The Shakespeare Theatre Company has reached across the Atlantic and tapped British director Simon Godwin as its new artistic director effective next August, signaling a commitment to large-scale classics on its two downtown Washington stages. Godwin, 42, is currently directing Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okonedo in “Antony and Cleopatra” on the National Theatre’s 1,100-seat Olivier stage, and earlier this year his “Hamlet” for the Royal Shakespeare Company toured the United States and alighted at Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater.
Epic style has been the mark of Godwin’s recent London output: “The National’s patron saint of late trains and expensive babysitters,” one newspaper wrote after acclaimed (and long) productions of Eugene O’Neill’s “Strange Interlude” and a George Bernard Shaw “Man and Superman” that starred Fiennes. But Godwin’s résumé also includes several years as an associate director with London’s Royal Court, long a mecca for the development of new plays.
“The opportunity to lead an organization is something I’m not doing here,” Godwin said last week by phone from London, where he is currently an associate director at the National Theatre. “And there are so few major classical theaters in the English-speaking world that when something of this magnitude appears, it’s very, very attractive.”
Wednesday’s hiring caps a long transition process for the Shakespeare Theatre Company, whose longtime artistic director Michael Kahn announced over a year ago that he would depart at the end of the 2018-19 season. Godwin’s appointment also marks the second major leadership transition in Washington theater this year, after Maria Manuela Goyanes succeeded Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company co-founding artistic director Howard Shalwitz, who retired after almost four decades running the influential new-works troupe.
At the STC, a global search was conducted with attention to “e.d.i.” — equity, diversity and inclusion. More than 100 candidates were identified, and that figure was reduced to 22, with nine finalists — the majority either women or people of color, according to STC board chairman Michael Klein — being interviewed by the STC’s 12-member search committee.
“I do believe of all the people that applied and moved forward, it was clear that Simon was the best choice,” says Kahn, who was kept abreast of the process but was hands-off regarding the vetting. “We are all very confident that his enthusiasm and commitment to diversity is genuine and strong.”
Godwin’s 2016 “Hamlet” starred Paapa Essiedu as the first black actor to play the title role for the Royal Shakespeare Company, and his recent gender-adventurous “Twelfth Night” for the National featured Tamsin Greig portraying the lovelorn steward Malvolio as a woman for the first time on a major British stage. “Suddenly,” Greig says of the gender swap, “it could become a story about a woman who loved another woman but can’t say it, and is cruelly outed.”
The “Hamlet” and “Twelfth Night” both grew out of long conversations with the featured actors. “That’s key,” says Godwin, who cites as one influence Kahn’s 1990 production of “The Merry Wives of Windsor” with actress Pat Carroll as a blustery, bewhiskered Falstaff. “Not just making them instruments of your world, but collaborators in depictions of new worlds.”
“He’s not someone who’s about to harken to old traditions or be lazy in casts he puts together,” Essiedu says. “I know he’ll be bold and enabling of directors he engages at the theater.”
Under Kahn, diversity “has been top of mind and top of heart,” says Klein, who was part of the 12-member search committee. “Simon is so sensitive to these issues himself. The proof will be in the pudding, of course.”
“There’s no danger there that he’s going to be producing boring, conventional, white middle-class productions,” Greig says. “The company will be in very empathetic and sensitive hands.”
Klein plainly covets the excitement that has greeted many of Godwin’s London shows, which is a factor for the STC in what Klein describes as a “tough market.” The STC has had mixed fortunes in recent years, winning the regional theater Tony Award in 2012, suffering recent attendance dips, setting a box-office record this summer with the musical “Camelot.” (The budget this season, with six productions plus the end-of-summer Free for All offering on its two stages, is just over $18 million.) Under Kahn, the company grew in the 1990s from performing in the intimate Folger Shakespeare Theatre Library’s theater to sellouts at the 451-seat Lansburgh Theatre in Penn Quarter. Doubling down on growth mode, in 2007 the troupe expanded around the corner into the 774-seat Harman Hall.
Godwin’s U.S. productions of “The Cherry Orchard” and “Measure for Measure” met mixed reviews in New York, but the idea of showmanship comes up repeatedly in conversations with people who know the body of his British work. National Theatre Deputy Artistic Director Ben Power talks of Godwin’s “up-to-date aesthetic, sense of fun, of sexiness — a really crowd-pleasing desire to break these old plays out of the dusty library that they sometimes live in.”
Godwin says, “It’s a war against cliche for classic theater today,” noting that he’s “tired of 40-year-old guys shouting at their mother” as Hamlet and, as Malvolio, the “overweight, sweating man in yellow stockings.” He once described the director’s job plainly as keeping the audience’s attention. “It’s amazing to see just how quickly a human being will fall asleep,” he said.
“Shakespeare was writing the musicals of his time,” Godwin contends. “He believed in popularity. He wanted thousands of people to see them at a time.” The aesthetic at the National often “deliberately revels in a big audience,” and Godwin conveys an attraction to that.
“That’s partly the reason I wanted the job,” Godwin says of the STC’s Harman Hall, which is the largest stage among Washington’s regional companies but smaller than the London culture palaces Godwin works in now. “It’s epic enough to tell big stories.”
Godwin comes from creative stock: His brothers are in film and TV production, and his sister is an art curator. Their father was a book publisher, then an agent who landed novelist Arundhati Roy by flying to India and knocking on her door after reading the manuscript of “The God of Small Things.” Godwin tells that story with a touch of glee; enthusiasm is mentioned repeatedly as one of his traits, and he pleads to it eagerly, even volunteering that the word has a Greek root meaning “close to God.”
He read English at Cambridge, started a small theater company and then, in his late 20s, studied physical theater for two years. Acrobatics are sometimes part of the rehearsal process; Greig says it taxed her physically during “Twelfth Night” but also generated insights into her frustrated character’s romantic side.
Godwin’s precocious start in showbiz was as a child actor, something that did not last long and makes him laugh now. “I’m still flattered when I read a line in rehearsal,” he says, “and Ralph compliments me on my acting.”
The blessing of stars like Fiennes and Okonedo — and Kathryn Hunter, who will play the title role in Godwin’s “Timon of Athens” for the RSC later this season — of course lends his work pizazz. Power notes that it is unusual for lions such as Fiennes to put themselves in the hands of comparatively younger directors. Godwin says he is not necessarily looking for stars, a criticism that Kahn parried in his early years building the STC with headliners such as Kelly McGillis, Avery Brooks, Andre Braugher and Stacy Keach.
“They are Olympian athletes, the actors required for these parts,” Godwin says. “One doesn’t have to be famous to deliver that. Now, if someone’s excellent and famous — wonderful.”
His definition of “classic” is expansive: “We think it means ‘old,’ but it can also mean ‘of the first rank,’ ” Godwin says. “There are musicals out there, as there are going to be new plays, or plays from the 19th or 18th century, that are of the first rank.” Will he have to build out the theatergoing experience with extra programming, incentives, involvement? “I think audiences always need extra catnip to be lured in,” he says.
The idea of Godwin’s bedrock Englishness is another refrain, and Greig explains it: “He’s very, very well behaved. He absolutely knows about manners and courtesy. He almost bows when he sees you.”
Godwin, who will plan the STC’s 2019-20 season before fully inhabiting the position next August, acknowledges that he’ll be looking for a proper cup of tea when he arrives in Washington with his fiancee, paintings restorer Rose Miller, and their 22-month-old twin daughters. The habit of tea may not be all that accompanies him from Britain.
“Part of the appeal of the job is meeting American artists,” Godwin says. “Having said that, after 20 years working in the U.K., I have relationships with some artists I think American audiences might enjoy meeting. I’m hoping to keep the flow alive between the two countries.”