*Originally written for Exeunt*
Maria Aberg is extraordinarily energetic for someone who has spent the last few days in technical rehearsals. From the front of the soil-laden Royal Shakespeare Theatre stage, she bounds up to me as we greet one another and I gush about the amount I loved her production of King John in the Swan last year, with its pop cultural references and postmodern tone. Her first Shakespeare, it was a production which divided audiences and sparked lively conversation. Now she’s back at the company, this time going in completely the opposite direction with her Glasonbury-inspired As You Like It in the larger theatre which acts as one of the centrepieces of this year’s summer season. Like her production last year, Aberg is a bag of exciting contradictions, optimistic yet weary, progressive but nostalgic.
The music festival setting came about, Aberg says, through the play’s connection “to the forest and the idea of wilderness. I have a hunch that the rural English rituals that are now long forgotten fulfil the same kind of need that we satisfy when we go to Glastonbury. I think on some profound level those things are connected.” Her composer Laura Marling is a musician who straddles the line between pop and folk culture, and she recognises the resurgence of folk traditions as something “we’ve completely lost. But some of it does come out at Latitude or Secret Garden Party. It’s emblematic of the same desire, because it’s also to do with community and celebration and a release.”
Is this what drew her to the play? She hesitates. “Yeeaah. And you know, it’s about falling in love. It’s amazing! There’s something oppressive about the relationships in the court, but all those relationships are transformed when you get to Arden. For Rosalind, I’ve always been interested in the idea that the reason for her freedom and transformation in Arden is less to do with the fact that she plays a man and much more to do with the fact that she doesn’t have to play a woman any more. So the court is a place where you really have to perform your gender and once you get out into the wild you don’t have to do that anymore. And that is overwhelming and transformative, because you have to work out who you are. And it’s only that kind of freedom that can really allow you to fall in love with someone. So the connection that Rosalind and Orlando have in the court is more to do with recognition, and the actual deep falling in love happens when they get to Arden.”
Aberg has found the comedy a challenge – she’s never directed a play “where nobody gets killed” – but hopes that by finding the heart and the anarchy in the piece, the joy will come naturally. “It’s a lot of people’s favourite play. It’s about finding out why that is, and making sure that I give other people the same reason to fall in love with it when they come and see it.”
Our Orlando and Rosalind here are Pippa Nixon and Alex Waldmann, who also worked together with Aberg on King John. They are, according to their director, “both completely brilliant”, and it’s difficult to disagree after seeing them perform. A sizeable chunk of the team has also been brought over from last year’s show, and the two are related even if on the surface they’re both doing different things; they both start in a “very clean sterile world” before descending to anarchy. Aberg attempts to be “always pushing against what I would have done before or what is the lazy alternative that I come up with first. It’s always pushing against your own tradition as well as the tradition of the culture that you’re in. You should challenge your own conventions for every new piece that you make.”
Did she expect the reaction to King John? “If you try and do something like that, you’re going to get either/or. I’d never done anything that had quite as many pop cultural references in, and I hadn’t expected the thing you run up against when you do that – which is what Rupert [Goold] run up against with Merchant of Venice – which is that when you use a language that refers to shallowness, then people will think that what you’re doing is shallow. It’s a very simplistic thing, but I hadn’t clocked that that’s the kind of charges people hold up against it. […] But you never really think about that when you’re in a rehearsal. You don’t say ‘Oh, we shouldn’t, because not everyone might like this’. It just felt like we were aiming for the truth of something.”
To me, there was something of a Central European theatre tradition evoked by King John, and I suspect the fact that Aberg’s worked in both Sweden (her home country) and Germany played a part in this. In the gap between these two RSC shows, for example, she returned to Stockholm to work on an adaptation of Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander. Interestingly, however, though she notes a few practical differences (the ensemble system, previews etc), Aberg doesn’t believe there’s a huge difference in ways of thinking about theatre: “It’s pretty much the same questions, the same struggles, but it’s down to the individual. That’s what I’m interested in, and other people aren’t so interested in that, so I think it’s a matter of taste.”
In a discussion with Simon Stephens recently, Aberg’s name came up as one of a group of directors who are trying to do things a little differently and shake things up. She smiles appreciatively when I tell her this, and I ask whether she sees herself as part of that mythological Future of British Theatre. “I guess we’re just going to keep doing what we’re doing, and it’s a question of whether we’re going to keep pushing. It’s a nice position to be in to be anti-establishment, and by the time that group of people get to an age (which is relatively soon) when we are the establishment, then maybe we’ll stop. I hope not, but that’s where you run the risk; it’s great to be in opposition. It’s always better to be in opposition, it’s much more fun! You’ve kind of got something to fight against.”
Perhaps this is why she feels so at home at the RSC, where she is given the freedom and support to do what she wants; she believes notions of tradition are “in the audience’s minds rather than anyone that works here.” What are her plans for the future? “I’d like to do Othello. The thing that was joyous about King John was because it was kind of no one’s favourite play you can kind of fuck around with it – and I’ve barely touched As You Like It – but I would like to get the chance to really mess around with one of the big ones like Hamlet, and do a really strong edit.”
The reason why she didn’t take this approach with this production is because “It didn’t need it. It’s a completely beautiful story. I just wanted to keep the story. I wouldn’t ever want to do it on principle just for the sake of it.” So she’s not expecting the same reaction as King John? “I doubt it. Although I hope this feels very much like our production and that it feels brave, you kind of need to make sure that people’s hearts are in it. And by that I don’t mean to say that we’ve been more conservative in our choices to make sure we don’t alienate anyone, but it has much more of an emotional journey through, and you’ve just got to make sure people are with you on that. Whereas King John had a more provocative and slightly more aggressive gesture, you’d shoot yourself in the foot if you tried to do that with this play.”
Aberg’s excitement and energy are infectious, and though she is worried that “it sounds like I’m saying ‘I’m doing a more conventional production because I don’t want to offend anyone’,” her passion would win me round no matter what we were talking about. Upon meeting her, it’s no surprise that she’s created the anarchic, muddled, celebratory worlds of King John and As You Like It, for these are amongst the things she embodies. Extrapolating further, these are also the things which makes the modern world so unique, so I wouldn’t be at all surprised we see a lot more of her in the coming years.