Tim Supple is a frantically busy man. The British theatre director first became known in India with his celebrated multi-lingual production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with cast and crew from across India and Sri Lanka. But his oeuvre is massive, and his ambition is international. Aside from his major Shakespeare productions, Supple has worked on everything from The Epic of Gilgamesh to Arthur Miller, and is currently involved with three major new projects, including one set in the former Soviet Union. Excerpts from a conversation on Shakespeare, literature, and theatre across cultures: 

As a director, does new scholarship on Shakespeare directly affect the way you stage your productions? Would the scholarship of someone like Jerry Brotton, who is researching the connection between Shakespeare and Islamic world, change the way you stage Othello?
I only follow new scholarship on the rare occasion that I feel it is both illuminating and visionary, that I can actually follow. It is not necessarily by academics – of which there are some, like Jan Kott, who influence me – but often poets, such as Ted Hughes. Someone like Jonathan Yates, who connects Ovid and Shakespeare, is another person who has been very helpful for me.

Jerry Brotton’s work would affect my work in Othello, if I ever worked on it. I was asked to do Othello at the Royal Shakespeare Company six years ago, and I didn’t do it because I didn’t feel ready. I’m still not sure that I think it’s a great play. Often people say to me that Othello is their favourite, and I always ask them why. I’ve never quite worked it out for myself, although I understand that other people love it.

But if I had done it, I would have explored Othello as a North African character, as the product of an Islamic context, and not as a British or Western Black man in the way that has become the fashion. I always had a feeling that that was what Othello was about, and Jerry’s work has helped and confirmed that. It has made it more likely that I will direct Othello one day. It has illuminated for me a little corner of Shakespeare which was his general interaction with Islam, that I hadn’t really thought about much beyond Othello. I’ve done the Marlowe play, Tamburlaine the Great, so I’ve contemplated the Elizabethan encounter with the Turkish. And I’ve spent a lot of time in the Islamic world because of the big One Thousand and One Nights project I was a part of.

Why aren’t you sure that Othello is a great play?
It’s probably ignorance. I think it’s certainly a good play, but as a director, I don’t want to do plays because of overall ideas. In that way I’m the opposite of Vishal (Bhardwaj) and Basharat (Peer) and how they imagined Hamlet in Kashmir. What excites me about Shakespeare is specific scenes. When I’m dealing with a play like King Lear, it feels so brilliant on all sides that I desperately want to give myself the challenge of understanding that brilliance by creating the production.

With Othello, I feel that it might be a slightly better version of the Romeo and Juliet problem for me. In Romeo and Juliet, there’s only one really interesting thing about the plot, which is the difficulty of the two lovers getting together, which is why it’s so famous, right? And then there’s one really interesting character, in my opinion, and that’s Mercutio. With Othello, I think there’s only one really interesting thing about it, which is Iago’s hatred for, and bringing down of, Othello. And there’s only one interesting character, who’s Iago.

I don’t find a lot of the actual dialogue in Othello particularly exciting. I’m not sure I believe that Othello is going to fall for it… I haven’t yet got it on a deep psychological and emotional level. I find it very interesting when Iago is working at him. But like all these things, I won’t ever really find out unless I do it.

Like when I did Romeo and Juliet, and I found out that I didn’t think it was that great a play. When I did Twelfth Night and As You Like It, I found out that I thought they were brilliant plays but they’re not plays I love so much, because they’re cerebral plays. When I did Much Ado About Nothing, I found out that it was a play that worked really well, it was a good play, but it doesn’t have the complexity of comedy-tragedy-supernatural that you get in something like A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I should do Othello, and find out what I really think of it.

You’ve remarked of the need for humility in a theatre director, and that the centrality of the director figure is fairly modern phenomenon. Could you talk a little bit more about that in context to your own work?
I find it fascinating because I’m still trying to work out what my real art is. It’s a lifetime journey. I’m fascinated when I go to Russia, for instance. And the directors are towering figures of intellectual and social status. Theatre directors in Russia are revered like Bollywood movie stars or businessmen are idolised in India.

In England, directors are quite glamorous but not that important. We revere the writer more, in terms of the art of theatre. These differences in the way cultures see directors are fascinating, and so is the journey for myself of trying to really work out what my art is about. For me, at the moment it’s mostly about the work I do through the actor, and with the actor.

But other directors are brilliant at the mise-en-scène, and the design, and the choreography, and I’m not. I’m not that kind of director, and nor do I quite feel that’s the most important art for me. It’s more about what happens within the actor, and between the actors. But if you’re a director of musicals in the West, that’s what you’ve got to be - this visionary. For me, it’s not a problem, but a journey to work out.

My next project is a King Lear production I’m doing, which is really about exploring how different cultures view the director figure. So that’s what I need to examine next for myself.

What are the other projects you’re working on now?
I’m trying to do three big things at the moment. The King Lear I mentioned earlier is a Global Shakespeare Company project, which involves research that’ll lead into a production. Aside from that, I am working on an adaptation of William Dalrymple’s White Mughals, which will be an Indian and British co-production.

I’m also working on a production that I’m making in the former Soviet Union, with artistes from the former Soviet Union, about the Soviet Union.

Is the project in the former Soviet Union like your other big international projects in South Asia and the Arabic speaking world?
Yes, absolutely. They all start from the same premise, i.e., I want to travel and understand acting throughout an entire region. In South Asia, it was India and Sri Lanka, and for One Thousand and One Nights, it was the Arabic speaking countries from North Africa to the Middle East. With the Soviet project, it is about the countries that were the Soviet Union together. They share that history, and story. There’s a similar intent to these projects – and that’s something I’ll just keep doing until I can’t travel anymore. I want to do that in South America, Africa, China, as long as I can.

Now that we’ve stepped away from Shakespeare, what are the most memorable non-Shakespeare productions you’ve done over the years?
In the UK, aside from The Midsummer Night’s Dream, I am known for another area of work that has probably been the most influential on me, alongside Shakespeare. It’s the adaptation of stories, poems, and books. I’ve done stage versions of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Grimm’s folk stories, Kipling’s Jungle Book stories, Haroun and the Sea of Stories and Midnight’s Children, and As I Lay Dying.

Some were better than others, but I think that’s been a very important part of my work. That’s connected with Shakespeare, because Shakespeare himself is a kind of adaptor of stories, of course. I’ve also got a particular love for Italian comedy – the tradition of commedia dell'arte, the satirical street play, that turns into really interesting kind of theatre. I love Dario Fo and Goldoni. That’s had a big influence on me as well.

I’ve done contemporary plays – I think they are essential, and there are brilliant writers, but I don’t find them as exciting as a director myself.

Why do you think contemporary plays are less exciting to direct?
I love to do detective work. I’m an intellectual, I love most of all to work like a sculptor. I like to start with big slab to chip away at until a form emerges. And I think that with modern plays, it’s very clear what they mean, you don’t have to understand them. There are exceptions, of course. There’s the whole Beckett and post-Beckett vision, which is very complex. But on the whole, it is clear what it all means, you just have to stage it well, and act it well. That’s not enough for me.

Now, when I make a production, I take three or four years to go on a physical journey, because I want to understand the world better, I want to understand different ideas, I want to have conversations with people – I don’t just want to sit in London and make a good play, which is fun, but not what I want to do. It doesn’t demand enough of me. It is often pared down to a smaller scale, and I love to work bigger.

You’re engaging in detective work of the past, but also studying drama across cultures.
Yes, it is detective work into the past, but also detective work into the present. Actually, I find both equally beautiful. When I’m in the Soviet Union, I’m digging into what happened in the past, but I’m also trying to understand how different lives are functioning now. This is certainly an enquiry into that, it is definitely a cultural and political one, although all through the prism of theatre.

My biggest question when I travel through the Soviet Union is: how does theatre work in Moscow? How is it funded? How do actors become actors? What does theatre mean to society here? What kind of material do they tackle? How do they tackle it? And I come across all these factors, the politics, the history…

I’ve done this in all three of my big international projects. And in all three projects, the actors themselves have questioned what they’re doing together, because they all come from very different backgrounds. Then they ended up doing wonderful things.

It’s been challenging in the latest production, because of the politics between Russia and the other countries of the former Soviet Union, such as Ukraine, or Central Asia… When I pull people together, and I ask them what they have in common, they will probably say they have nothing in common. And then we have to figure out how we work from there.