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Lucy Bailey: ‘It takes a wild approach to release a play’s energy’

Lucy Bailey. Photo: Simon Annand Lucy Bailey. Photo: Simon Annand

Lucy Bailey’s career has been one of seismic shifts. In a career spanning more than three decades, she’s worked in both opera and theatre; she’s directed major West End productions – the first British stage version of Tennessee Williams’ screen play Baby Doll, a version of The Postman Always Rings Twice starring Val Kilmer – and run a tiny, experimental fringe venue in Notting Hill.

Lucy Bailey CVShe can trace the moment she fell in love with theatre back to when she was 17. A budding musician – a flautist – with a scholarship to Oxford University, she was working in Glyndebourne, as a telephonist. “That’s where I caught the bug. I used to try and watch everything; it was a bit like Cinema Paradiso, where the boy falls in love with cinema.” One day she saw a man on the stage to whom everyone seemed to be listening. “I was very naive. I had to ask a colleague who he was and what he was doing.” The man in question turned out to be Peter Hall. “A switch was turned on, a lightbulb lit – I knew I wanted to be a director. There was no turning back after that. That never left me.”

At Oxford, she joined an experimental theatre group. It was during this time that she came across a manuscript for a short work by Samuel Beckett, Lessness, a poetic piece split into five voices that “repeat in this mesmeric, fascinating manner: round and round and round”. There was, she says, something inherently dramatic about it and so she decided to write to Beckett and ask if she could stage it. He said yes. “I went to Paris and had to read it to him, which was terrifying, but he was at all points kind to me and immensely gentle and teasing in the most delightful way.”

“We met in the St Jacques Hotel,” she says, “and I remember this tall, pencil-thin figure, and his astonishingly bright eyes. He asked me how I would present it. This was something I’d sweated over it, but when I told him my ideas, there was this silence and he said ‘no, that’s not right’ and I thought I would have to go home with my tail between my legs.

“But instead he told me how he would do it – it was so brilliant and so simple, just the one moving light in the dark – and finally he said ‘you’ve got to do it your way’. That was a massive thing at the time, because Beckett’s work was becoming overprotected and no one was able to change anything without his permission. It became international news and people came from all over the world to see this 20-minute show starting at 11pm. It was an amazing thing.”

“I was lucky at the beginning,” she says with a smile. After university, Bailey had an interview with Peter Hall – the man she’d watched from afar at Glyndebourne – and “he just came out and said: ‘I need a second assistant – would you like to start tomorrow?’. I sang all the way back to Camden on my bike.”

“Peter was a very generous man to work with and it was very exciting for me to instantly find myself working with someone of his calibre. He wasn’t always there though and often gave his assistants a chance to run the rehearsal room, something that was terrifying at first, when you haven’t had much experience.” There were more late nights, more sweating.

“The National, Glyndebourne and the Royal Shakespeare Company were my training ground.” However, she soon became impatient with being an assistant. “With the over-confidence of youth, I just wanted to do it myself. I resented being an assistant. I don’t think I recognised at the time how vital that role is – and also I don’t think assistants were used as well then as they’re used now. I want to help my assistants get that foot in the door. But then there was a very strong hierarchy. I could have been so much better though,” she adds, “I don’t think I appreciated what an opportunity it was, because I wanted to direct it myself. As soon as we hit London I ended my contract.”

Bailey still manages to capture something of that audacity in her manner, that hunger. You can hear the glee of it in her voice as she talks.

She carved out a successful career working in opera and avant-garde music, with Harrison Birtwistle, David Sawer, Giorgio Battistelli – “all these marvellous composers”, but again she began to feel itchy and in need of something more.

“I used to go to rock and folk concerts, and felt that kind of music spoke more directly to people. I felt that, all too often, contemporary theatre trapped the music, physically; that it wasn’t communicating to as big an audience as I felt it could.” So together with Nell Catchpole in 1995, she formed the musical group the Gogmagogs, as a reaction to this. “I wanted to take control over the work.”

It was around the same time, in the mid-1990s, that she experienced “a kind of crash”. Her career, she felt, wasn’t going well. “I realised how fragile a career this is. You think you’re moving forwards and often you’re not. With that realisation I came to a stop with opera, almost overnight. I had a baby and made the change to theatre. I thank Mark Rylance for that, because he took me into the Globe. I never looked back.”

From this point on, Bailey focussed her considerable energy on theatre, presenting work in the major regional venues, at the National Theatre and in the West End. She directed Gudrun Fier Sang in a dry dock in Copenhagen, that “may have been my favourite space, and was one of my best pieces”.

“We opened the gates and the Danish actress – this Viking – walked into this curtain of light and it looked as if she was walking right into the water,” she says.

She has a particularly strong relationship with Shakespeare’s Globe as a space. “The actor-audience relationship there is visceral – you can’t afford to fail there. There’s no room for bad choices. The space requires activation. You have to find a way of creating electricity. I approach the Globe as if it were site-specific. I don’t treat it reverentially. It’s been the site of bear-baiting and music and chaos. You’ve got to harness that energy. There’s something rock’n’roll about it. It was out of bounds. People were drawn to it. It was like a drug.”

One of her most memorable Globe productions was a version of Titus Adronicus, originally staged there in 2006 and revived in 2014, which she worked on with her husband, the designer William Dudley.

“The sun can often make it hard to read the actors’ faces. So with Titus, we wanted to create this temple of blackness, of death. We wanted to control the sun – so we put a roof on the Globe.” Dudley’s design was inspired by a velarium, a type of awning used in Roman arenas to shield people from the sun. They sheathed the pillars in black cloth and canopied the space, steeped it in shadow. There’s something incredibly, deliciously bold about this – directing the sun. “We used incense too, to get the smell and taste of death into the space, to make it pungent. The Globe can be an undramatic space, we wanted to make it come alive. That’s true of so much of my work: I want to make things physical and visceral.”

The previous year, 2005, marked another career highlight, albeit a more personal one. Bailey directed a new play by Nell Leyshon, Comfort Me With Apples, at the Hampstead Theatre, London. “I read it and loved it,” she says. “I grew up in Somerset surrounded by orchards and it was so personal to me.” When she contacted Leyshon to discuss it, she thought her surname was familiar and it turned out they’d gone, not just to the same school together, but had been in the same class together. “I asked her if she was the girl who used to draw all the awful horses – and she said ‘yes’. It’s hard to explain how moving that was – it was a bit of a watershed, that production.” They went on to work together a number of times, with Leyshon adapting Daphne Du Maurier’s Don’t Look Now for Bailey to direct.

Another major shift in Bailey’s career happened in 2010, when together with her friend Anda Winters, she opened the Print Room, a small studio theatre housed in an old printer’s workshop in Notting Hill, which they’d been planning for some time. “I was desperate to have a space of my own; even now I’d really like to be running a theatre. It connects you to your audience so much more – and I found that exciting and humbling.”

Lucy Bailey on…With the Print Room, Bailey was able to do things she couldn’t do in other theatres. “I was able to do some real risk-taking work.” The theatre was launched with a production of Fabrication by the filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini, of whose work she’s a huge admirer.

Running the Print Room sounds, initially at least, like a hugely energising experience. “We filled it with mud. We put a box inside the room and asked people to peep inside. These are things you might dream of doing, but often don’t get the chance to do. With each piece you could reinvent how the audience related to the space. In that small room, with a small budget, we did things that were epic.”

It allowed her to revisit plays such as Tennessee Williams’ Kingdom of Earth, a process she enjoys. “I like exploring work that was written at a certain time, with a certain mindset; work that reveals different perspectives. I do love that process of discovering what has been written, as well as what is being written.”

“Those two years,” she concludes, “were like food to me – very hard work, but incredibly nourishing.” But in 2012 Winters and Bailey parted ways. Winters continues to run the space, which has since moved into Notting Hill’s old Coronet cinema. “There was a difficulty,” says Bailey, “in us being co-artistic directors, especially when one was a funder and one was not. That became a problem and in the end,” she holds up her hands, “I had to go ‘okay’ and back out. I couldn’t function freely as an artistic director and it was no longer a space of joy.”

As we talk, company members drift – smiling, tiredly – in and out of the room, a rehearsal space in Bethnal Green, as fireworks faintly crackle outside. Bailey is working on a new production of Around the World in 80 Days for the St James Theatre, with Robert Portal in the role of Phileas Fogg and Anna Fleischle, whose brilliantly nicotined set was responsible for so much of the atmosphere of Martin McDonagh’s Hangmen, as her designer. The look of this production will be inspired, in part, by Heath Robinson. “I wanted to find something that correlated to the world of Jules Verne: the sense of possibility, of what the brain can produce.”

Lucy Bailey Q&A“I’m quite playful in the rehearsal room,” she explains, “though sometimes I need to remind myself of the mischief I had when I was young. I like to look to the world of the play a lot and try to bring people into that world through improvisation. It takes a wild approach sometimes to release that energy. I take the work very seriously, but I try and make it fun. With Titus, with Douglas Hodge, we spent a lot of time laughing, but when you’re doing a comedy it’s a much more serious business.”

One designer with whom she has often collaborated in the past is her partner, Dudley, not just on Titus but also more recently on Fortune’s Fool at the Old Vic, London. “I admire his work and his way of thinking so much – he brings so much to the table. He has this great depth of knowledge. We didn’t work together for many years, but we got so used to bouncing ideas off each other, it became second nature. The way that we storyboard our work is very distinctive to us. We sit up with a bottle of wine and work through things together.”

But then, she adds, “your relationship with your designer is often like a marriage. I’ve had very good marriages with different designers – as I do now with Anna – it’s core to the process, finding a language together.” But it’s also important, she continues, to have a similarly strong relationship with your actors. “When I was working in opera I was in love with the mise-en-scene, with the visual event. But once I started working in theatre, I realised the key relationship was with the actor, and how collaborative our skills are. Actors really raise your game as a director. That was a huge shift. It unlocked my work.”

Around the World in 80 Days is at the St James Theatre, London, from November 26, 2015 to January 16, 2016

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