Do you have an opening date for the Almeida? "We know it'll be sometime in the spring, probably in May. It's very exciting that we're getting near to completing the refurbishment: The theatre will look fabulous."
How important a part in the equation that made up the Almeida's success in the past was the actual shape of the theatre, and to what degree will that have been changed by the refurbishment work? "It's a vital part of the equation and won't be changed by the work that's being carried out.
"The great strength of the Almeida is that the space is small enough to be intimate but has a curious sense of the epic about it as well. We've made sure we keep that, so although there are a great range of improvements to the theatre as a building —the comfort of the seats, for example — the relationship between actors and audience, as defined by the acting area, including the brick back wall, remains unchanged.
"I don't think it's a coincidence that the two most successful non-West End theatres in London, the Almeida and the Donmar, are both found spaces rather than purpose-built theatres. The Donmar was a warehouse; we were a lecture theatre. In both cases there's a very individual appeal — a unique relationship between the stage and the seats."
As artistic director, how do you split your time between issues such as the physical fabric of the theatre, artistic policy and actual directing of plays? "That's the $64,000 question! Every artistic director has to divide their time, and my policy is to make sure I know what's happening in every department, but to let those departments get on with it. For most people, the directing and programming of plays is by far the most interesting aspect of the job, but as head of the theatre the buck stops at my desk, so as I have, ultimately, responsibility for every aspect of the theatre, I need to be informed and involved to some degree with every area of our work." The Almeida has, in the past, been very successful at taking its productions on from its Islington home and out to the West End — and beyond. Is this something you intend to build on? "As a matter of policy, I've said to the company that for the first 12 months I don't want to think about anything outside our home. We need to get people back into the habit of going to the Almeida, to get them to associate the Almeida and its theatre in a way they haven't been able to do for a while.
"The policy of taking major plays — especially with a crowd-pulling star like Ralph Fiennes who is able to fill a large theatre — into big, unusual places like Gainsborough Studios makes commercial and artistic sense, but we need to re-establish ourselves here first. And though I'm all for commercial success, there has to be an artistic imperative to using a different space; otherwise, it won't work."
You seem to have a particular affinity for classic texts, and two Sophocles plays are included in your line-up of future projects. "Yes! At Watford and Hampstead, the two theatres I ran in the past, the emphasis was on new writing. And in theatre, in general, it's now very rare to see Shakespeare performed commercially, let alone being seen as a regular part of any theatre's programming.
"It wasn't until I went to the RSC that I really got the chance to direct Shakespeare; something I owe to Adrian Noble. Directors, like actors, get out of the habit of working with Shakespearean texts, and that can make them very daunting. Adrian pointed out that a good director would be as good with Shakespeare as, say, a Sam Shepard, so just go for it!
"I've already mentioned the attraction for me of the Almeida as a theatre space, and it lends itself to productions of the classics where you can convey this sense of the epic without the actors having to shout and declaim in order to get that sense across to the audience."
You've announced a wide range of plays in your first season — an Ibsen, a Sam Shepard, Antony Sher's first play, a premiere of a Joanna Laurens work, plus your plans for two Oedipus plays. Do you as artistic director have any overall ambition for the Almeida? "I suppose the thing I most want to achieve is for every play at the Almeida to be an event. Theatre is a wonderful art form that offers a non-naturalistic, theatrical experience wholly removed from television and film. One of the problems with a lot of new writing is that the authors are basically staging television rather than theatre.
I want to promote more theatrical new writing that suits the medium and our particular space, and I want to use the extraordinary affinity our space has for the classics to stage those, too. But it's the sense of every play being exciting, being an event that people will want to be part of, that's my main ambition.
"Having Trevor Nunn, one of the world's great directors, staging The Lady From the Sea is an event. Antony Sher's first play, I.D., is an event . . . and so, I hope, will be every play we'll be putting on. The Almeida has had an amazing list of achievements over the last 12 years under my predecessors, and I'm looking forward both to building on their work and in taking the Almeida forward in new directions that reflect the changing trends and public taste in theatre — and my own!"