Robert Icke: You should feel like it’s happening right now – and it could go wrong

Laura Davis meets The Alchemist director Robert Icke whose reputation suggests he has the Midas touch

ROBERT ICKE can pinpoint the very moment when he decided to become a stage director. The second that he realised theatre is not “just a polite way of spending an evening in the dark”.

The place was Sheffield Crucible; the play was Richard III, starring Kenneth Branagh as the hunchback king.

Icke was 15-years-old and had not been all that bothered about going. But he sat there transfixed, his future path shifting in front of him.

“I’d been dragged away from my PlayStation and it was Damascus,” says the Stockton-on-Tees-born director, some 10 years later, in a break from rehearsals for a new production of Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist for the Liverpool Playhouse.

“A lot of theatre is quite boring but now and again you see something that completely inspires you and changes your life. If you’re a 15-year-old in the right place at the right time then that’s going to have a massive effect on you.”

From his “pretty rough comp in the North East of England”, he went to Cambridge University to study English because he thought that was what future directors did.

It paid off and his assistant director credits include the West End production of The Misanthrope, starring Keira Knightley and Damian Lewis, As You Like It at the Globe Theatre and Cymbeline at Cambridge Arts Theatre (directed by Trevor Nunn).

It was Icke’s version of Romeo and Juliet for theatre company Headlong last spring that really got the buzz going in theatrical circles and made Playhouse artistic director Gemma Bodinetz keen to sign him up for The Alchemist.

Directing Jonson’s comedy is a treat, he says, because it offers all the benefits of Shakespeare with none of the drawbacks.

“Part of the game with Shakespeare is how you can get people to feel surprised because they tend to know the story or some of the speeches,” he explains.

“They all know that Mercutio dies so you have to make them believe that this time it’s going to be different, or they know King Lear goes crazy so he needs to start out as the least crazy person in the whole world.

“In The Alchemist you get the best of both worlds. Not only is it funny and brilliantly written but most of the people who come and see it will not know what happens. So you get the brilliance of the story as well as the brilliance of the writing.”

Liverpool audiences will find many familiar faces among the cast, which is led by Nicholas Tennant (Dr Faustus at the Playhouse, Caucasian Chalk Circle and The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists at the Everyman) as Face, a scheming servant and self-styled master conman.

Left in sole charge of the London town house owned by his master Lovewit (Simon Coates – Tartuffe, The Hypochondriac) he and fellow tricksters including Subtle (Ian Bartholomew – The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Season’s Greetings) plot to get rich quick by claiming to have discovered the philosopher’s stone, the substance that can transform any metal into gold.

“On the first day of rehearsals I went round and said ‘look, what is the thing I could give you if I had the power to give you anything?’,” reveals Icke, 25.

“Some people said ‘I’d like a really big house in London, no mortgage’, someone else said ‘I want £100m’.

“When you think about you what it would be like if you woke up tomorrow and had everything you needed to change your life completely, at that moment you are more vulnerable than you are at any other time because by dangling that carrot in front of you I can get you to jump at it and you will jump over all sorts of logical obstacles.

“People live miserable lives thinking about how one day they might win the lottery. It’s quite amazing that capacity to fantasise and delude ourselves.”

It is this that makes The Alchemist still so relevant today, he adds. And don’t expect it to be played in period costume.

“I think that’s a profoundly inauthentic way to do these plays,” says Icke.

“As an audience member I find it really alienating when they all turn up in their period dress with modern haircuts and speaking like modern people. What’s the point of that? You have got to make it relevant for people in 2012.

“I have arguments with friends all the time who say ‘they wouldn’t have done it like that at the time’. If anyone turns up from 1610 when The Alchemist was written and is offended by the production, send them to me and I’ll apologise.”

Icke tends to enter the first rehearsal with a clearer idea of what he does not want from the actors than what he does. He thrives on the energy of being surprised by what might go on during a performance.

“If you get it right, it can be a genuinely exciting thing to be in a room with actors who are doing things live and you’re not quite sure of what’s going to happen next,” he says. “They might jump off the stage and grab you. You should feel like it’s happening right now and it could go wrong.”

THE Alchemist is at the Liverpool Playhouse from September 14 to October 6.

Liverpool Post, September 6, 2012