“I want it to be vigorous, romantic and rapturous,” he said of his approach. And so, it seems, six months into his official start, Godwin — who until now had a work life defined almost exclusively by the borders of the United Kingdom — is putting his stamp on a quintessentially American classical company. At the top of his agenda is discovering what “American Shakespeare” actually means and helping, perhaps, to propel it to new imaginative heights.
That is leading him to decisions about where Shakespeare plays fit best: one in autumn and one in spring, he has determined, for seasonal symmetry. About how to advise actors to deal with the Bard’s linguistic currency, iambic pentameter: “I really think Shakespeare’s most important word is at the end of his line,” he said. About how to create for Americans the connections in the plays that are second nature back home: What, for instance, might be an American historical equivalent for the War of the Roses?
The goal is to get in sync with and replenish the vision of a sprawling organization that has been around since the 1980s and guided, until last year, by its founder, Michael Kahn. But the gregarious, 43-year-old Briton, settled in Washington with his wife and two small children — “like an immigrant, I guess” — proclaims himself exuberantly engaged in the formidable intellectual and audience-building challenges.
“I have no territorial claims because I am a newcomer. I mean, there are things that I don’t have, but at least I have this genuine wish to understand and collaborate,” Godwin said of his mission for putting on Shakespeare — which, of course, has to be a primary focus for a theater that bears the playwright’s name. What, exactly, though, does such an aspiration require? How does a director only marginally acquainted with these shores — by virtue of having directed a few productions, in New York and now in the District — make a consequential impact, and quickly?
This, Godwin said, is the burden and pleasure of his new role. During an interview in his office on Capitol Hill, as performances began in downtown’s Michael R. Klein Theatre for “Timon of Athens,” his first directorial effort, he talked about the benefits of being a known yet unknown quantity.
“My role as a newcomer can be useful if I’m allowed to ask simple but meaningful questions,” he said. Such as: Why has a major company not, in repertory memory, offered the complete cycle of the history plays — a story that begins with “Richard II,” runs through the “Henry IV” plays and “Henry V” and is completed with “Richard III”? (Though a small troupe, Brave Spirits, is attempting it.) And how can this company based in Washington fulfill one of Godwin’s bigger ambitions, to send productions to New York and elsewhere on a regular basis? “I want us,” he said, “to be having a national conversation about Shakespeare.”
His wishes are being metabolized by the rest of the institution. “It is a gift for us to have cultivated, experienced fresh eyes,” said Melissa A. Moss, a member of the company’s board of trustees, whose search committee chose Godwin from among 250 candidates. With the enormous difficulty of filling 1,300 seats in two theaters, the Klein (formerly the Lansburgh) and Sidney Harman Hall, the idea of hiring someone with novel programming ideas steeped in the classics proved appealing to the trustees. As Shakespeare’s Theatre’s executive director, Chris Jennings, explained: Kahn, who retired last year, thought the way to go forward was through innovation, not replication.
“Michael used to say, ‘You don’t want to replace me with another me,’ ” Jennings recalled. “ ‘You want me 30 years ago.’ ”
Kahn was also a D.C. newbie when he started producing Shakespeare here, after having run companies in Princeton, N.J., and Stratford, Conn., though Washington was a far less evolved theater town back then. Godwin enters a more theatrically competitive city, one of the few in the nation with two major classical troupes, and goes toe to toe with Folger Theatre. The new artistic director also retains his position as an associate with London’s National Theatre, and his Shakespeare Theatre Company contract allows him to direct one play a year elsewhere. This summer, after staging “Much Ado About Nothing” in Harman Hall, he will direct “Romeo and Juliet” for the National.
The repertory of a classical theater has had to change with the times, as well, as the popular appetite for Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, with an occasional soupcon of Molière, has become less dependable. “It’s difficult to fill up a house with our house programming, or classical programs,” Godwin acknowledged. “Having said that, as I get clearer about the art, I get clearer about my aims. So I feel motivated, empowered rather than daunted.”
Godwin has a buoyant personality and a plummy accent; he not only is a Shakespearean in daily life, he could play one on TV. Words tend to tumble out of him in a hurry, like river water through rapids, and he uses sound effects to punctuate his thoughts: falsetto whaaaaats? and sputtered deh-deh-deh-deh-deh-dehs to complete a sentence. It’s a mind clearly trying to keep up with itself.
One can see, in the seasons Godwin is assembling, the free-range intellect he relies on. Although the first show of his debut season, “Everybody,” an updated version of “Everyman,” was a dud, the seeds of intellectual expansion are evident in what we will be asked to consider canonical work. The best examples may be the addition of black, 20th-century American writers: this season in the Harman, a tantalizing revival of James Baldwin’s rarely seen “The Amen Corner,” and next season, the perhaps even more obscure play by Lorraine Hansberry, “Les Blancs.”
Both of these plays were recently revived to strong notices in London, and you can see that Godwin still gazes back across the Atlantic for inspiration; his “Timon,” for instance, with Kathryn Hunter in the title role, originated at the Royal Shakespeare Company and made an intermediate stop (with a new American cast) at Brooklyn’s Theater for a New Audience before its Washington debut. And when Godwin talks about the “Evita” he plans for next season — a programming concession, started under Kahn, to box-office-bolstering musicals — he mentions emulating a recent “darker” version he saw in London.
He views his job as demonstrating that the impulse to improvise is not a betrayal — in fact, not radical at all. “People have always said to me, ‘If I want to go and see “Macbeth,” why can’t I just go to a theater and see how it was originally done?’ ” Godwin said. “So I hear that cry from the heart. But Shakespeare was never a period writer. He was always of the moment, by his themes and by his visuals.”
To perform Shakespeare in some variation of modern dress, he added, “is actually the most Shakespearean.” He recalled talking to a man from Northern Ireland who lodged a now-standard complaint about modernizing the text. “I said to this guy, ‘Look, I actually think if you were to come to see ‘Macbeth’ set in Northern Ireland, with all of the complexities of those dynamics and the tides of violence and retribution, actually ‘Macbeth’ will speak to you much more clearly.’ ”
This goal is what will animate Godwin’s “Much Ado,” which will have Beatrice and Benedick, the warring antagonists who are irresistibly drawn to each other, as warring TV anchors.
“The idea is, we’re going to have a broadcast. And so with this on-air, off-air vibe between the two of them, so they’re having to present [the news], and then they’re like grrrrrrrrrrrr, so there’s a kind of heat to the evening.”
It’s made-for-Washington Shakespeare.
Godwin has two eyes on Shakespeare Theatre Company’s stages and a third one looking for partners who can help move productions to New York, to London and vice versa. The playmaker’s mind navigates more rapids: perhaps entice British actors he loves, such as Alex Jennings and Eileen Atkins and Roger Allam, to venture over. “After all, how many times is the National Theatre going to do ‘King Lear’?” he asked. “Once every 15 years?”
The artistic director flashed an expectant grin. So much possibility and — Godwin willing — much ado over what’s yet to come.