Christopher Haydon

“The Gate that I run is there to say a charming and mischievous ‘fuck you’ to the world”. I’m in the dressing room of the Gate theatre, surrounded by unused lanterns, upended speakers and stray dustsheets. Chris Haydon, the Gate’s Artistic Director, and Director of the acclaimed Grounded, is leaning back in his chair as he tries to get a handle on what makes the Gate unique. He reckons that it is its commitment to “creating work on an epic scale in a really intimate space and that’s constantly trying to challenge an audience’s understanding of theatrical form, of the world, of politics and so on.”

That’s what he means when he says the Gate “has a kind of punk spirit” – and for a theatre squeezed into a working pub in Notting Hill, its size belies its significance and history. In the past 20 years, Stephen Daldry, Rufus Norris and Rupert Goold, amongst a whole host of others, have all worked its wonky stage. Since Haydon became Artistic Director in 2012, “the work that we’ve done has been very explicitly political.”

Grounded exemplifies this. It’s accrued rave reviews, packed houses, a Fringe First, a nomination for the Evening Standard’s Best Actress Award, and more importantly, is a piece of theatre that speaks complexly to the concerns of now. It’s a one-woman show that deals with gender politics, remote warfare and modern life. “The great thing about a play like Grounded is that it’s not simple. The whole play she says and does things we find appalling, but we like her, we completely get her.” Haydon’s whole approach to theatre is about complexity, about making the audience think two things at once and leaving the theatre full of questions. For him, Tom Stoppard said it best – “dialogue is the only respectable way of contradicting yourself.”

“That’s absolutely what you can do in theatre. You can say ‘the world is this, and it’s also this’ and those two things are true and completely contradictory, and that’s what’s exciting.” He speeds up as he warms to his theme, growing increasingly gesticulative, “it’s setting up that dialogue within an audience, and not just between different members of the audience but between each individual audience member. It’s not about going the world is simple, there are bad guys and good guys – and the bad guys run the world and the good guys rebel against it – that’s bullshit.”

Then it’s asking the audience to go with it, to see how they might be able to change the world or their understanding of it. Ultimately that’s what Haydon is in theatre for. “A lot of people do it because they kind of like it. And there’s nothing wrong with that, but … for me that’s not enough. For me it provides the best language in which to explore the world in the way that I want to.” He’s speaking at machine gun pace now, “theatre gives you the opportunity to revel in paradox and ambiguity, contradictions and to explore them.”

He sees it as a secular ritual, where theatre provides a context for community, discussion and uncertainty. “I was about to make a comparison with quantum mechanics but I’m not because I don’t understand it, and that’s the worst thing you can do – go ‘oh that’s like quantum mechanics’ when it’s not, but you know, that kind of uncertainty can be very productive.”

There’s uncertainty more broadly in the theatre industry at the moment, but Haydon sees two sea-changes taking place. “At every level in the British theatre industry you’re seeing theatre institutions opening up to different ways in which people work.” He nods to the work Nick Hytner’s brought in during his tenure at the National, and Vicky Featherstone’s work at the Royal Court. It’s about breaking down the division between text and devised approaches, or recognising that they’re not polar opposites. “I think there’s also an interesting appetite for opening up – not just internally, in the difference between text based and devised, but to other theatre traditions.”

But at the same time, cuts to arts funding threatens this country’s extraordinarily vibrant theatre landscape. Haydon is deeply concerned with the impact of this on the ability of people of all backgrounds to access theatre. “We noticeably have – as there always has been – a serious access issue with working in theatre. It’s an industry which traditionally has always been controlled by white middle class men who went to Oxbridge.” He pauses and offers a wry grin. “I am fully aware that I fall into that category, and there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with them as individuals, but what is intrinsically wrong is that there is such disproportionate power held by those individuals.”

He finds it especially frustrating, because “we’re going through a period where this is becoming unstuck.” There are an increasing number of artistic directors at large institutions who don’t quite fit the traditional mould, and more generally, “there’s a lot more diversity that’s arisen in the last couple of years, but the access for people who aren’t from privileged background is only going to become harder as funding gets cut.”

It seems obvious that who is in a position to tell stories on stage affects which stories are told, and how. Haydon is careful not to lay the blame at the feet of individuals, or criticise those who come from a privileged background as artists: “the problem is the system. And the problem is when individuals within the system perpetuate that. If you are from a background of privilege, you have to think very carefully about how best to counteract that, so what you’re doing in your work allows the greatest access to the most wide-ranging number of people.”

His advice to upcoming theatre-makers? It all comes back to that set of principles – the questions that drive his work. “It is really important to ask yourself the question, why do you make theatre? And let that lead the decisions you make.” More practically “see as much as you can. Never be afraid to write to people whose work you like – if they don’t reply it’s because they’re busy and they forgot, never take it personally.”

There’s more than a hint of Puck about him – mischievously asking questions, generating differences – but unlike Robin Goodfellow, he’s his own boss. It’s a position he uses to champion the kind of punk philosophy he waxes lyrical about. But when I ask him what he’s most proud of, he reels off a list of show names, with Grounded foremost, but in the end he says “the thing I’m most proud is when you employ somebody and watch them flourish, watch them be brilliant, and watch them outdo your expectations and surprise you. Because shows come and go, but people remain.”

I ask what’s next for Haydon, and for the only time in the interview, he’s coy, keeping his cards close to his chest. To be fair, he’s only been at the Gate for a handful of years, although with Grounded he’s certainly already made his mark there. As for what the future holds, though it’s time that will ultimately tell, I bet Haydon has a pretty big say in it too.