Meet Simon Godwin, the man who should run the RSC

Strong form: Simon Godwin in rehearsals for Much Ado About Nothing - Manuel Harlan
Strong form: Simon Godwin in rehearsals for Much Ado About Nothing - Manuel Harlan

Never mind the race to become the next PM, in theatreland speculation is mounting as to who’ll bag the top job at the world-renowned RSC.

It might seem unfair to button-hole Simon Godwin on the subject. After all, the imposingly tall, impeccably genial director meets me at the National, the RSC’s nominal rival. But given that he’s putting the finishing touches to a Much Ado About Nothing with Katherine Parkinson and John Heffernan as Beatrice and Benedick, there’s no escaping the Bard.

Besides, Godwin’s name has been bandied about as a possible successor to Gregory Doran as artistic director, and with reason: the 46-year-old has become a force to be reckoned with in Shakespeare production. He mounted an acclaimed 2016 Hamlet at the RSC with Paapa Essiedu, the first black actor to play the Dane in the company’s history. At the NT, there was Twelfth Night with Tamsin Greig as “Malvolia”, a turning point in gender-flipping Shakespeare, and a superb “lockdown” Romeo & Juliet with Josh O’Connor and Jessie Buckley. But that’s only the half of it: in 2019, he took over at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, Washington DC, relocating  there with his wife and twin girls.

That prestige position alone might lead one to conclude that his commitments lie elsewhere now. Throughout his years as a rising director, he was often in the right place, at the right time – working for example with Dominic Cooke when he delivered a golden era at the Royal Court. Perhaps he’s now exactly where he should be. Yet equally he clearly has many of the credentials to join the fray back home.

Has he thrown his hat into the ring? He’s understandably coy about any application, but tellingly doesn’t rule himself out of the running. “I have to be tiresomely discreet, and say that the opportunity is incredible,” he says. “I’ve loved working there. I’ve lots of ideas about it.” People can join the dots? “Yes.”

Jessie Buckley and Josh O’Connor in Romeo & Juliet - Rob Youngson
Jessie Buckley and Josh O’Connor in Romeo & Juliet - Rob Youngson

To be blunt, the RSC has been headed by white male directors since it was established in 1961. Godwin was raised in St Albans, the son of literary agent David Godwin (who sold the rights for Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things). He dabbled in acting as a teenager (starring as Cyril in the BBC’s 1991 adaptation of Five Children and It) and then studied English at Cambridge where his contemporaries included Naomie Harris and Richard Ayoade. This might be regarded as putting him at a disadvantage in a sector which is currently hamstrung by identity politics.

When I met director Nicholas Hytner recently, he scoffed at the idea of a “culture war”, as if it was overblown. That didn’t seem entirely right. Godwin is certain it’s real. “I’m sure many people are saying this. It’s scary because it feels like there are a lot of extreme positions and everyone is working for their idea of the good.”

He offers a few useful bullet-points about the direction the RSC could go in. Greater internationalism is worth pursuing: “The more time I spend in America, the more I realise the Shakespearean project is still very popular there. So there’s huge opportunity for the company in the States.” As for the RSC’s base in London, habitually but fitfully at the custom-built Barbican, he adds: “I think the RSC will wish to cement its presence in London. Seeing Simon Russell Beale in The Seagull at the Barbican was one of the most transformative experiences of my life.” Would a new base be a good idea? “That’s an exciting question …”

The most intriguing suggestion, though, derives from something he has put into practice in Washington, where he has expanded the repertoire. “When I arrived they hadn’t produced a play by a writer of colour in their history. I’m really proud to have staged James Baldwin’s The Amen Corner – it was about widening the repertoire to investigate what the classics mean.” He says a similar approach could be employed here, creating a fresh narrative around Shakespeare’s legacy, and renewing Stratford’s identity as “a place of pilgrimage”.

That might “dilute” the brand; equally it might galvanise the organisation. The refreshing thing about Godwin is that he’s ideas-driven – with a relish for artistic risks – and a pragmatist, keen to keep audiences on-board. That theatre faces  an audience drain right now is evident. Even before the cost of living crisis, research published in March suggested that 14 per cent of regular arts attendees were still staying away while Covid remains an issue. For Godwin, the problem has more of a philosophical dimension.

“I’d say that several generations – middle-aged and above – have lost the habit of going to the theatre. In one swoop there has been a feeling that a whole group have asked: ‘Why am I going to the theatre?’ And to have that question posed is scary for all of us. I think we’ve taken that group for granted in a way. They’ve been the backbone, the core audience.” Does that old regular audience needs buttering up a bit? “Yes, I’d say the core audience needs to be wooed again. Theatre doesn’t have the luxury to leave anyone behind right now.”

Katherine Parkinson and Company in Much Ado About Nothing - Manuel Harlan
Katherine Parkinson and Company in Much Ado About Nothing - Manuel Harlan

Relevancy is one concern. While Godwin’s Sicilian Much Ado will place the accent on feelgood comedy – “people really want euphoria” – he trusts it will speak to contemporary concerns about relationships, “how, often, if you’re single over 40, you have to defend that. Beatrice and Benedick fighting against marriage remains counter-cultural.”

One striking feature of the production, as far as I could tell, sitting in on rehearsals, was the amount of full-on snogging in the final act. He laughs. “I think the days of the coy Shakespearean heroes and heroines are over.” Still, might it not be the culture wars, as they’ve affected the programming and presentation of theatre, that are putting off that core audience? If I had a pound for every reader comment I’d seen despairing of “woke Shakespeare”, I’d probably be able to retire.
Godwin pushes back. “I don’t think ‘woke Shakespeare’ is a meaningful term – for me a better one is ‘playful, celebratory, provocative’. Those are the productions I’m interested in and which I believe Shakespeare was interested in.”

For all his commitment to inclusivity, he disdains hard and fast rules and inflexible protocols, for how productions should be staged. “It’s up to the production to make its case. That’s why it’s important we are held to account by the critics, who can identify the ideological approach at work and go ‘Actually this has not succeeded in creating a good piece of theatre’.”
Shakespeare, he argues, may actually provide the perfect means necessary to navigate our current upheavals and conflicts. “He was living through culture wars of his own, and he was interested in friction. I think he might be the best vehicle we have to be at once progressive and entertaining. He’s so elusive as a writer that you can’t downsize him for your own narrow positions.”

So, Godwin isn’t trying to turn the clock back on Shakespearean production. Nor is he accelerating past our anxieties about radical readings. Whatever he does next, his confidence about Shakespeare’s value is inspiring. “I want to reassure readers that Shakespeare’s work is a safe space where I think we can grapple with the big questions of our age. Let’s have those conversations in our theatres. That’s what’s going to keep them alive.”

‘Much Ado About Nothing’ runs until Sep 10. Tickets: