Rupert Goold sits calmly spooning soup into his mouth as the crowds gather at the Almeida Theatre in North London for his latest stage triumph. The Last Days of Judas Iscariot kicks off an extraordinary period of activity for the tyro director, widely tipped for the top job at the National Theatre or the Royal Shakespeare Company. On his packed schedule this year is a boldly realised imagining of Pirandello's classic Six Characters in Search of an Author to be seen at Chichester. Then, for the Dublin Festival, he revives Pinter's No Man's Land with Michael Gambon and David Bradley, with David Walliams joining in the fun as one of Gambon's sinister henchmen. Next there is steering Pete Postlethwaite in the title role of King Lear for Liverpool's year as European City of Culture. And, finally, Goold will be directing Rowan Atkinson as Fagin in an overdue West End revival of Lionel Bart's Oliver!, with casting for Nancy and Oliver courtesy of the BBC reality show I'll Do Anything.
Tonight, however, after the curtain closes at the Almeida, Goold is off to New York where his Macbeth, with Star Trek veteran Patrick Stewart and Kate Fleetwood (aka Mrs Goold) in the lead roles, is playing to packed houses. It opened last summer in Chichester, when reviewers marvelled at the 'amazing young director'.
It is strange that the critics should lay such stress upon Goold's relative youth. At 36, he's nobody's idea of an overnight sensation having toiled, largely unrecognised, as a director for over 10 years. In person, admittedly, he has a tousled, boyish quality of a perpetual student. But he's wily enough to downplay his recent rise to fame.
"I came home to an empty house after the Olivier Awards, clutching my trophy for Best Director and I realised that I'd peaked. It was now going to be downhill all the way. But I still felt quite comfortable with the realisation that nothing could get better after this."
His collaboration with Stewart began with an acclaimed The Tempest for the RSC. Goold cheerfully admits that he feels the need to inject excitement into the stretches of Shakespeare which bore him.
"There is a very fine line in the theatre," he says wryly, "between having your production dismissed as gimmick-heavy and hailed as a radical reinterpretation." Goold cites 1980 horror-flick The Shining as a major influence on his production of Macbeth, and also invokes Downfall and The Lives of Others as films that contributed to his creation of Macbeth's kingdom as a totalitarian state.
By using what he calls "the grammar of cinema", Goold's productions glory in theatricality through the employment of jump-cuts, rewinds, edits and panning shots. While admiring the British tradition of the writer's theatre, he argues that it has its limitations.
"The notion of ' holy theatre', pure, clear and uncluttered, doesn't really interest me. We should remember that a Jacobean audience considered Shakespeare to be part of their mass entertainment, as much Total Recall as it was Brokeback Mountain."
Goold's achievements are all the more remarkable when you consider that he is also Artistic Director of Headlong, the new name he gave to the venerable Oxford Stage Company when he was appointed to the top job. Headlong certainly seems to be the appropriate word in view of the velocity with which his career is storming up the ladder.
"I am very busy and I seem to be working all the time " he concedes, a master of understatement. "I hope that I'm not grabbing at anything that comes along because I've always directed a lot and many of these projects have been in preparation for some time. I couldn't possibly have turned down the Pinter and although I had to be talked into taking on Oliver!, I like the piece and I felt really good to be agreeing to do one of the great book musicals. I am terrified by the prospect of doing King Lear, however. What does a man of 36 have to say about that play?"
He calmly dissects the reasons behind this recent upturn in his fortunes. "To an extent success breeds success. Great plays attract great actors who receive great reviews and there's also a snowball effect. A lot of the critical reaction to Macbeth had already started to build at the time of The Tempest and the great scenes in Shakespeare tend to play themselves. They don't need any help from the director."
Goold's CV includes a spell at the Donmar Warehouse under Sam Mendes, invaluable directing experience at the Salisbury Playhouse, five years of freelance frustration " i wouldn't have been able to continue being a director if my parents hadn't had a house in London where I could live." and the crucial period running the twin theatres in Northampton. His stage version of Milton's epic Paradise Lost brought critical attention and a visit from Michael Boyd, RSC Artistic Director. If that show turned out to be the vital calling-card, it was a remarkably random one.
"I had programmed The Importance of being Earnest, David Hare's play Amy's View and Alan Bennett's Habeas Corpus, in the belief that they would all be safe bets at the Box Office. Unfortunately I was wrong. Fortunately Paradise Lost turned out to be, in that hackneyed phrase 'event theatre' and we discovered that there was a real appetite among the public for adventure and ambition, for big story-telling and for poetry."
Surprisingly, given his fascination for the cinema, he has no plans to get behind the camera. "Making a film is such a slow and precarious process," he says. And if he has his eye on a top job in the British theatre, it may be the Avon rather than the Thames that will attract him.
" I am a romantic " he confesses. " I have an emotional relationship with the RSC and with Stratford itself. My wife comes from Stratford, my son was born in Stratford in the middle of the Ashes and while I was directing my first show for the RSC. And every time I come to Stratford and reach the outskirts of the town, my heart gives a leap."
The British theatre currently boasts a vintage crop of thirtysomething directors—Thea Sharrock and Rufus Norris, Marianne Elliott and David Grindley to name but four of an outstanding generation of talents. Goold is enough of a realist to predict that " there's bound to be a backlash against me " but whichever way the pendulum swings, Goold may well turn out to be the pick of the crop. We should all enjoy finding out.