Theater director Dominic Cooke: ‘I like plays that ask the hard questions’

“The great thing about David [Tennant] is that he’s the last person you think of becoming a Nazi,” says director Dominic Cooke.

This must come as something of a relief for the actor himself. But it’s also crucial to the play in which he is about to open. CP Taylor’s Good, directed by Cooke in a new West End production, depicts a university professor in 1930s Germany. John Halder (played by Tennant) thinks of himself as a good person — indeed, he is a good person: thoughtful, diligent, caring. And yet. He finds himself sucked deeper and deeper into the Nazi killing machine.

Taylor’s 1981 drama is one of countless plays, films and novels about Nazi Germany, but it’s unusually unsettling in the way it focuses not on the atrocities of the camps but on the wider thinking and behavior — or absence of action — that enabled them to happen . He demonstrates, in precise psychological detail, the way people can argue themselves into turning a blind eye, rationalising, internalising — or even contributing to — horrors.

David Tennant in rehearsals for ‘Good’, in which he plays a German scientist © Johan Persson

“What I find chilling in the play is the self-deception,” says Cooke. “The lying that goes on within [someone’s] head. You realise how much people can deny that they’re involved in the most terrible stuff . . . It’s very specifically rooted in the history of National Socialism, but what it’s saying about how we tune out of stuff that’s just too big for us to deal with, and too terrifying, is so good.

“Taylor is looking at the intelligentsia and going, ‘Well, are we any better than other people?’ He won’t allow himself off the hook. I like plays that ask the hard questions.”

Throughout the piece, Halder repeatedly tells himself that things won’t get that bad. It’s not for nothing that he is a Goethe specialist: the play has echoes of Faust, with its central character who sells his soul to the Devil. Halder is flattered into meetings with party officials, rewarded with a smart house that once belonged to a Jewish academic. He succumbs to vanity, to an easy life, to a cognitive dissonance that enables him to justify horror. His writings on euthanasia are embraced by the party to help legitimise the Final Solution.

As a cautionary tale, it’s deeply disturbing, says Cooke (who, like Taylor, is Jewish), raising searching questions about morality: “I don’t think he loses his sense of right and wrong. I think he stops listening to it.”

We’re sitting in a small theater kitchen at the end of a week of rehearsals, actors waving goodbye as they flit past the door on their way home. Cooke, genial and relaxed in a sweatshirt and trainers, brings a terrific energy and openness to conversation. He’s one of the UK’s finest and most successful directors.

During his seven-year period as artistic director of the Royal Court, the theater staged major new plays, such as Jez Butterworth’s JerusalemLucy Prebble’s EnronNick Payne’s Constellations and Bruce Norris’s Clybourne Park. His own recent productions include a rare revival of Emlyn Williams’s The Corn is Greenstarring Nicola Walker, a searing production of Larry Kramer’s pioneering Aids play The Normal Heart and a superb staging of Sondheim’s Follies, all at the National Theatre. (He is working on a film of Fullies, his third feature after On Chesil Beach and The Courier.)

Mark Rylance (as Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron, center) starred in ‘Jerusalem’, one of the Royal Court’s biggest hits under Dominic Cooke © Simon Annand

Cooke saw Good as a teenager and it made a big impression. “It was one of the first grown-up theater experiences I can remember,” he says. Returning to the work to stage it, he was struck by the unnerving resonances he has now acquired. He points out that Taylor’s understanding of how hard it is for individuals to face enormous problems could apply now to climate change. More specifically, recent years have seen an increase in anti-Semitism, rightwing populism and xenophobia.

One contributory factor, Cooke suggests, is the loss of a living link with the second world war. “I was born 20 years after the end of the war, but its presence in my life was huge,” he says. “Now a lot of the witnesses are gone or going.”

It’s also the play’s formal daring that impresses him. He is fascinated by memory on stage: in both Follies and The Corn is Green he explored how the subconscious forces its way to the surface and how memories interact with the present. He suggests that the fragmented narrative of Good Shows us Halder’s mind in action as the character tries to process what he has done. Taylor himself described it as “a tragedy which I have written as a comedy”.

“He really understood how memory works,” Cooke says. “The play is very contemporary. Because, in the way it is constructed, it’s the hardest things to remember that are the most fragmented. So, for example, one of the earliest scenes is the moment when [Halder] goes in to see Boller, who led on the euthanasia programme. But that’s a really hard thing to own and remember. So it’s broken up into three or four sections. If you’ve ever done psychotherapy, you know the tricks that your subconscious plays to stop from dealing with the thing that is the hardest thing to think of.” The new production, he says, will aim to meet that innovative spirit and deliver “the same sort of shock” as the original.

Good is the first West End production from Fictionhouse, an independent producing company set up by Cooke and producer Kate Horton to create drama for stage and screen. Audiences for both are “sophisticated, adventurous and hungry for new experiences”, Cooke says.

A laughing director workshops a scene with his lead actor in a rehearsal room

Cooke and Tennant in rehearsals. ‘He’s the last person you think of becoming a Nazi,’ says the director © Johan Persson

One of the nagging questions for any director, however, is whether the arts can make any difference to the way we engage with the big problems facing humanity. There is a real benefit, he insists, to engage with drama that asks tough questions of us.

“Drama, whether it’s film, television or theater, is one of the ways that we understand who we are,” he says. “I think people can sometimes overstate the power of theater: I don’t really believe that many people leave a show and go, ‘Oh God, I’m completely changed.’ But I do believe it does shift the way people think — I know it does because it has with me. And recognition of inner thoughts and experiences in public is a powerful thing. It’s a collective — it’s a ritual.”

October 5-December 24, Harold Pinter Theatre, London,