EXCLUSIVE Interview: Director Phyllida Lloyd

 

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED SEPTEMBER, 2013

 

Director Phyllida Lloyd

 

WITH A BODY of work that has garnered BAFTAs, Oscars and Tonys, Bristol-born director Phyllida Lloyd has reunited with a writer she has had a long and intimate relationship with: William Shakespeare.  Lloyd, known to American audiences for directing Meryl Streep’s Oscar-winning  performance in The Iron Lady, as well as the Tony-winning Broadway smash, Mama Mia! (in addition to the West End production and its subsequent film adaptation), helms an upcoming, all-female production of Julius Caesar, presented by The Donmar Warehouse, that will kick off the 2013-14 season at Brooklyn's St. Ann’s Warehouse.

This season, it seems that The Bard of Avon has become the toast of New York, with multiple productions of Macbeth (with Alan Cumming, Ethan Hawke and Kenneth Branagh all having a go with the Insane Thane) and Romeo and Juliet (Orlando Bloom stakes the play on Broadway, while Elizabeth Olson waxes poetic as Juliet at Classic Stage Company).  Yet something about Lloyd’s approach guarantees that this production of Shakespeare’s political thriller, a transplant from London’s famed Donmar Warehouse, set in a women’s prison and backed by a live punk band, will not vanish into the background.

 

MICHAEL RAVER: What has drawn you to directing Shakespeare and specifically why Julius Caesar?

PHYLLIDA LLOYD:  Shakespeare has been a cornerstone of my thinking about theatre since my schooldays. The plays are fathomless and reply to any era. Although I've always found Caesar a tricky play - it disintegrates rather as it hurtles towards the climax and it is hard to keep a thriller going when your protagonist is dead by the interval – it’s apparent weaknesses turned out to offer us some huge opportunities.  I wanted to chose - for an all female company - a play that gave most women a chance to play outside the domestic /romantic sphere.  To put them at the centre of the political debate. It's almost unheard of for a woman to rush onto a stage calling out 'Liberty! Freedom ! Tyranny is dead!'   We were excited to enter uncharted waters. 

MR: So there’s the gender-politics conversation.

PL: It's a play about the catastrophic failure of regime change - something that has overwhelmed and is overwhelming the west in the past decades in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria. What could be more relevant?!  The play grips by its momentum and its language - the production we hope by a certain disturbance caused by its setting in a prison and by the charisma of the actors.

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Harriet Walter as Brutus in Phyllida Lloyd's Donmar Warehouse production of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, coming to St. Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn

 

MR: How do you define the responsibilities of a director?

PL:  To organize the text, chose the actors to play it and help them to create an evening of spellbinding drama. This also involves working with the designer, composer, etc. to create the atmosphere and environment of the play. A lot of work preceded the rehearsals including cutting a third of the text and testing the premise of setting the play in a prison by working in a real jail. The rehearsals were a huge adventure. The journey continues.

MR:  Talk about the process of bringing the play from the Donmar Warehouse to New York.  What are you trying to accomplish with this production?

PL:  We want the audience to be on the edge of their seats. To literally not know what will happen next. We hope to give them world class verse speaking - we have been highly commended for the brilliance of the work on the text so they are getting all the 'highlights,'  if you like, of speeches and scenes from the play, underpinned by a setting - the female prison - which is violent,  dangerous and liable to sabotage expectations at any moment. We are also exploding certain preconceptions about who has rights to speak this text. The women presenting the play are on paper entirely powerless - they have lost their freedom and their public speaking platform but they reveal themselves to be creatures of blistering power. 

MR:  As written, the play speaks to a variety of political and human issues.  With the advent of an all-female cast, how do you think the commentary on those issues changes?

PL:  Playing any great play with one gender throws its themes into relief. Shakespeare portrays the tension between private and public worlds - husbands in the public sphere fail to hear the voices of their wives in the private domain.   We've found the play to be full of deep love and emotion - men in Caesar struggle to avoid being 'womanish' but succumb to overwhelming feelings. When it comes to the crunch both men and women take their own lives with equal courage. The single-sex cast seems to highlight Shakespeare's point that we are cast in roles in life and forced to play them out but there may be more similarity between the genders than society will allow.

 

Julius Caesar, presented by The Donmar Warehouse (www.donmarwarehouse.com), in a limited engagement (Oct. 3 to Nov. 3) at St.Ann’s Warehouse (www.stannswarehouse.org). 

Michael Raver is an actor and playwright.  He’s performed classical theatrical roles at Lincoln Center, The Pearl Theatre Company and Tony Randall’s National Actor’s Theatre, as well as regional theaters across the country.  His adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray was produced by Sonnet Repertory Theatre last year and his new play, Fire on Babylon, will receive a public reading in New York on September 25th.  He currently lives in New York City.  (www.michaelraver.blogspot.com )

 

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