl, where it spins and lands. Heads. Tonight, it is Lia Williams’s turn to die and Juliet Stevenson will order her death.

Schiller’s Mary Stuart, first performed in 1800, was even more unpromising as source material for a modern audience than Oresteia. When Icke first asked his two lead actors to read it aloud, the old Victorian translation they had to use lasted five hours. His reworking recognised that this was a rare moment in early-modern history when the fates of two powerful women were intertwined. Each night, one protagonist would be executed and the other would live with the responsibility for making that happen. “As soon as I had the idea of them doing Mary Stuart, I thought, ‘Brilliant, but which way round?’ I read it again and I realised that their interchangeability in the play dramaturgically, and their longing to be the other one, was the way to do it.”

It wasn’t the first production to play with this kind of dualism: for Danny Boyle’s 2011 Frankenstein at the National, Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller alternated as the scientist and the monster. But by making the assignment of roles part of the drama, watched by the audience, Icke emphasised the arbitrary nature of fate.

Kate Maltby, who wrote notes for the programme, is ambivalent about this treatment. “I loved it as a piece of theatre. I just hated it as a feminist and a historian,” she tells me. “His vision of the play is of two women who are mirror images of each other. It was sharply executed but it’s part of a long male tradition of seeing women as interchangeable.”

I make a similar point to Icke. The play reminds me of being asked in my late teens, as part of a personality test, whether I identified more with Marilyn Monroe or Audrey Hepburn. Now, I would probably ask: are those really the only options? “It’s like there are two different sets of characteristics, of which we all have a bit of both,” he says. “The whole question of that play is: is Elizabeth strong enough to kill off Mary, and can a Mary ever kill off an Elizabeth?”

The dramatic structure sets the “doomed, romantic, instinctive” Mary against Elizabeth, “who has thought things through, kept all her personal life out of the tabloids . . . Can [Mary] ever defeat the woman who got to the top? Equally, though, if you’re Elizabeth, are you prepared to take the bit of yourself that is Mary Stuart – sexual, maternal, all those traditionally female qualities, and behead that?”

Or you could put it another way, Icke says, smiling as he acknowledges the cliché: “Can’t a woman have it all?”


Juliet Stevenson (left) and Lia Williams in Icke’s production of Mary Stuart. Photo: Miles Aldridge

In the Almeida’s staging, the climax of the play is an extraordinary, wordless scene. As with Oresteia, Hildegard Bechtler built Icke a revolving stage. After Elizabeth has ordered Mary’s death, the revolve starts, a pop song by Laura Marling plays, and the doomed queen is undressed – by men – down to her shift, ready to be executed. Her triumphant rival, meanwhile, is dressed – by men – in a skeleton version of the cumbersome farthingale and white-lead face paint of the period. “Undressing one and dressing the other had a strong visual impact,” Bechtler says. “One was going to her death and was liberated, but the other was tied down… in an imprisoning garment.”

It was a beautiful scene, showing confidence in the audience at the end of a long (over three hours), dialogue-heavy play. And, to be brutally honest, I was surprised to see a male director so attuned to the meaning-laden potential of female clothing.

I confess my sexism to Icke. “That is very sexist,” he agrees. “I am embarrassed as always to be a man. It’s a terrible club to belong to: they do terrible things, they’re only interested in football and alcohol, two things in which I have zero interest. But if you switched the gender roles in our conversation… that would be profoundly offensive. Not that I’m offended.”

The Almeida announced Mary Stuart when the 2016 Tory leadership race had narrowed to a contest between Theresa May and Andrea Leadsom. Although Icke appreciated the echo, he doesn’t want to do overtly political theatre. “I don’t really need a whole evening for me to tell you what I think about racism,” he says. “I probably think it’s bad, and you probably think it’s bad, and I don’t need a whole evening of your time for that.”

Yet he hopes that someone – not him – writes a great play about Brexit. “There will be a really good show in the campaigns, not in the referendum result, because what you have effectively is two rudderless tribes of people interested in their own advancement.” He thinks it would be like a “non-violent, mainly white West Side Story”.

However, he doubts anyone could write a British version of Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s epic musical about America’s founding fathers. “It has myth and nobility and a kind of moral evangelism,” he says. “Guy Fawkes is the grand moral narrative that I suspect most of the British populace agree with, which is: blow the fuckers up.”

Act III: Hamlet

Over the past few years, a consensus has arisen: Hamlet is the play. It has a plum part for a film or television actor looking to prove himself, the best-known soliloquy in all of Shakespeare and the modern themes of surveillance and selfhood. (You can imagine Hamlet worrying that no one is liking his posts on Instagram.)

Perhaps there’s another reason why Icke was keen to direct it: the production would be a high-profile test of his theory of what radicalism means. He sees staging a Shakespeare play as like restoring an Old Master. You have to scrape away the layers of varnish and try to see what was there at the start. “There’s a kind of plastic casing on the play, which is years of stage history,” he says, “a lot of which is nonsense.” He was excited to work with Andrew Scott, who had never done Shakespeare before, because the actor didn’t have “bad habits you have to chip off”.

The insight he brought to his version of Hamlet was this: “Maybe your key source is crazy.” In other words, the audience should be aware that Gertrude is bad, Claudius is bad, because that’s how Hamlet sees it. “Probably because of star culture, we interpret a lot of the famous, famous plays through the protagonist,” he says. “One thing I really felt about Hamlet was that I’d never seen a production that honoured the other characters.”

That meant adding in scenes from the “bad” quarto, such as one between Horatio and Gertrude before the final duel, which fleshes out the queen’s character. “It’s almost certainly not by Shakespeare and makes Gertrude a less ambiguous character,” Maltby says. “But it really worked, and I got the sense he was trying to give a voice to women as much as possible. Ophelia was on stage a lot more than usual.”

There is a “star culture” around directors, too, obscuring that one of the measures of success, as well as its guarantor, is the strength of your team. Icke has returned again and again to the same actors – Juliet Stevenson, Lia Williams, Angus Wright, Jessica Brown Findlay – and frequent collaborators such as Hildegard Bechtler, who are willing to work on small budgets. “The pay for small spaces like the Almeida, the time you invest, it doesn’t pay,” Bechtler says. “You have to be excited about it.” Sonia Friedman, the über-producer, is another quiet champion, bankrolling his West End transfers.

Goold says that there are a few other people to whom Icke listens: his associate Dan Raggett; his girlfriend; the sound designer Tom Gibbons. This continuity makes it possible, not even a dozen major productions into his career, to identify an Ickean aesthetic – even if, as sceptics say, it occasionally borrows too freely from the Belgian director Ivo van Hove, who will bring an adaptation of the 1976 film Network to the National Theatre in London this autumn.

As well as its attention to female roles, Hamlet bore other hallmarks of the Icke style. There was a heavy underscore and liberal use of modern music – including Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” – and Bechtler reused the smoked glass from her minimalist Oresteia set, creating front and back sections of the stage. Depending on the lighting, the glass could be opaque or transparent, allowing for the meaning of a scene to be undercut or bolstered by something happening in the section behind it.

At the start, that second layer of action is Claudius’s and Gertrude’s wedding party. Later, we see Ophelia bathing at the back of the stage (another echo of Oresteia, in which Agamemnon is murdered in a ritual bath) and, because of the distance and the glass, we feel like voyeurs. The glass also allowed the final scene to be re-imagined, with the dead dancing together, bathed in heavenly light, using the same underlying music as for the wedding party.

The theatre blogger Florence Bell has suggested that this borrows from an episode of The Sopranos – one of Icke’s favourite television shows – in which the mafioso anti­hero Tony hovers between life and death. (Icke also appreciates the final instalment of The Sopranos, which ends with Tony turning his head in a restaurant and then a six-second cut to black, because the ambiguous ending neither lets him off for his crimes nor lets you off for enjoying them.)

There are also echoes of the climax of Hamilton, which Icke saw in New York when it was the hottest ticket in town, in which the lead character reconciles himself to death with the lyrics: “I catch a glimpse of the other side… My son is on the other side.” Here, Hamlet is already dead when he acknowledges, “The rest is silence.”

David Benedict experienced that last scene as a revelation. “It was the first time I thought, ‘I’m watching a play about a young man who died.’ It should be obvious but I’d never seen it before.” For Icke, there was another, more banal, reason to finish in this way. “The end of Hamlet is usually a lot of people doing ‘dead body’ acting, and that’s never moving.”

Is this why Icke’s performances seem so fresh? Like all directors, he magpies freely, but unlike the generation above him he’s borrowing from musicals, from computer games – we discuss the indie platformer Braid, which tells one story played forwards and another when reversed – and from mainstream television shows.

For the dumb show that starts the play-within-a-play, he took inspiration from the Pixar movie Up, which recaps the life of one of its main characters, a grumpy old man, at the pace of a flick book. (The other protagonists are an overweight schoolboy and a dog with a collar that gives it a human voice.) This speeded-up movie-in-a-movie shows the whole span of the man’s history with his late wife, through meeting, marriage and the disappointment of infertility, ending with her death.

The compression of life’s highs and lows turns that scene into emotional napalm, I say. It always makes me cry. Icke agrees. “Yeah, no amount of fucking talking dogs was going to help me after that.”

Epilogue

In 1599, his study of the most important year of Shakespeare’s working life, James Shapiro offers some startling figures:

In an England of four million, London and its immediate environs held a population of roughly two hundred thousand. If, on any given day, two plays were staged in playhouses that held as many as two to three thousand spectators each, it’s likely that with theatres even half full, as many as three thousand or so Londoners were attending a play… On average, it’s likely that over a third of London’s adult population saw a play every month.

Icke cites these figures – pretty much word perfect – to explain why he made it a condition of transferring Hamlet to the West End that there would be cheap seats to attract younger audiences. (There are 300 seats at every performance for less than £30.)

After all, Shakespeare saw himself as a popular entertainer and wrote for the groundlings as much as the elite. Icke and Andrew Scott “really believe that 15- and 16-year-old versions of us [should be able to] come from Ireland and Stockton, if [they] wanted to get a train and come and see it”. He argues we should be tougher on subsidised theatres that charge high ticket prices: “It’s not OK if you charge me 65 quid for something I’ve already paid for with my taxes, particularly not if it’s in a big space.”

In the last week of Hamlet’s Almeida run, the theatre offered free tickets to under-25s. “The actors said it was the best shows we ever played, because they didn’t know the story… They laughed in different places, they gasped. I don’t think I’ve ever been prouder to work at the Almeida than when there were queues of under-16s round the block to see a three-and-a-half-hour Hamlet. I thought, ‘This is what it’s for, this is why we put our taxes into this place.’”


1984, Icke’s adaptation of George Orwell’s novel, is now on Broadway

The unspoken backdrop to our conversation about Shakespeare is the tenure of Emma Rice at the Globe, cut short because the trustees were unhappy with her use of sound and lighting rigs in a theatre that doubles as a museum. Icke must be aware that the Globe is on the other side of the Shakespeare wars from him, although he never mentions names.

I decide it’s time to bring up the Controversy Thing. It might sound shallow, but isn’t he worried that people won’t talk to him at the Olivier Awards? “I hope I’ve never said publicly, ‘That person is terrible.’ It’s about why we do this as an art, so hopefully no one feels it’s personal.” He smiles. “I’m also not a great socialiser, because I’m completely teetotal, so I don’t go to pubs, and a lot of my mates don’t work in theatre.”

Both Goold and Henry Hitchings wonder if Robert Icke’s next step will be to direct a film, or whether he might fancy the artistic directorship of the Young Vic, which has become available this year. “He would hate so many elements of what that job is – thinking about loo rolls and corporate sponsors and what drinks get served at the bar,” Hitchings says. Bechtler hopes that the nature of their collaborations won’t change because of demands on his time. “Rob might change utterly now he’s become so successful, but the amount of talking [that we do] is crucial.”

There is one landmine ahead. A few of the people I spoke to were worried that the transfers never quite manage to capture the intimacy of the Almeida. A proscenium arch and a vast auditorium present a challenge for the focused, intense naturalism of Andrew Scott’s Hamlet, for instance. Still, David Benedict pays him the greatest compliment a critic can offer: “While I have doubts about elements of Icke’s work, I’d rather see his failures than some of the kiss-of-death competence of other directors.”

“Hamlet” is at the Harold Pinter Theatre, London SW1, until 2 September. “Mary Stuart” opens at the Duke of York’s Theatre, London WC2, on 13 January 2018

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 24 November 2008 issue of the New Statesman, How to get us out of this mess