As her all-female Much Ado About Nothing hits the stage, the artistic director of Watford Palace Theatre talks to Tim Bano about Shakespeare, championing diversity and gender equality, and how her present job brings together the things that matter to her: new writing and audience engagement
At Watford Palace Theatre there are no plays about the metropolitan elite or literary agents in north London, according to its head. “And you won’t find plays where women are degraded, ignored or marginalised unless there’s some serious interrogation of that within it.” The theatre has changed hugely since Brigid Larmour took over as artistic director and chief executive in 2006. It was going through a “rather difficult time” financially, and its audience was entirely white in a town that was about 30% people of colour.
Across the year, I try to make sure the stage looks roughly like Watford does
After her arrival, Larmour oversaw a major restructuring, there were redundancies, and a shift in thinking. Her aim, she explains, was to make it a flexible theatre, representative of the community and empowering to artists, and to change the audience demographic. “We’ve done that,” she says emphatically. “I programme this theatre with that balance in mind. We are a subsidised theatre. We are funded, partly, by taxpayers so we have a responsibility to be representative. No taxation without representation. Across the year, I try to make sure the stage looks roughly like Watford does.”
Watford Palace isn’t the first theatre Larmour has rescued. In 1989, she became artistic director of Contact in Manchester, where closure was imminent. Among the writers she brought in to resurrect the building was Charlotte Keatley whose play, My Mother Said I Never Should, Larmour had discovered and championed four years earlier.
The play was a rarity: four roles, all for women, and was rejected by the Royal Court, the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company. It’s now seen as one of the classics of recent British playwriting.
Now she’s directing her 21st production for Watford, an all-female Much Ado About Nothing. Shakespeare has run like a vein throughout Larmour’s career. She fell in love with him “in a breezeblock classroom in Kingston, Jamaica”, where her father was posted as a diplomat.
“My partner says Shakespeare is the love of my life. He is a kind of miracle. And each of us has our own small, completely unoriginal thing to say about it. But I’ve always loved how he comes alive if you don’t get in his way.”
The production is set during the Battle of Britain. At that time, women had taken on the jobs of men who’d gone to fight, and Larmour reckons that is a good “gateway” into the story. “And I also wanted to right the balance a bit from those countless all-male productions.
“It’s extraordinary how different it is. The men’s speeches are structured for you to drive the room, to drive the conversations that take place. It’s technically very different from the female parts in Shakespeare.”
It was with Shakespeare, too, that Larmour spent her formative years as a director at the RSC. In 1982, straight out of Cambridge, she directed an obscure proto-feminist Jacobean play called The Roaring Girl with a cast including Simon McBurney, Annabel Arden and Stephen Fry. She’d already directed Fry in a production of Love’s Labour’s Lost at Cambridge, as he mentions in his autobiography. Hugh Laurie, also in the cast, couldn’t stop corpsing during the opening speech until Larmour solved the issue by having the entire cast recite the lines in unison.
As Fry relates: “At the first-night party, I heard a senior academic and distinguished Shakespeare scholar congratulate Brigid on her idea of presenting the introductory speech as a kind of communal oath. ‘A superb concept. It made the whole scene come alive. Really quite brilliant.’ ‘Thank you, professor,’ said Brigid without a blush, ‘it seemed right.’ She caught my eye and beamed.”
The Roaring Girl caught the eye of the RSC after its rave reviews in Edinburgh. The company decided to bring it back into the repertoire and put on a production starring Helen Mirren, with Larmour brought in as assistant director – the youngest ever in the company’s history.
Still, despite her love of Shakespeare, Larmour argues that his complete ubiquity in British theatre has had a significant impact in skewing roles towards men in other playwrights’ work. “If you spend your formative years as a writer, producer or director seeing casts in which there are nine men to two women, each of which has one or two scenes, of course you start unconsciously to think that’s normal.
“It’s startling and horrifying to find that new plays are still being written where a gender imbalance is still completely massive – and where there aren’t parts for older women.”
The trouble is, she explains, that work featuring women and people of colour has always been perceived as a risk. “And it’s not actually any more risky, it’s just because you haven’t seen it so often it feels more risky. But these days nobody has an excuse for not knowing that.”
Larmour herself has been casting women and people of colour in classical roles since the 1980s, including Mustapha Matura’s Playboy of the West Indies, the first play to be produced outside London with an all-black cast. “Those of us who have whatever privileges we have need to be mindful that we are gatekeepers, and we need to celebrate and empower a theatrical culture that looks like our country. It’s really simple.”
When she arrived in Watford, part of that responsibility meant going out and finding new companies to work with, especially companies making work with and for under-represented groups – companies like Rifco, which has been resident at the theatre since 2011.
“You also have to say no to good ideas by people who are already well represented in order to make it a level playing field. If I get sent a play and it’s got one stonking great male lead and the women don’t say very much, I’ll say: ‘Well some other theatre can do this one.’ And they do. Because most theatres still don’t seem to look at it through that lens.” These conversations are entering the mainstream more now, Larmour says, but “it’s heartbreaking and infuriating that it’s taken so long”.
Before Watford, Larmour had spent 10 years working as artistic director of Act Productions, a major production company in the West End. “It was very toxic when I started. When I suggested a female director for a project, they’d always say: ‘Do you think she can handle the stars?’ or ‘It’s an awfully big budget.’ In the end, I started to put two or three women on the lists, even if they were not right, just so they would get used to seeing the names.”
What was your first professional theatre job?
Taking over the central role in Chris Hawes’ play Night Duty halfway through rehearsals at the Brighton Actors’ Workshop. My first paid job was as assistant director at the RSC, only the second year the role had been given to a woman.
What was your first non-theatre job?
Assembling cheap jewellery in a sweatshop in Clerkenwell.
What is your next job?
Time will tell.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
Everyone else is just as scared as you are.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
Like all my generation, Peter Brook. Late 1970s, early 1980s RSC, a genuine ensemble of artists: Terry Hands’ Henry V, designed by Farrah; Trevor Nunn’s sparse, honest Macbeth with Judi Dench, Ian McKellen and Bob Peck; Howard Davies’ way of making new play text sing. Elsewhere, Ariane Mnouchkine’s beautiful, epic Richard II; Mike Ockrent’s superbly staged and nuanced Follies; Bill Bryden’s anarchic promenade NT Mysteries. The empowering voice and text work of Patsy Rodenburg.
What’s your best advice for auditions?
Don’t overthink it. Be open to exploration and remember you’re choosing the director too. Don’t try to learn the lines, you’ll end up paraphrasing. Be dressed for rehearsal.
If you hadn’t been a director, what would you have been?
A diplomat, or perhaps I would have trained as a lawyer.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
I’m religious about observing the pantomime tradition of not saying the last line until the audience is present. I don’t mention the Scottish play, as it can unsettle people. For years, I avoided wearing green in the theatre as people thought it was bad luck but, fortunately, that is a superstition that seems to have died out.
What drew Larmour away from the West End in 2006 was, as she puts it, ‘meaning’. “What matters in life is meaning. There’s a purpose to this theatre. There are moments of transcendence when you’re in the room with a few hundred people and something magic happens. Even if it’s the reunion of a long lost brother and sister at the end of a pantomime, you have to have a childish innocence as well as a weary sophistication.
“The Watford job brought together all the things that mattered to me: new writing, engagement with an audience. I loved working in the West End, but in the end it was all down to whether you could cast it and how long they would sign the contract for. You had absolutely no relationship to the audience. In Watford it’s all about that.”
So what comes next for her? Larmour, for the first time, is reticent. “I don’t know. I don’t know. Who knows what adventures might be in store…”
As for the building, there has to be a sense of forward motion. Things have to keep moving. In what direction, though, Larmour is again reluctant to say. “I want to have more conversations with my board before I talk to you about that,” she laughs. “The thing we’re really focusing on at the moment is to try to bring the community work and the professional work much closer together. We’ve integrated our participation team into our producing team, we’re doing a big community play and a big commission both on the same topic. Bringing the town together around a particular theme, and getting people into the theatre who might not have been in before.”
She’s also commissioning work that, as well as having a wide appeal, speaks directly to specific communities. “For example, there’s a big Jewish community around Watford, and I feel that the Jewish community is feeling extremely vulnerable at the moment. There’s a thing to do with making people feel heard and welcomed around our community.”
Community seems to be the key. Even though the theatre is a 17-minute train journey from London, Larmour stresses that it’s not a London theatre. “Why would it be? There are lots of fantastic London theatres. But there has been a theatre in Watford since 1908 because the people of Watford have been interested in coming together for a show, or for a provocation,” she says, before adding firmly: “It’s a Watford theatre.”
Born: 1960, London
• My Mother Said I Never Should, Contact Theatre, Manchester (1987)
• The Ideal World Season, Watford Palace Theatre (2013)
• Jefferson’s Garden, Watford Palace Theatre (2015)
• Royal Court/George Devine Award and the Manchester Evening News Theatre Award for best new play for My Mother Said I Never Should (1987)
• Olwen Wymark Theatre Encouragement Award, Writers’ Guild of Great Britain for I Capture the Castle (2012)
• UK Theatre award for the promotion of diversity, Watford Palace Theatre (2015)
• Writers’ Guild award for best play for Jefferson’s Garden, which Larmour directed (2016)
Much Ado About Nothing is at Watford Palace Theatre from October 4-27