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The new Levellers

Can the student protesters of the 2010s surpass those of the 1960s, or will they be quelled by the r

At the start of John le Carré's novel Our Kind of Traitor, published in September this year, the 30-year-old hero, educated at a state school and now lecturing in Oxford, suffers a crisis: "Would Orwell have believed it possible that the same overfed voices which had haunted him in the 1930s, the same crippling incompetence, addiction to foreign wars and assumptions of entitlement, were happily in place in 2009? Receiving no response from the blank student faces staring up at him, he had supplied it for himself: no. Orwell would emphatically not have believed it. Or if he had, he would have taken to the streets. He would have smashed some serious glass."

It can't be often that an autumn novel so catches a national mood that its fictional projection becomes reality even before it has achieved its Christmas sales. Student faces are blank no longer and the image of a young man, hooded, aiming a balletic kick into the serious glass front of the lobby of the Tory party's headquarters in Millbank on 10 November, was on all the front pages the next day.

Whatever the media might prefer, most voters did not see the students and their supporters as either troublemakers or privileged beneficiaries demanding special treatment from the taxpayer.

The students seem to be learning fast, too. On the day of the third big demonstration, on 30 November, a "19-year-old student" told the BBC: "Smashing up windows was necessary in the beginning to get the demonstrations on the front pages, but now any violence would be counterproductive."

Across Britain there has been a swell of student activism, occupations and demands, with a focus on higher education but reaching out for public support against cuts. Only once before has there been anything like this level of student action - at the end of the Sixties, starting in 1968. Will this decade succeed where the Sixties failed?

The Sixties changed our society and our culture. But here in Britain, unlike the rest of western Europe, the student rebellion of the left was politically marginalised; it arrived late, and was narrow by comparison with its counterparts on the Continent. The true political impact of the Sixties in Britain took another course. In October 1968, a then unknown Margaret Thatcher gave a speech at a fringe meeting of the Conservative party conference. She caught the anti-statism of the new zeitgeist, and it was the political right that eventually captured the legacy of Sixties anti-authoritarianism.

Neoliberalism and the free market were the main beneficiaries of the movement against state power and paternalism. Ironically, it is Thatcher's successors against whom the students are now mobilising.

David Cameron told this year's Conservative conference that the general election meant that "statism lost . . . society won . . . it's a revolution . . . We are the radicals now, breaking apart the old system with a massive transfer for power, from the state to citizens, politicians to people, government to society." He was taking the words of the student activists of the Sixties and stuffing them into the mouths of today's.

Understandably, the students are refusing to swallow. It is not just the huge hike in fees they are being asked to absorb, but the simultaneous withdrawal of four-fifths of all direct grants to universities. As the government will back the loans that are supposed to replace this, there will be no immediate difference to the deficit. The coalition is using the fiscal emergency as an excuse to abolish support for all humanities research and scholarship. Apparently, students will be expected to pay for this (at a time when, as the blogger and businessman Chris Goodall has calculated, they get at most £4,500 worth of teaching a year). No other advanced country has abandoned public support for the heart of its intellectual civilisation in this way. The very idea of a university is being guillotined.

While student resistance to this fate combines self-interest with a fight for the country's future as a whole, it is also being driven by a new generational divide. Once more, though this time thanks to "digitalisation", protest is underpinned by an epochal shift.

The Sixties announced the start of the great cycle of capitalist expansion. It was the opposite of now: jobs were plentiful, rent was cheap. We had our own music; there were miniskirts and Mini cars. It was "Americanisation", but we, too, influenced the States as London swung. Accompanying this heady sense of emancipation was the belief that our parents were from a different planet. They had grown up without TV, sex before marriage, drugs and rock'n'roll; and often without university education, as we were part of the first expansion of mass higher education. It was a generation gulf, not a gap. Ridiculous rules, hypocrisy and authoritarian teaching methods became a target for students, as did secrecy. (Students demanded that universities "open the files", and a number of occupations broke into the administration offices to do just that.)

While the student movement was strongly international, in each country it had its own national characteristics. The revolution in France was against the culture of "Oui, Papa", the formality of which was much stiffer than here. In Germany, which had much the deepest and best Sixties, the "anti-authoritarian movement" involved a generation that had to deal with the fact that their parents had been Nazis.

Then there was Vietnam. The Sixties were a time of violence as well as joy, and Americans expressed both. Hundreds of thousands of their troops were occupying another country, thousands of Vietnamese were dying each month, and torture by the Americans was routine: this was the deadly backdrop to the arrival of drugs, which then fed its stream of victims into the maelstrom.

This atmosphere of violence fed into the students' responses - extremist terrorist groups such as the Red Army Faction in Germany, the Red Brigades in Italy and, in Britain, the Angry Brigade, mistook fantasy for strategy. Pauline Melville's Dionysian novel Eating Air, which draws directly on events of the period, the pitch-perfect archaeology of Hari Kunzru's My Revolutions and le Carré's Absolute Friends all catch the earnest and well-meaning initial impulse of the '68 movement - hippie, ultra-tolerant and impatient. And all three recall how the sectarians, the authorities and their agents were waiting in the wings.

Class conscious

Today it feels to me, as it did 40 years ago, that the protests connect to something larger. Perhaps they are now heralding the end of a long consumer boom, as opposed to its beginning.

I am not saying today's students are a repetition or mere followers. On the contrary, all that today's students need to learn from the Sixties is how not to become marginalised and defeated.

The differences between now and then may make this possible. We are a much more equal and open society. But the new generation faces debt and insecurity, and economic injustice in Britain has increased astronomically. After the crash of 2008 exposed bankers as robbers who skim off unearned capital, we discovered that we have to pay for their disaster. Belief in the fun­damental legitimacy of the system has been shaken, in a way that did not happen under Harold Wilson.

This means that, in contrast to the late Sixties, when student protest was ridiculed and pilloried, today it can make a credible claim to voice the anger and concerns of a wider public. And it is significant that the demonstrations have been joined by children protesting about the abolition of the Education Maintenance Assistance (EMA), which pays those from hard-up families to stay in school or further education.

Another important difference between then and now is that the student militancy of 1968 in Britain was largely confined to universities and art schools. There was a dramatic confrontation at Hornsey College of Art in north London in May 1968. But very few of what were then called "polytechnics" were involved. University students were mostly middle-class people on three-year courses on campuses away from home.

olytechnic students were mostly local and working-class. In 2010, the social composition of what were polytechnics and are now universities remains local and working-class, but many student occupations are taking place in them. Today "students" connotes a much broader, less privileged sector.

The web reinforces this cross-class generational relationship. Young people today communicate with and relate to each other in ways which mean that their lives, decisions and networks are much more spontaneous and flexible. Many who would otherwise not be involved will follow and, in a certain way, experience the new levels of activism. They may be stirred from passivity. Their capacity to learn what is really happening is much less mediated by the mainstream media, whose regular readership and viewing has collapsed among the under-25s.

The web reshapes, but is not a substitute for, power and organisation. Life remains, happily, a face-to-face affair. Nonetheless, the kind of society the new generation looks forward to will be unlike any that has gone before. It is easy to exaggerate this and then puncture the inflated projection. It's a generation gap, not a gulf as humanly painful as that experienced by their Sixties predecessors. Yet, in the short term, the new technology is sure to increase mobilisation sharply; and in the long term, the resources the internet provides may help this generation to succeed in its challenge to hierarchy with direct democracy, deliberation and openness - and to create a political culture that is not disabled by the routines of "representation" now largely expropriated by corporate influence.

The roles of race and gender are also different this time round. Back then, there weren't significant numbers of black and ethnic-minority students to make their participation an issue. But as I watched videos of the current protests, it struck me that there seem to be many more black pupils among the school protesters than among the university students.

The student occupations of the late Sixties preceded the feminist movement. The basic attitude to women was set by the Rolling Stones. Women were "chicks": attachments with closed mouths and short skirts. This was not seen as being imposed, however; individual women could insist on being treated as equals, and then they were. It was a culture of experimentation for everyone, of both sexes (and as with drugs, experiments can go badly wrong).

But the energy also fed into the feminist movement, which is the greatest political legacy of the Sixties. Today, after the heyday of that movement has passed, women's participation in the student movement, as in the economy and politics, is no longer in itself regarded as an "issue". However, the boys have yet to learn to desire equality as a mutual benefit. It is unspoken, but there is a casual "Of course you can be equal if you want to be" attitude, which somehow leaves open the possibility of benefiting from inequality, "if that's what they want". It is disappointing to me that this is still the culture among young men in the movement. Perhaps this time one of its effects will be to make feminism mainstream.

Tough choices all round

Besides feminism, the other great political legacy of the Sixties was the idea that protesting is a right. This belief clearly animates the student protests today. But the movement is still trying to establish what kinds of protest are acceptable: quiet, peaceful, non-violent demonstrations, or civil disobedience, or property damage? Violence against people seems to be wholly rejected, as shown by the spontaneous revulsion of the demonstrators against the protester who threw a fire extinguisher from the roof at Millbank tower - a welcome change.

The Sixties, too, started with the slogan "Love and peace". It wasn't serious and there seems a better understanding now of the need for no willed violence against people. Doubtless, provocateurs will try to undo this. But today's students are unlikely to go on to spawn bands of terrorists, not least because they have been preceded by a decade of fundamentalist terrorism. And everyone can see how that kind of "propaganda of the deed" simply feeds reaction and empowers the security state.

One of the reasons that the student movement in Britain in the Sixties, unlike those in France and Germany, was marginalised was the influence of the Labour Party, which was in office and played its role as pillar of the establishment. It was a smart move on Ed Miliband's part, therefore, to say that he had thought of going to talk to the students protesting outside parliament. He was never going to come out in support of the demonstrators, as his father, Ralph, did in 1968, but he must see that the country needs a politics built outside conventional party, parliamentary and careerist routines. Should he and his party colleagues fail to grasp this, one clear lesson from the Sixties is that, somehow or other, the Tories will.

In 1968, the occupations and protests in British universities were an attempt to catch up with Paris, Berlin and campuses across America; 2010 feels very different. Perhaps the principal contrast between this decade and the Sixties is the sense that, this time around, the students are ahead of the game.

In the general election campaign in May, the party that pitched most energetically for student votes against the two old party machines was the Liberal Democrats. The National Union of Students got the Lib Dem candidates to pledge in writing that they would, individually and jointly, oppose any extension of university tuition fees. The meaning of the gesture was clear: in any deals that might be forthcoming in the event of a hung parliament - which was the whole point of voting Lib Dem - they might compromise on other policies, but not on this.

In an editorial comment written after the Millbank riot, the Mail on Sunday declared:

Nowhere on earth can a young man or woman lead such a privileged life as that available in the colleges of our ancient universities. Surrounded by the glories of English architecture, tended by obsequious servants, feasted in shadowed, candlelit halls, taught face-to-face by the greatest minds of their generation, Oxbridge undergraduates are introduced at an early age to a way of life that most cannot begin to dream of.

Nobody in Britain has any justification for rioting. This is a free country with the rule of law and democratic government - rare possessions in a world of corrupt and authoritarian slums.

This neatly illustrates the difficulty for those who oppose the students. It is an absurdly idealised caricature of Oxbridge, where many may search for great minds but few are found. The 50,000 students who marched last month experience quite different educational conditions. The giveaway in the Mail's argument is the leap from its mouth-watering description of the good life enjoyed by a few to the claim that "nobody in Britain has any justification for rioting". What? Not even against the existence of such privilege?

Who's radical now?

Apparently not, because we have the rule of law and democratic government, unlike benighted lands elsewhere. But the failure of our democracy is symbolised by the Lib Dems' betrayal of their special pledge, while there seems to be no law for the bankers. Could it be that it is the Mail on Sunday which is still living in 1968?

Banners saying "F**k fees" play its game, however. They repel people, in a way that demands for higher education to be open to all who strive for it do not. So it is entirely possible that today's student protesters will be marginalised, like their predecessors in the Sixties.

Nevertheless, there are good reasons to suppose that this might not happen. First, the ghastly consequences of terrorism and indiscriminate violence against other human beings are widely understood. Second, thanks to the internet, the capacity of students to organise themselves, to network and to stay informed is by several magnitudes greater than it was four decades ago, creating the possibility of a politics that is open-minded, not fundamentalist. Third, the young are less repressed and healthier people. And fourth, what is on offer from the political system today seems exhausted, its institutions corrupted, its constitution a shambles and reinvention essential.

On the economy, should the coalition's approach succeed, who thinks it will deliver the "fairness" that the government insists is its lodestone? And if it fails? The Prime Minister boasts that he is leading a revolution and that he and his government are the radicals now. It is a claim he may come to regret.

Anthony Barnett was the first co-ordinator of Charter 88 and founder editor of openDemocracy. His most recent book, with Peter Carty, is "The Athenian Option: Radical Reform for the House of Lords" (Imprint Academic, £25). Thanks to Our Kingdom, UCL Occupation and Oxford Left Review

This article first appeared in the 13 December 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The radical Jesus

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 13 December 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The radical Jesus