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'Everything is in ruins'

The war with Russia last August has devastated Georgia: work and even food are now scarce. And Georg

A late autumn afternoon in Tbilisi. A group of middle-aged men, neatly dressed in yellowing shirts and fading suits, are playing backgammon under the trees in a square in the Armenian quarter. Several have well-groomed moustaches. The atmosphere is jovial: Alexander, a proud man in his late fifties, dominates the group with his loud laughter. Were it not for the derelict shells of buildings behind them, this could be any Mediterranean capital.

The war with Russia last August did not come near the capital, but this part of Tbilisi looks bombed out all the same. What happened? It's just decay, they say. Much worse than during the Soviet era. "Just look at the state of the buildings," says Alexander. "It was never like that before. No one has work." He used to run a factory that made mechanical parts, but is now one of the long-term unemployed. He is an educated man, proud of his flawless Russian (Georgian is his native language). In Soviet times he con sidered himself middle class. Now he feels poor and humiliated.

Meanwhile, his country has backed itself into a corner. On Tuesday the second round of international talks on security in the Caucasus opened in Geneva; discussions were described as "difficult" and the Tbilisi-Moscow relationship is as tense as ever. But a change of leader in Washington might make a difference: President Saa kashvili will soon have lost his chief ally in the west, George W Bush. A populist and opportunist, Saakashvili is dismissed by many Georgians as too hot-headed, and organised protests are planned against him.

After ousting Eduard Shevardnadze in November 2003, Mikhail Saakashvili, now 40, helped to attract millions in foreign funding. He was perceived as being a pro-western reformer and democrat. The Americans gave $22m during the war in August and promised another $1bn in September. That came on top of $1.6bn in outside investment in 2007, much of it from the US, a 40 per cent increase on the previous year. The foreigners are to blame for this whole mess, Alexander asserts, because they prop up dodgy regimes. "Our government is more corrupt than any other in the world. And the US and the UK support them in their corruption."

The American money has not benefited the likes of Alexander. To reach the capital's Armenian quarter from the international airport there is only one route: straight down President George W Bush Street, the only pothole-free highway in town, festooned with pictures of a waving Bush. But Alexander can't afford to travel abroad and doesn't expect to be able to find the money any time soon, so he has never driven along the route. Local officials have used the foreign money to buy up the best property and evict the poor, he says. His own house is at risk: it belonged to his great-great-grandmother and all his family were born there. Some people he knows survive by stealing, he says - a loaf here, some supermarket food there. He claims to have friends in prison who are desperate to stay because inside they don't go hungry.

“Our government is more corrupt than any other . . . and the US and the UK support them in their corruption”

Nana, 44, a biologist, is strolling through a nearby park opposite the parliament building with her four-year-old son. This is where Saa kashvili's supporters celebrated with fireworks when he forced Shevardnadze's resignation in 2003. "Things feel uncomfortable now," she says. "I'm not frightened at the moment but I feel as if we are not going in the right direction." She worries about her son's future. Eighty per cent of the intelligentsia have lost their jobs, she says, and no one needs scientists in the way they did in the Soviet era. "I am lucky - I still have a job. Most people I know are out of work. I don't think this problem with Russia will be resolved peacefully and I find that very upsetting. Saakashvili was wrong to use violence [against the breakaway provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia]. It was not the right way to respond. I feel as if we are not being told the facts. This situation is benefiting someone, but you can't quite work out who. I do agree that we should fight to keep these territories because they are ours and not Russia's. But it should be a diplomatic fight, not a military one. Why kill people over something like this?"

The one hope, she says, is the popular female politician Nino Burjanadze, a 44-year-old pro-democracy campaigner who was briefly acting president before Saakashvili took office. Burjanadze has already aligned herself with the protests against Saakashvili's actions this summer and is calling for elections. The word is that "something" could happen as soon as the end of this month. "No one knows what, though," Nana says, stroking her son's head. The more she talks, the more upset she becomes. "Sorry - I am not articulating myself very well. It's because I'm afraid."

Down the road in an underpass leading to the main street, Rustaveli, four menacing-looking youths are hunched together around a cap thrown on the floor. Suddenly they open their mouths to sing, and a pure Georgian chant reverberates around the walls. Next to them a woman in a housecoat and slippers is selling curtains. Some old men are having a picnic of tomatoes and bread on an upturned cardboard box. Out on the street, stray cats and dogs are everywhere, picking their way through buildings abandoned halfway through reconstruction. You encounter well-dressed, middle-aged people who look as if they are sitting down waiting for someone or something. It is only when you see the outstretched, cupped hand and the expression of shame on each face that you realise they are begging. At a set of traffic lights one man is trying to sell balloons, weaving in and out of six lanes of traffic.

Before the war with Russia in August, Georgia’s economy was expanding rapidly: its reported growth rate for 2007 was 12.4 per cent, according to the New York-based analysts EurasiaNet. There are signs of stability: BP, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Pepsi, Coca-Cola and the legal firms Baker & McKenzie and DLA Piper all have offices here. There is a vigorous cafe culture: a chain of literary cafes has opened in recent months. For young people in their late teens and twenties, especially those who speak several languages (as many do), the outlook is not bad; new Marriott and Hyatt hotels have opened and the service industry is growing. Anyone who can get a job with a western company can hope for a salary of up to $2,000 a month. But this is an option for only a privileged minority. The salaries of state teachers and doctors are a tenth of this. And men like Alexander are completely washed up.

In Tbilisi's most affluent quarter, Shardeni, the mood is more combative. Besarion Darjani, an affable gallery owner in his fifties, says he supports the current regime: without American aid Georgia would be even worse off.

"It's all about money, the oil pipeline and Russia's pretensions to be an empire," he says. "Putin wants someone in some godforsaken Siberian town in the middle of nowhere to turn on his TV news, see the bombing, beat his chest and say, 'Hey, that's our territory!' Saakashvili was obliged to do what he did because he had to defend our territory against the Russians. He was provoked."

His gallery sells the work of 50 local artists, many of whom have up to ten dependants. It is largely foreigners who buy the artwork, he adds, so he is happy to see them and their money. In a courtyard near the gallery, a group of Americans are drinking a bottle of Georgian red wine. Last month the Georgian Chamber of Commerce welcomed a group of a dozen British tour ope rators for a week-long trip. But, with the crisis unresolved - and likely to flare up again at any moment - fewer foreigners have been coming.

If the situation with Russia is not resolved quickly, says Darjani, his business could dissolve: "Russia spits on the world and on any- one who gets in the way of their great empire. The current government has ruined years of friendship between Georgia and Russia. I don't blame ordinary Russians, though. I have a lot of friends living in Moscow and Leningrad. But the people of South Ossetia and Abkhazia are Georgians. Their nationalities have been artificially created by the Russians - they give them passports and money and promise them autonomy. So then of course they want to be Russian. But what about the fact that it is our territory and there are Georgians living there?"

Many of these South Ossetians and Abkha zians have sought refuge in Tbilisi, living in hospitals and schools. Their numbers are estimated at anything between 20,000 and 60,000. (According to the UN, another 20,000 have fled into Russia.) The capital's infrastructure can barely support them.

The authorities host regular entertainment and when several hundred Georgians turn up for a charity performance at the theatre on a Saturday night, they look as if they almost fit in but somehow don't. These are modern refugees: the children are impeccably dressed and taking pictures of each other on their mobile phones.

Some of the other theatregoers are local people. I meet a group of young women outside on the balcony. Dressed in satin blouses and leather trousers, they are not worried about Georgia's future. "You couldn't really notice any difference in Tbilisi in August," one of them says. "It is worrying, of course, but I think that whatever happens the EU and Nato will bail us out, especially if it gets really bad."

But those of the older generation know how conflicts have been resolved in the past. Many of the actors from the theatre died in the last war in the early 1990s in Abkhazia. “These were boys who did not even know how to hold a gun,” says the director Robert Sturua. “I told them, ‘If you go to war, don’t bother coming back, because I don’t want murderers in my theatre.’”

The theatre has a small government subsidy but survives largely through donations from an anonymous businessman, who pays the directors' and actors' salaries. They cannot hope for too much from the state, says Sturua. "We have a government that is making a lot of mistakes. That's normal, though. That's freedom. It's like Jefferson said, 'Freedom is a tree you must water with blood.' It sounds cruel but it's the truth. Georgia has suffered more than any other former Soviet republic. There is a generation of people who have completely lost hope."

Worst of all, the war in the summer eclipsed some of Georgia's greatest cultural achievements this year, he says. The State Ballet of Georgia was acclaimed at this year's Edinburgh Festival, where the much-feted prima ballerina Nina Ananiashvili performed Giselle. Another Georgian dancer, David Makhateli, is a rising star with the Royal Ballet in London.

Sturua argues that life has returned to something approaching normality since the events of August: there is no military presence here at all and already the tourists are returning. Cultural and historical tourism is something many see as Georgia's potential salvation. Sturua is an optimist: he sees no reason to think Georgia won't thrive once the territorial disputes with Russia are resolved.

But this sort of talk will not pacify the likes of Alexander. He just wants a regime change, and doesn't care who becomes president so long as he or she stands on an anti-corruption ticket. "There is no such thing as normal life here," he says. "Everything is in ruins. Even if you work you don't always get paid." But how do people survive, then? "A very good question," he laughs. "Why don't you ask our government how people like me get by? They don't care."

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