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Once a physicist: Angus Jackson

Angus Jackson is a theatre director, currently season director of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Rome Season. He has directed shows at the RSC, the National Theatre and in London’s West End

What sparked your interest in physics?
It’s hard to say. Certainly, A Brief History of Time was published when I was 14 and I bought it straight away. Then I read similar books by Roger Penrose and others. But I was already hooked before then – I think something about uncertainty or duality appealed to me.

How did you get interested in directing plays? 
I was absolutely certain I was going to be a theoretical physicist from the age of 14 onwards. But I had a remarkable English teacher when I was 11 called Giles Evans. He would mix studying Shakespeare with Monty Python, and he had lots of hair, almost like a mythic wise man. I was in school plays, but I’m no actor. When I got to the University of Oxford I signed up for everything – rowing, flying planes and doing plays. I directed one with me in it and quickly realized I could get better actors than me to be in the next one. Then I met Ali Robertson in a debating competition at the union (we were both terrible) and we started putting plays together. The first one I directed was The Real Inspector Hound and we sold out completely, cramming people in. The theatre was shut due to fire regulations a week later; we thought it was because of us, but it turned out that the stairs were in the wrong place. Ali now runs Kneehigh Theatre.

What were some of the challenges in moving from science to art?
Well, I studied physics and philosophy (with Dave Wark and Jon Butterworth) at Balliol College, Oxford, so there’s already a crossover there. That was my intention in applying for it: to start a journey over without leaving the physics behind. Actually, I think the division between art and science that exists when you are 16 gets eroded the more you know about the world. It’s artificial. A swinging pendulum is very beautiful while a textual study of literature can be very analytical.

Tell us a bit about what your current role at the Royal Shakespeare Company entails.
I am season director of the RSC and this season covers all of his Rome plays – Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, Titus Andronicus and Coriolanus. I’m directing two (Julius Caesar and Coriolanus) and I invited two other directors to direct the others. We have one designer, Rob Innes Hopkins, who has designed Rome across all four plays so it evolves as we progress. All four plays have opened in Stratford-upon-Avon and we will be taking them to the Barbican in London. We’ve started back in time with period productions, gone through modern dress, into a final production set in the immediate future.

How has your physics background been helpful in your work, if at all?
Well it has, in the way I described that art and science are indivisible. In a less abstract way, I was asked to direct a play about the creation of the first atomic bomb at the RSC a few years ago, Oppenheimer by Tom Morton Smith. I didn’t tell anyone what I had studied, because I thought it would be a distraction, or at worst undermine my ability to direct the play. After two weeks, the cast asked me how I’d managed to do so much research, and who was the professor I had managed to persuade to turn up the following day to explain the science to them. I had to admit it was Dave Wark, who had taught me atomic physics at Oxford and they all burst out laughing. Dave was amazing, he got really involved and even rinsed me in front of the actors for not being able to explain the semi-empirical mass formula.

Any advice for today’s students?
When I was a kid they told us that the decisions you make at sixth-form level [ages 16–18] will decide your future. I disagree. Being passionate about the world decides your future.

You can follow Jackson on Twitter @angusjac