From Mamma Mia! to BrŁnnhilde
Phyllida Lloyd, a recent recruit to the Guild, has garnered praise for her work across opera, musicals and straight theatre. As she begins preparation for the major commitment of a complete Ring cycle, she talks to Pat Trueman about Wagner Ė and Abba.
How different is directing opera from straight theatre?
When I was first asked to direct an opera, about 10 years ago, I imagined that one would have to become a completely different creature and I was surprised at how unchanged I felt in the rehearsal room.
One of the crucial things is that youíre collaborating, particularly with a conductor, and that the journey youíre going to go on is not going to take you quite so far away from your starting point as it might with a play. For me, working on plays will always be a bigger journey into the unknown. But thereís me sitting here knowing that Iím about to start work on the Ring cycle and that is the biggest journey into the unknown Iím ever likely to take.
Actors are much more used to being intellectually wary than singers. Singers have to do a lot of stepping into dead menís shoes, so they have a sort of resourcefulness. They know that theyíre being supported by the conductor. If the singer stops singing in an opera, the band plays on, and often the audience are unaware that thereís been some kind of catastrophe.
I suppose my point is, though I have found myself quite surprisingly in my element in the world of opera, I think Iíll always find the so-called straight theatre the place Iíll want to get back to.
How does this marry up with doing Mamma Mia!
Mamma Mia! was a supremely collaborative experience and a very positive one. I never imagined I would be asked to do a West End musical in a million years. Sensibly the producer, Judy Kramer, had hired all sorts of people before she hired me as the director. A lot of them were colleagues, friends from the world of subsidised theatre, so it wasnít like one was going into some other country. The producer, by looking after us really well, has managed to keep the original production team together for a long time.
Why it worked here, apart from the fabulous songs, was because there was something very homespun about it and a feeling that the audience were in some way recognising themselves on stage. So when we went to do it in Canada, we tried to make a very Canadian version and similarly in Australia.
Were you an Abba fan before you were asked to do it?
I was really more of a Beatles freak but when I raked through Abba Gold at high speed, I realised weíve all got them, downloaded somewhere in our sub-conscious.
What about the casting Ė did the producers insist on certain people?
We didnít have any pressure from the producers. Itís mainly a battle between Martin Koch, who is the musical supervisor, Anthony Van Laast, the choreographer, and myself. I want the actors, who very often have two left feet and only sing in the bath; Martin is striving for musical excellence; and Anthony needs people who can really dance. If we get two out of three, then we sort of mow the third person down! Iíve been involved in all the re-casts and weíve managed to bring in people who weíve all worked with in other fields.
This has given you financial freedom, a huge gift.
Yes. When youíve spent 20 years panicking about the next job, you get quite robust about unemployment. I donít have a family, so that has taken the pressure off. Now, from this moment, Iím trying to take some time just to prepare for this Wagner expedition. A bit like the musical, itís something I never imagined.
What is your relationship with the opera performers?
There is a very small group of singers who can do it and an even smaller group who are prepared to learn it in English. It can take a year to learn this kind of music. In England, we are really lucky that a lot of singers whoíve worked a lot in this country, and in English particularly, expect to rehearse and enjoy it. Thereís no doubt that the longer the rehearsal period, the more interesting the work is going to be.
Iíve been incredibly lucky, especially as a lot of my workís been in Leeds with Opera North where people want to rehearse and thereís a cluster of directors of my generation, like Tim Albery, Richard Jones and Deborah Warner, whoíve done a lot of work there.
It was there that you did Gloriana, which you transferred to film.
It was first performed in 1993 and was revived four times over the next 7 years with the same group of people and that was amazingly inspiring. We were able to develop it in a way that was really creative.
When I wrote and conceived the film, it was really a film about Jo Barstow, who played Elizabeth. I had observed how she had closed the gap between herself and the role to the point where there was only one person. So I began to dream about this world in which the action started to seep off the stage and start taking place backstage and that, in her dressing room, she became Elizabeth I from the moment she put on her wig. The essence of it was a frustration about how difficult it is to take opera and put it on screen. I shot it on film, with a fantastic lighting cameraman, Tony Miller. We went into a lot of places we shouldnít have gone during live performances and also shot in the studio. It was an attempt to take the TV audience into places they could never have gone if it had been shot in a conventional way.
How did you fund it?
It was funded by the BBC and produced by Peter Maniura for BBC 2. They wanted to record Gloriana quite conventionally and I had a real battle to convince Peter that I should direct it because theyíre not keen on letting theatre directors take the reins of such a project. He sent me away saying I needed to do a lot more work on it. Some months later, I went back to him with a storyboard about 8 inches thick, sat down and said, ĎRight, scene oneÖí After about 20 pages, he went ĎYeah, yeah. Youíve made your point, go away and get on with it.í
It was produced by John Wyver of Illuminations for the BBC. John was the person who really backed me in doing it. It won an award at a festival in France and an International Emmy, which was a big thrill for us all.
Did it come easily, as a theatre director, transferring Gloriana to film?
When I left Birmingham University, my first job was a Floor Assistant at the BBC, the lowest form of life! Then I became an Assistant Floor Manager, working in the plays department in London. I spent a lot of time in the studio, watching recording, then, latterly, a lot of time on location. I was there for about 4 years.
The basic film grammar wasnít something that frightened me particularly; it was the complexity of the singers singing live to orchestral playback, an absolute nightmare.
We had to have a lighting cameraman running backwards down a corridor with Elizabeth coming towards him and the conductor running behind the cameraman with a tiny torch, conducting her above the cameramanís head, as the playback was hidden in various skirting boards. There must be an easier way of doing it, but we were determined to do it live. Singers arenít used to getting up at the crack of dawn, being in make-up from God knows when, then singing, again and again and again. Jo Barstow was heroic and absolutely amazing but it wasnít ideal.
The Duchess of Malfi, was that a pet project?
I had studied it for A Level, so had spent two years in its world and had always loved the play. I think in later life I had recognised that itís a problematic play structurally, not least because your central character is gone before you start the last Act. A friend so supportively said: ĎItís a directorís graveyard. It never worksí. I feel Iím quite attracted to flawed plays.
I was afraid of how we were going to make the audience participate, how to really create that disturbance that makes them want to participate. I know a lot of the press found it quite appalling, the transgressions of text and tradition. I was very interested that some of the critics were upset that Iíd cut it. As it says on the frontispiece of the play: ĎThe text contains divers things that it was not possible to include in the performance.í So you know youíre getting the bonus tracks, as it were. I thought, if I canít understand some of this, why am I trying to inflict this on an audience. I think The Daily Telegraph readers have been driven from the Lyttleton by the reviews, but the vacuum has been filled with a very young audience, which is very exciting. Itís a set text, so weíve had huge amounts of young people in to see it and to them itís a new story Ė thereís a lot of gasps.
Can we move to The Handmaidís Tale which you did originally in Copenhagen and then with English National Opera?
In Copenhagen they have an excellent ensemble company, very like ENO, on permanent contracts, and it has a huge cast that lends itself to an ensemble. The challenge was working in Danish, which is not an easy language. But itís a privilege to work abroad. Itís the best thing.
But then I enjoy working at the ENO very much. I think directors can often be more useful the second time round. Itís one of the most tricky pieces of theatre Iíve ever had to pull together and so much of my energy was spent on the logistics, getting people on and off stage. This time Iíve had more chance to breathe some feeling into it and, of course, working with the singers in English, things are just easier the second time.
When you started, how did you imagine your career?
Itís been like a dream from the start. I look back to the Studio of the Swan Theatre, Worcester, when I thought Iíd died and gone to heaven. Each thing has seemed like, ĎMy God, how did that happen?í One is driven, on some level. Iím sure some of my friends would say Iím a maniac and Iím possessed, but it doesnít feel like that from inside. I never had a plan. Youíve just got to do it.
Youíre about to start work on the Ring cycle.
Itís strung out over about 2 years. Iím not terribly good at not rehearsing, so this very lengthy preparation period, which, God knows, I need, is also quite frustrating in terms of not actually being in the rehearsal room. The design we have to evolve has got to fit into the theatre. I sometimes have waking nightmares about it and at other times I think, ĎOh, I know that, I can do that.í Inevitably, there are certain aspects of it which speak to me, scream out to me in such a powerful way. I identify with them and I know how to make sense of them. Other bits still remain a mystery, but Iím not afraid of that.
Iíve seen it performed, even at Bayreuth, which was like being at a ritualistic pageant. You sit on very hard, church-like benches. It has a strangely mesmeric effect and puts you into a sort of Ďstateí. It would be interesting to know if it lowers your heart rate. Itís like entering a new world and a new language.
Iím very lucky. Paul Daniel is conducting it and heís someone Iíve collaborated with a number of times at Opera North and thatís exciting.
What about other activities?
Iím trying to develop a few projects at the National and, hopefully, working with some new writers. Iím involved at the National as an Associate. We read plays and act as a sounding board for Nick Hytner. He wants feedback and he wants us to be a bit like scouts, going to see work he hasnít got time to go to, looking for exciting work he might bring into the National.
Phylidda Lloyd interviewed by Pat Trueman, former DGGB CEO
Source: Direct Magazine Summer 2003