The tannoy announcing the imminence of curtain-up is part of the game of theatre. That three-minute warning is a bit of a fiction. There is always more time. Except that in May 2015 at the Almeida theatre in north London fiction became fact. Audiences were advised to be seated on the dot; over the stage, an electronic clock ticked down to the instant that the actors embarked upon the “Oresteia”. Being a trilogy, the same happened in two further intervals.
As a dramatic device it could be interpreted as a modish and peremptory irritant, or alternatively as an urgent summons to hear an ancient story that could not wait to be told again. Its author was Robert Icke. If you don’t know the name already, remember it now. Just 30, Icke is a theatre-maker who in a mere handful of productions has made an arresting entrance into an art form that feeds on reinvention.
Icke’s “Oresteia”, both adapted and staged by him, brought ancient Aeschylean tragedy into the war-torn present. Much of its power derived from a new prologue written by Icke to remind the audience how Troy was conquered. In Icke’s version, Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter Iphigenia by administering a deadly poison. The scene achieved a ghastly calm so clinical it was marrow-chilling to witness.
Lia Williams’ expressive performance as Clytemnestra, consumed with uncontainable grief, put the lie to the notion (sometimes suggested of director-auteurs) that Icke, whose control of imagery can make his stage motions resemble moves on a chessboard, might not be an actors’ director. For the final part of the trilogy Icke asked the audience to give its verdict in the trial of Orestes. The production was so successful that it journeyed onto the West End, the commercial hub of London theatreland, where sightings of Greek drama are extremely rare.
Right now that part of town is once again home to Icke's production of “1984”, which this year also toured the United States. In this version, which Icke co-devised with Duncan Macmillan, Orwell's vision of a loveless totalitarian future is set in a wood-panelled Groundhog Day in which, as in “Oresteia”, Icke betrays a fascination for ritual, where characters act out prescribed roles that seem to break down with each repetition. By the end (the production, by the way, lasts for precisely 101 minutes), the entire playing area is stripped away to expose the notorious room where one’s worst fears materialise. It takes the form of a simple white box, just like the one in which Peter Brook once set the Athenian wood of his revolutionary 1960s version of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. It’s an homage to a iconoclast who also flouted the theatrical rules. The difference is that in Brook’s white box love bloomed. In Icke’s it is crushed.
Icke grew up in Stockton-on-Tees in north-east England. There was no theatre in his bloodline – his father is a tax inspector and his mother a teacher. He discovered the art form on a trip to Sheffield to see Kenneth Branagh in “Richard III” (he’d heard of neither). He was so stunned by the experience he wrote to the director Michael Grandage to ask him how it was done. “If you come and see me,” replied Grandage, “I’ll try to tell you.” Icke went, and in two hours was given a set of (undisclosed) precepts which he applied in school productions and by which he claims still to abide.
After reading English at King’s College, Cambridge, where he found the theatre scene cliquey, he went back to Stockton and set up his own theatre company, for which he staged “Julius Caesar”. On the back of this self-start, he applied to work for Rupert Goold, artistic director of the touring company Headlong, which specialises in rethinking theatre’s possibilities. Goold took on Icke to assist on “Decade”, a multi-author thinkpiece performed ten years on from 9/11 in a London office block. In 2013, when Goold went to the Almeida, Icke followed.
They share a laser-like eye for the new in the old, the contemporary in the classic, for finding new storytelling solutions in audio and video technology. Mood-setting soundscapes are effectively movie sound designs retooled for the stage. In “1984”, via video link beamed onto the screen, the audience watches Big Brother watching Winston Smith and his lover Julia in an offstage bedroom they believe is secret.
The difference is that Icke also writes. And where he can’t write, he rewrites. For his full Headlong debut, Icke injected “Romeo and Juliet” with the time-bending spirit of Alan Ayckbourn. Rather than just tell the same old story, he interrogated the helter-skelter tragedy with what-if scenes which imagined fate taking a different trajectory: the brawl not happening, the lovers not meeting, the fateful letter not arriving.
The first show he directed for the Almeida was “Mr Burns”, a post-apocalyptic riff on “The Simpsons” by the American playwright Anne Washburn – one of the very few times he's had a writer to consult. The most recent was “Uncle Vanya”. He stopped just short of retitling it “Uncle Johnny” – the new name he gave to Chekhov’s weary provincial protagonist on the grounds that most audiences wouldn't know “Vanya” is a diminutive. His impetus, as ever, was to present a classic, as far as possible, as a new play in which theatre-goers are specifically discouraged from rifling through their memory to make knowing comparisons with previous productions.
This autumn he makes his debut at the National Theatre with “The Red Barn”. It could not be less canonical: a psychological thriller by Georges Simenon based on his postwar life in New England, which David Hare has adapted. In December, Almeida audiences will be treated to his version of “Mary Stuart”. Friedrich Schiller’s portait of Elizabeth I’s long-distance relationship with her Scottish cousin doesn’t come round so often. But Icke’s Hamlet in 2017 should be another story.