“If The Audience Don’t Have A Good Time They’ll Walk Out”

We meet theatre director Jeremy Herrin the day before his production of The Tempest at The Globe opens officially (i.e., when the press see it) and a couple of days after Marianne Elliott beat him to Best Director at the Olivier Awards, she for Curious Incident, he for This House. He’s already directed a second version of This House at the National Theatre and Polly Stenham’s No Quarter at the Royal Court this year, has literally just watched one of the more impressive props in The Tempest go wrong and he seems – understandably – jiggered. Not that he’d ever complain. He knows he has a fabulous job.

“I really like playwrights, I really like actors, I like working with other people and I think that’s part of the job, to enjoy bringing out what’s great about other people,” he says as we commandeer Globe Artistic Director Dominic Dromgoole’s office. “I don’t really want to be in the foreground, I want other people to do the talking.”

It helps that one of the people doing the talking is the exquisitely talented Roger Allam, playing Prospero. “Roger Allam’s so good,” Jeremy agrees. “He’s a real human being, he doesn’t behave like the star that he is. He’s gorgeous to work with as a director because he’ll try anything, he’ll really go for it and then have a nice conversation about whether it works or not. I didn’t want to do a very old Prospero which is a bit of a cliché – this is a guy who’s got a teenage daughter – and he can’t be so young that he’s not started to think about death. Roger is about the right age to really hold that part in his hands.”

The previous time Londonist saw Roger Allam at The Globe, we tell him, was as Falstaff in Henry IV. A tourist standing in front of us in the pit was snapping photos so Allam, clearly irritated, walked to the edge of the stage, posed with a terrifying grin and then pointed out the rule breaker to the ushers. It seemed to sum up the perils of performing in such an open venue. “As Prospero maybe he could turn the audience member into a frog or hit him with his staff,” smiles Jeremy. “I like a level of spontaneity and being in the moment for the actors anyway, and I do encourage playing to the gallery. And a character like Caliban, Jimmy Garnon’s playing him, he’s a very confident and spontaneous actor and it’s absolutely right that Caliban is a bit shocking and a bit frightening to the audience and that there’s some interaction.

“At the Globe the audience is a really big part of it,” he continues. Especially the 700 standing ‘groundlings’. “There’s something radical about putting tickets out for five pounds. The audience have paid a fiver and they’re going to have a good time. If they don’t have a good time they’re going to walk because it’s only a fiver – so that makes it interesting.”

That’s not the only unique aspect of The Globe the director has to contend with, in The Tempest and his 2011 Much Ado About Nothing. “It’s different because there’s no lights and no sound. Quite often you can tighten your shows up technically by doing particular light or sound cues and control the rhythm. What I find at the Globe is you have to be much more trusting with the text and the actors and that’s liberating, actually.” He’s also very comfortable embracing the traditional staging. “I’m all for finding context for Shakespeare but at the moment I find there’s a sort of mystical, spiritual, fairytale side to the plays that isn’t served, in my imagination, by modern dress.

“If you were doing a modern dress production of The Tempest you’d have to explain Prospero’s magic somehow. He’s harnessing the spirits and energy which wasn’t a million miles away from what rational people were doing at the time. The smartest people, like John Dee, were trying to use alchemy, magic, to harness the energy of the natural world. And that was all acceptable whereas down the years it’s become a crazy belief system. But if you get into the heart of that culture it’s less of a jump.”

We then ask where he’d recommend we check out theatre in London. “I’ve always loved the Royal Court, that’s always been my favourite theatre because it’s daring. I think the Royal Court and the Globe are two different ends of the same spectrum. The brilliant thing about living in London is that you can look through listings and there will be something that you fancy on and there’ll be a deal where you can get a ticket. I’d support those fringe theatres, Southwark Playhouse, 503, Battersea Arts Centre, the Albany in Deptford, there’s always something interesting happening somewhere or other.”

Speaking of fringe theatre, what of arts funding and cuts? “Regional theatre is now under incredible pressure – all theatre’s under pressure because of the cutbacks but regional theatre’s going to carry the burden because it’s much more difficult to raise corporate money and have glamorous people doing gala nights, special chatting up of donors and all of that. British theatre is really connected and the knock on effect of not supporting those theatres will be felt in London sooner or later. The answer is sustained public subsidy. The National is a classic example, because it was so well invested in it can look after itself with commercial choices without compromising the art or the access. It’s an argument that more articulate people than me have been making.”

Finally, since we know he’s a south east London resident, we ask Jeremy to namecheck his favourite local spots. It’s a task he takes so seriously he goes away, thinks about it and emails a list across later. Here, then, is Jeremy Herrin’s guide to Brockley and surrounds:

  • Telegraph Hill and the Hill Station I have to support because that’s a local project run by people in my community, there’s a fantastic little cafe with lots of things happening.
  • I’d always give a good shout out to the Albany, lots of good stuff comes out of there.
  • South London Gallery in Peckham is really interesting and a happy place to be.
  • Meze Mangal on Lewisham Way is brilliant and cheap and so welcoming. Got to be one of the best restaurants in the whole of London.
  • Guy Awford at the Guildford Arms in Greenwich is great for a treat, with a fantastic garden – lovely for a sunny weekend.
  • The blog Below The River is a great resource for all things South London.
  • And my kids love Felix School of Rock, a SE London thing that gets kids playing music and writing songs.
  • The Broca is our local veg shop, really reasonable sensibly sourced tasty food: the sort of shop that will be squeezed out by supermarkets and it’ll have gone before we realise how easy it would have been to support it.
The Tempest is on at Shakespeare’s Globe, Bankside, until 18 August. Tickets £5-£39. You can follow Jeremy Herrin on Twitter at @JerHerrin.

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