Robert Icke decided to become a playwright and director after he had been torn away from his PlayStation by his father as a teenager and saw a performance of Richard III, with Kenneth Branagh in the title role. Now – only 30 years old – he is regarded as a great young talent in British theatre. For some time now, he has been an associate director at the Almeida in London, the famous theatre that used to be led by Pierre Audi before he came to Amsterdam.
Icke’s debut at the Almeida was an adaptation of George Orwell’s dystopian future novel 1984, which he transformed into an uneasy, contemporary story about surveillance and mind manipulation. Over the past years, he made his name with sensational adaptations and the directing of various classical repertory plays.
He rewrote the Oresteia to a courtroom story where the audience was allowed to decide whether Orestes would be acquitted or declared guilty. The Guardian wrote: ‘This is Aeschylus for the modern age, rightly leaving us to draw our own conclusions about the shaky premises on which political leaders go to war.’ For this, Icke received the Olivier Award for Best Director in 2016. The play was moved to the West End, which is very rare for a Greek tragedy.
In his Mary Stuart, he lets the two actresses flip a coin at the beginning of every performance in order to determine who will play which queen. That also drives home the point of the play: Elizabeth and Mary Stuart are two sides of the same coin.
What stands out in Icke’s adaptations is that everything that presumes foreknowledge in the original play is cancelled. He wants to avoid that the viewer will watch the performance in the light of previous experiences of the same play. That is the only way it can appear as new. Icke: ‘When you deliver a classic your primary responsibility is to try and catch some of the lightning in the bottle that made it happen when it first happened. If you don’t do this I don’t really understand it. I kind of think you have to take the ball otherwise you might just do a new play.’
In his most recent play Hamlet, he elaborates on what he did previously in 1984: the castle Elsinore is a place packed with surveillance cameras. The ghost of Hamlet’s father appears on CCTV. The Guardian wrote: ‘Hamlet himself eavesdrops on Claudius and Gertrude’s post-honeymoon canoodling, and hand-held cameras track Elsinore’s leaders on all public occasions. No one is ever quite alone in this corrupt kingdom.’