Work Wear: Theatre Director Simon Godwin
A new series that captures Drake's customers in their place of work, in the first edition of Work Wear we visit virtuoso theatre director Simon Godwin during rehearsals at the National.
“It’s like acting, wearing clothes,” says Simon Godwin as he slips on a well-worn navy blue Drake’s chore coat that he bought a few years ago. “The ability to create a different persona through the clothes you wear. These are very charged choices!” He pauses, before shooting me a knowing smile. “The only danger of being interested in clothes is that it can breed vanity — the enemy of shamelessness.”
If there is one thing to know about the Associate Director of the National Theatre and current Artistic Director of the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C., is that when it comes to his work, he has no shame. Mostly working with adaptations of classical texts, they are playful, but with the capacity to be deeply moving. Modern in their attempts to paint for us, on stage, a world in flux.
What Simon is after is transparency, character and story, things that can only come about if, during the rehearsal process you commit yourself fully. He has collaborated with some of the acting world’s greatest talents. Jessie Buckley and Josh O’Connor in Romeo & Juliet; Sophie Okonedo, who luxuriates in the space she is given as the doomed Queen of Antony & Cleopatra; while Paapa Essiedu brings the confusion and agony of Hamlet’s grief front and centre. You're left wondering if any of this could have been done had it not been for Simon’s creation of spaces that are built on principles of playfulness, truth and humour. I ask if it was always this way. It wasn’t.
“At the end of my 20s I had a sort of career crisis. What kind of director do I want to be? I got a good intellectual training from being at Cambridge. I knew how plays worked, but I am essentially a cerebral artist.”
So what did he do? He threw it all up in the air and joined a physical theatre training school. Simon had previously, as a child into his teens, been an actor, but switched to directing at university when he realised that he couldn’t transform himself — the hallmark of what a good actor does. Directing better suited him.
“You can be everybody without having to be everybody. You are inhabiting, in your mind, a character, thinking about what they’re doing, what their function is, but you don’t have to embody [the character].”
The school that Simon joined was based on the work of Le Coq, a 66-year-old French theatrical practice, based on principles of the body, movement, space and the art of collaboration, the key component of which is the auto cours. It is an exercise in which he and other students were tasked with devising a new piece based off a different challenge every week for two years.
“It’s all about taking on challenges that are, perhaps fundamentally, impossible to achieve. But it's in the doing, in the trying, and in the failing.”
It's a pedagogy which Simon recalls as being “relentlessly exposing." He was encouraged to work with others on ownership, empowerment, mutual creation, and fundamentally, in his mind, to have a sense of humour. “To be not just intellectually playful, but to also be physically open and alive.”
Had it not been for this detour into performermance again, he feels that as a collaborator he might “have been intimidated, shy and kind of, perhaps, rather repressed” encountering such powerful talents as Anne Marie Duff and Ralph Fiennes so early in his career. Instead he is “armed with these lessons, these gifts, of playfulness, energy, humour” and so was able to encourage the actors he worked with to explore, take bigger creative risks and, vice versa. All in the pursuit of shamelessness. “If you have no fear of shame, then you can really be you. In the most wild and thrilling way.”
Sat in one of the rehearsal rooms at the National Theatre, where Simon had just finished the first week of rehearsal for his new adaptation of Shakespeare’s comedy Much Ado About Nothing, all I could notice was how huge the wood panelled room was. How daunting it must be to perform and practice in.
The stages at The National are notorious amongst actors for having nowhere to hide. The main space, the Olivier, takes its design cues from Ancient Greek amphitheatres; the Lytellton is a more traditional proscenium but endlessly adaptable. The rehearsal room we’re sat in clearly was designed as preparation for this - you can’t even boil a cup of tea in the kitchenette privately.
“Having nowhere to hide is a good thing,” Simon declares. “If you try and hide you will fail, [and] all an audience will see is an actor TRYING to hide. The work of rehearsals is to acknowledge the defences that we all have, then to try and let them go.”
On the note of rehearsal again, I’m reminded of something I had heard, prior to our meeting. That Simon always wears yellow socks on the first day of rehearsal. He tells me that it comes from the play Twelfth Night. As an avid director of classical theatre and Shakespeare, I'm not too surprised by his answer. The character Malvolio wears yellow stockings as a sign of love for his mistress. “This was the first play I directed after my twins were born,” he tells me. “And - as the play is also about embracing change, chaos and the off balance - yellow socks occupy a place in my heart.”