Interview: Thea Sharrock

Thea Sharrock has just finished a morning of rehearsals for As You Like It, a production that is to be a double first for the director – for this will be both her Globe debut and the first time she has directed Shakespeare.

She talks about the challenges presented by such a unique space. It requires a total overhaul of the way she works. “The last ten years of work I’ve done I can almost throw out of the window. The Globe has its own rule book.”
The performers’ relationship with the audience is completely different for one thing. “And there’s the fact that it doesn’t have a roof, so the whole light situation has to be considered. It’s fascinating.”

In the Globe, she explains, the actors “don’t have the comfort of not being able to see who they’re performing for. There are two great big pillars in the middle of the stage and the audience are both at your feet, right in front of you and higher than they would be in any proscenium arch theatre. So the extremes to which you have to go for everybody to get a piece of you is a real challenge for every actor at the Globe.”

Sharrock’s As You Like It will form part of the Globe’s Young Hearts season (which began with Globe Artistic Director Dominic Dromgoole’s youth-infused staging of Romeo and Juliet). Naomi Frederick, who has previously worked with Complicite and Kneehigh she was Laura in the West End production of Brief Encounter, has been cast as Rosalind and Sharrock has opted to stage the play in traditional Elizabethan dress. “That was my instinct on this stage, in this moment,” she says. “Otherwise you make quite a big statement. Modern dress could work beautifully but I didn’t want that to be a feature in itself, to be the main choice. As soon as someone steps out on stage in modern dress bang you’ve made a decision and I didn’t want the audience to spend too much time worrying about it. I just want to tell them the story in the clearest possible way.”

Sharrock was also responsible for directing the recent revival of Peter Shaffer’s Equus, a production that was initially overshadowed by talk of Daniel Radcliffe’s nude scenes. Considerable critical acclaim for both Radcliffe and Sharrock followed and though it inevitably attracted its fair share of over-excited Potter-ites, it was a powerful production of a difficult play and recognised as such. It opened at the Gielgud in 2007 and then transferred to Broadway’s Broadhurst Theatre last year. This was Sharrock’s first experience of directing for Broadway, which she found to be “a little bit like the West End times a hundred. Everything’s bigger, there’s more pressure there’s so much more money essentially. That’s at the bottom of it and that’s where the pressure comes from.”

She stresses that version of the play that made it to Broadway was quite different from the one that audiences at the Gielgud saw. “We worked a lot on it in the time between,” she says, allowing the performances of both Daniel Radcliffe and Richard Griffiths to grow and develop. The New York production really “started where we left off on London.” She found Broadway audiences very different from those in London, “the level of expectation is much higher,” but she also found a real sense “of romance for British theatre.”

“The last ten years of work I’ve done I can almost throw out of the window. The Globe has its own rule book.” – Thea Sharrock on directing at the Globe.

Sharrock says she was reasonably interested in theatre from an early age but it wasn’t until the “last years at school that it solidified as the thing I wanted to do.” Was it specifically directing she was interested in? “I didn’t really understand what a director was,” she says. “In my late teens I went to see a lot of theatre and became more intrigued by the process and what it was that made things different; by who was making the choices and putting things together. But it’s very hard to know exactly what a director does until you actually do it.”

Her career in directing came about through a “process of elimination.” She spent six months of her gap year at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg, describing her role as that of a “general dogsbody.” She got to experience all aspects of running a theatre. “I worked in administration, I helped with stage management, but I knew that wasn’t what I wanted to do, I knew I didn’t want to be an actor. The last job I had there was being an assistant director and it suddenly fell into place – that was what I wanted to do.”

The theatre she was seeing around that time was also exciting her, inspiring her. She saw several productions close together that made an impact on her. She cites Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet for the RSC at the Barbican and Alan Rickman’s Hamlet at Riverside Studios, which were “completely different and I was so intrigued by the differences between them.” She also saw Anthony Sher’s “mesmerising” Tamburlaine and then “I saw Robert Stephens’ King Lear and that was the production that really did it for me.” This was also the time that Richard Eyre was going into his “golden period at the National” and that Stephen Daldry was “making a name for himself and was always doing something new. That era of directors was probably the one that impressed me the most.”

After Oxford, her career took off quickly. She won the James Menzies-Kitchen award in 2000, reviving Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls at BAC and was Artistic Director at Southwark Playhouse by the age of 24 before moving on to the Gate Theatre, an impressive trajectory, though she seems justifiably riled that so much was made at the time of her “age and the fact I was a girl the two things I could do nothing about” (something I suppose I am also doing by drawing attention to it.) Sharrock’s name was one of those mentioned for the top job at the Royal Court before Dominic Cooke took over and she says she would definitely consider taking on an artistic director’s role again in the future if the opportunity arose for an artistic director “is the person who can give other people a chance by helping to sculpt and to choose a programme of work. Theatre’s about collaboration and being an artistic director allows you to collaborate on a bigger scale than when you’re just working on one production.”

With a week to go before previews begin on As You Like It, time is tight but Sharrock is clearly relishing her first taste of directing Shakespeare. It had not been a conscious choice, she says, to avoid the Bard before this stage in her career, it’s just that there were “plenty of other people doing it and I was very interested in the worlds that I was exploring but then in it came.” Dromgoole knew her work and had been one of the first artistic directors to give her a job so when he offered her the chance to work at the Globe, she said yes. Now she admits to having got “the Shakespeare bug I’d love to do more.”

As You Like It begins previews on 30 May and plays in rep until 10 Coctober 2009.

For further details see

Read the musicOMH review of As You Like It

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