When Ellen McDougall insightfully and thoughtfully answers my questions, she occasionally checks if what she is saying “makes any sense at all”. Her modesty is humbling – especially from a talented director with a formidable track record that includes Secret Theatre’s darkly fascinating Show 4 and the acclaimed Henry the Fifth at the Unicorn. Show 4 featured bloodied hands to symbolise guns; Henry the Fifth a sandpit for France – all pointing to McDougall’s dynamic and imaginative approach. Now, she is directing Idomeneus at the Gate Theatre.
McDougall’s involvement in directing stretches back to her university days, where she directed Philadelphia, Here I Come! and Cymbeline. “I think that was the moment: watching the audience watch Philadelphia, Here I Come!” she says when we speak on the phone. “I suppose I just loved the idea that they got it, and watching them laugh and enjoy and follow the story was really magical.” McDougall then worked with, among others, ATC and the National Theatre, with several stints of assistant directing. “I think that’s where I learnt directing. Since then I’ve developed different ways of approaching directing, but certainly it gave me confidence. I assisted Katie Mitchell and Marianne Elliott, who are both very different directors, so it was fascinating to see very different approaches to very different plays as well. I was lucky to have worked on a huge range of stuff.”
Amongst McDougall’s other directing credits stands the much-speculated and discussed Show 4. How was the experience of working with the rest of Secret Theatre company? “Great!” she says enthusiastically. “The collaborative and collectively owned process was really thrilling.” This collaborative process is something McDougall appears to attribute to the experimentation of the company. “Everyone takes responsibility for everything. Any idea is worth testing. So even something that sounds ridiculous and bonkers, we go, ‘Well, let’s try it.’ The more bonkers, in a way, the more we’re inclined to try and do it. And I think that’s been a really exciting thing, because it makes you less afraid of risk.”
She cites something Simon Stephens said on one of the first days of Secret Theatre. “It’s really stayed with me: if you’re aiming to be good, you’re never going to be brilliant, because you will be too afraid of failing,. You must be able to embrace the possibility of it being a disaster to open up the possibility of it being brilliant.” With the experimentation and risk, it’s tempting to consider Secret Theatre as groundbreaking. Is it changing the face of theatre, or simply following the already altering landscape? “I think it’s part of a bigger thing, certainly,” McDougall says. “There are companies that have been doing really experimental work in this country for a long time, but I think what’s interesting is that now a theatre like the Lyric, which is quite established – and you know, it’s a Victorian proscenium arch at the end of the day – they’re also embracing it. It’s drawing inspiration from lots of places. What’s exciting about it for me,” she adds, “is that willingness and acceptance of experimentation, and also of the potential to fail.”
Her upcoming production of Idomeneus at the Gate is another example of McDougall’s varied directing ability. It is based on a character briefly mentioned in Homer’s Illiad – “You could probably sum up his story in about a sentence” – but is not, however, about a single plot, but rather several potential ones. “The idea of the play is that it explores multiple possibilities of what might have happened,” McDougall explains. “There is no final version of the plot.” The play uses a chorus to tell the different possible stories involving Idomeneus, who, returning from the Trojan War, finds his fleet shipwrecked, and makes a deal with the gods to, in exchange for his life, kill the first living thing he sees when he returns home.
The ancient Greeks are not, she says, as distant as we might imagine. “We make assumptions, I think, about the world of the Greeks, because of the plays that we know from that time, where things like a death of a child must be avenged, and blood must pay for blood. And I think what the play starts to do is suggest that actually maybe those people aren’t so different from us, that actually we are all capable of feeling that level of hatred, and we’re all capable of that kind of violence.” The nature of the text, with almost no stage directions and precise speech rhythms, means McDougall can put into practise some of the “openness” she learnt from Secret Theatre. “Being able to say to the actors, ‘I don’t know if this is right, but can you try pouring a bucket of water over someone’s head at that moment to see if that helps make something clear?’ is definitely something I have more confidence to do having worked with Secret Theatre.”
McDougall is also excited by the opportunity to direct in the Gate’s reconfigurable space. “In quite a genuine way, the first few times I went there I didn’t recognise the space,” she says, “and couldn’t understand how it was the same space as last time.” That the play “wants a space that can support the imagination” of the text has heavily influenced her use of the theatre. “There’s probably a way to do this play where you have your actors just talking directly to the audience on chairs – you could just read it and it would still have very vivid images – but we wanted to do something to allow those images to really sing, or the nuances of them be alive.”
Giving her advice for aspiring or emerging theatre directors, McDougall once more references what she has learnt with Secret Theatre – “don’t be afraid to fail” – but also highlights that “learning to trust your instinct” is equally important. “It can seem like theatres are full of very clever, well read people who know lots, but actually whatever you’re making has got to be understood by everyone who comes to see it,” she says firmly. “So getting tangled up in complicated intellectual ideas isn’t necessarily going to be clear to an audience. What you’ve got to do is trust your gut feeling about a play, I think, and if you know what that is, then you’ll be able to find a way to communicate it.”
Idomeneus is at the Gate Theatre from 19 June to 19 July. For more information and tickets, visit the Gate’s website. Photo (c) Bill Knight.