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Director Deborah Warner: ‘I thought opera was absurd, impossible, but then I got it’

Deborah Warner. Photo: Claire Egan

The director known for her interpretations of Shakespeare, Bertolt Brecht, Henrik Ibsen and Benjamin Britten has seamlessly bridged the worlds of theatre and opera after an initially reluctant conversion to the latter. Ahead of her staging of Billy Budd at the Royal Opera House she tells George Hall of an unlikely but fruitful odyssey


Deborah Warner [1] has an early memory of being taken to Stratford-upon-Avon as a child, which led to her first steps into directing. “The very first Shakespeare I saw was The Merchant of Venice with Judi Dench as Portia,” she says. “I must have been nine. I was very excited by it. I went back to my Quaker boarding school – where I was not particularly happy – and made myself very happy directing a scene or two from the play when we were supposed to be at Sunday worship. We did it in a cupboard by means of whispering, though obviously not quietly enough, because we were punished severely.”

From this humble beginning, Warner has gone on to become one of the UK’s leading theatremakers – the term ‘theatremaker’ is a favourite of hers – and one with a fully international career. Originally specialising in spoken theatre, she later expanded into working on non-theatrical texts including The Waste Land and Handel’s Messiah. Despite an initial lack of interest in opera that bordered on antipathy, she began to tackle the art form with increasing fervour. A sought-after guest at La Scala, Milan, the Metropolitan in New York, Glyndebourne [2], English National Opera [3] and the Royal Opera House [4], these days she works at all the best operatic addresses with the best collaborators.

A scene from the all-male production of Benjamin Britten's Billy Budd. Photo: Yasuko Kageyama [5]
A scene from the all-male production of Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd. Photo: Yasuko Kageyama

Starting out

Warner, 59, grew up in Burford in the Cotswold hills, where her father was an antique dealer and his shop a kind of Aladdin’s cave. “He sold the items through stories – people picked up an object and he told a story about it that was so compelling that they needed to buy it. It took me a long time to work out that he was a frustrated director who had found a wonderful avenue for his creativity. He was really running a tiny theatre.”

Her visits to the Royal Shakespeare Company continued, “but I didn’t realise that they coincided with the most exciting period of experimental theatremaking in Britain: the 1960s.” One memorable highlight was Peter Brook’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream [6]. “I can’t pretend that I knew I was looking at one of the seminal Shakespeare productions, but I loved it.”

A bit later she left her boarding school because she wasn’t enjoying it, persuading her parents to send her to a sixth-form college instead. “I wanted to do history of art at A level: that was my way out,” she says. So from the age of 16 to 18 she studied at St Clare’s College in Oxford and became involved in undergraduate drama. “I worked in wardrobe and props and acquired a sizeable experience of what undergraduate drama was and how it was structured. I still didn’t know what a director was, but I did know that I didn’t want to act.”

She applied to drama school and was accepted by the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama [7], though being unsure of what she wanted to do opted for a two-year stage management course. “In my interview I said that I wanted to be a director, though I don’t know why. What was wonderful for me was to be in London and to go to the theatre every night for three years. That was from 1977 to 1979, so it was a pretty exciting time.”

Then, in a bold move, she formed her own theatre company called Kick. “I had no choice, because I wanted to create theatre, and in those days there were no courses in directing: you simply had to begin to say that you were one.” She followed the model she had learned on the undergraduate circuit, returned to Oxford and put on a production of Brecht’s The Good Person of Szechwan. She says: “After three years at Central I knew lots of young actors and became very good at persuading people to work for nothing. I did that from 1981 until about 1985.”

Max Craig in English National Opera's Messiah (2009). Photo: Laurie Lewis [8]
Max Craig in English National Opera’s Messiah (2009). Photo: Laurie Lewis

In 1981, her production of Georg Buchner’s fragmentary play Woyzeck at the Edinburgh Fringe was successful, then from 1983 she made a start on Shakespeare with The Tempest, Measure for Measure the following year and King Lear in 1985. By this time she and her company had become something of an institution at Edinburgh.

Kick was very much shaped by its actors, but it was also shaped by circumstance and the political climate. “Thatcherism was responsible for a seismic shift in regional theatre companies. Shakespeare was being drained out of them because there simply wasn’t the money to put it on, so we were able to fill a gap. I was young enough not to be frightened of Shakespeare, and I thought I’d better try to direct it.”

Warner developed what she describes as a “healthy feeling” that design was getting in the way of theatremaking. “In fact it was only healthy because we didn’t have any money, but concentrating on Shakespeare and on text and an empty space absolutely worked.” Brook was the guiding light. “When I was at Central I went to see Peter’s Ubu Roi at the Young Vic. I sat there and was dismayed and awed, because it was so startling and so inventive – the most wonderful act of theatremaking I’d ever seen.”

Together in Electra dreams

An important moment was her invitation in 1987 to direct for the RSC. “It was Titus Andronicus and I think, very simply put, every other director had turned it down. Brian Cox was to be Titus, and apparently they were all sitting around saying: ‘We haven’t got a director, no one wants to direct Titus’, when Brian said: ‘What about that Kick woman?’ So that’s how it came about. Indeed, I did go in there kicking and screaming because I thought I’d entered the establishment.”

I didn’t know what ‘resident director’ meant at the RSC but it felt very nice. I thought I had landed and wanted to spend my life there

Following her production of King John in 1988 she was given the formal position of resident director. “I didn’t know what it meant but it felt very nice. I thought I had landed and I wanted to spend my life there. Then they offered me a deeply obscure play, and at that point I said: ‘Now hold on, am I always going to be doing plays we’re not even sure Shakespeare wrote?’”

That offer was transformed into Electra with Fiona Shaw. “I thought: ‘Okay, this is a good idea and a great play, so why not?’ Then I began to panic and went running to Genista McIntosh [senior administrator at the RSC at the time] and I said: ‘This is so not me, I can’t do this. It’s out of the question.’ She said: ‘It’s too late, Deborah.’ ”

Warner continues: “It was terribly hard because I had no map and no idea how to go forward. We got lost for two weeks in rehearsal like beached whales in the wilderness. Then in despair I did something that no good director should ever do. I said: ‘Let’s do a run’, and Fiona jumped without a parachute, and it was just one of the most exciting rehearsals of my life.

“It taught us that the piece could be inhabited and the story could be told from an emotional viewpoint, with no stylisation. That was the start of my 17 shows with Fiona.” It has proved an exceptionally fruitful artistic collaboration.

In 1990, Warner directed King Lear at the National Theatre. “That came about because Richard Eyre [9] took over and actively pursued the directors he wanted to bring in, which was no mean challenge because some of us thought we were married to the RSC. He used to ring up terribly early in the morning, about 8.30am, and offer you something, and you’d immediately feel guilty and say yes.”

Around this time, Opera North [10]’s general director Nicholas Payne and Glyndebourne’s general director Anthony Whitworth- Jones were actively involved in bringing theatre directors to opera, including Nicholas Hytner [11] and Phyllida Lloyd [12]. Warner was not only deeply unenthusiastic but resisted any such proposal doggedly. “Having seen Titus, Nicholas Payne met me and asked me to direct an opera and I said: ‘Absolutely not.’ I had no knowledge of it. I thought it was absurd and impossible and of no interest to me as a director.”

But Payne was persistent. “Every year we would meet and he would ask again and I would say no. By the fourth year I had become a bit embarrassed because I’d made no attempt to get anywhere nearer to this mysterious world. So in exasperation I said to Nicholas: ‘Look, there’s only one opera I like’, and he asked: ‘What’s that?’. I replied: “Wozzeck – and of course that was because my interest in the play had led me to the opera, and I’d been very startled by the transition from the murder into the tavern scene, because it is so thrilling that I believe you could convert the world to opera on that scene alone. So Nicholas said: ‘Okay, we’ll do that’ and off I went to Opera North.”

Wozzeck in 1996. Photo: Opera North [13]
Wozzeck in 1996. Photo: Opera North

Week one, she says, “was a mess. It must have been an absolute nightmare for the singers. By the end of the week I knew that I’d always been right, that opera was not for me, and that I shouldn’t be there. So I spent the weekend ringing Nicholas’ home number to resign. Of course there was no answer, so on Monday morning I had to go in to resign. So I turn up on Monday and instead I carry on, and it gets a bit better, so I’m in. Years later I tell Nicholas this story, and he said: ‘Yes, I went away purposely.’ ”

Wozzeck turned out to be a major success for Warner and Opera North. Did she find her way through the text or the music? “Both. I got it. Of course, knowing the material very well now, I think that Wozzeck is a terribly good way to win non-opera-going people. You cannot avoid its power.”

Continues…


Q&A Deborah Warner

What was your first non-theatre job?
Mixing and pouring cocktails in drag, dressed in 1920s tails for a private party in London for Gloria Swanson – circa 1977.

What was your first professional theatre job?
Deputy stage manager at the Orange Tree Theatre.

What is your next job?
Peter Grimes.

What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
I’m very glad I wasn’t told anything. The real journey is one of discovery and it’s much more fun, interesting and engaging to find one’s own path. The search and the journey are all.

Who or what was your biggest influence?
Peter Brook’s seminal text The Empty Space.

What’s your best advice for auditions?
Be yourself.

If you hadn’t been a director, what would you have been?
An explorer.

Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
I hate theatrical superstitions.


Where worlds overlap

Two further significant projects – both of them entirely characteristic of Warner’s approach – took place at English National Opera, where Payne had moved in 1998. Neither Bach’s St John Passion nor Handel’s Messiah were written to be staged, and while Warner thinks that it was Payne who proposed the St John Passion at the turn of the century, she possibly proposed Messiah to his successor John Berry in 2009.

“This is where the worlds overlap,” she says, a place where exciting work could emerge. In 1994, she had done the Samuel Beckett piece Footfalls with Fiona Shaw at the Garrick Theatre in 1994, but it was curtailed because the estate had a problem with the production. “So we had a vacuum, and it was left to us to find a text that could allow the experiment to go on. So in came The Waste Land, and the excitement really was huge: we felt that we had made a very special act of theatre out of it.”

Warner became fascinated by texts that were beyond the standard theatrical definition, “so there was immediately an attraction to oratorio, because I thought that if I’m being asked to stage this, we’ll have to find something new and exciting – and perhaps we did”. What does she look for in any piece, whether it’s a play or an opera or a text? “Depth,” she replies. “If you start with Shakespeare you know that to go into a rehearsal room, which is where everything happens and where one must experiment and explore, you’re going to have to dig deep. It would be a terrible thing to find that you had hit the bottom. Fortunately, that’s never happened to me.”

St John Passion (2000) [14]
St John Passion (2000)

One of the composers Warner has subsequently concentrated on is Benjamin Britten. She talks in glowing terms of his work and is currently working on her fourth Britten production. In fact, she didn’t know the composer’s works until Payne, then at the Royal Opera, suggested The Turn of the Screw at the time when the ROH was closed for renovation and the company had moved to the Barbican for a season.

“What I quickly discovered was that it was as rewarding as working on Shakespeare, and that is the biggest thing a director can say. Britten is as great a dramatist as he is a composer.” That wonderful experience in 1997 grew her desire to do another, The Rape of Lucretia, in Munich seven years later.

“I don’t know why, but whenever I approach a Britten piece I have a fear that actually this time I am going to find out that there is a wall in it. With The Rape of Lucretia I thought that the rape scene was going to be a problem – maybe what we’re being told is quite absolute, and there isn’t any room in there. Then you go into that scene and it’s infinite and it can be played in so many different ways – so yet again my fear was proved wrong.” After that, her production of Death in Venice was widely acclaimed at ENO in 2007, a success replicated in Brussels two years later and at La Scala two years after that.

By the time Joan Matabosch, artistic director of the Teatro Real in Madrid, offered Warner Billy Budd, she had reached a point where she had decided that she would agree to any Britten, “because the experiences had been so rich; and I have to confess that without a huge knowledge of Billy Budd I said yes. Then, a bit like Electra all those years ago, I started to panic.

“I had a very uncomfortable time preparing it. The more I listened to it, the more I thought that maybe it was a black-and-white parable, and if it was I had made a terrible mistake. I went to Madrid in despair, but the joke was on me, because it took two days and flesh and blood in the rehearsal room for me to completely change my mind. Britten takes a parable that can be read simply, and just by adding music makes it the most open-ended, ambiguous and complex thing.”

Ian Bostridge in Death in Venice. Photo: Neil Libbert [15]
Ian Bostridge in Death in Venice. Photo: Neil Libbert

Warner now rates Billy Budd very highly indeed. “It’s as universal as Hamlet, or Hedda Gabler, or whatever you wish. It goes way beyond gender and certainly way beyond sexuality. I could say that it’s about something very tiny: it’s about small human failings causing a catastrophe that wounds lives for years to come and destroys one very simple and very beautiful person’s life altogether.” Billy Budd premiered in Madrid to enormous acclaim in January 2017, then moved on to the Teatro dell’Opera in Rome in May 2018. It arrives at Covent Garden on April 23.

Opera is currently Warner’s main sphere of activity. With recent productions of Eugene Onegin at the Met in 2017, Fidelio at La Scala last year as well as La Traviata in Paris, she has more high-profile productions lined up in major international houses, including further works by Britten that she will direct for the first time.

Her other ambition, though, is to present opera on a commercial model, even though she’s fully aware that previous attempts such as Baz Luhrmann’s Boheme on Broadway or Raymond Gubbay’s new company at the Savoy Theatre didn’t work out financially. “I would like to do a commercial production of Traviata or Turn of the Screw that could then exist within the West End, and perhaps be followed by a tour,” she says. It’s another bold scheme, but then Deborah Warner has never been shy of a challenge.


CV Deborah Warner

Born: 1959, Oxford
Training: Central School of Speech and Drama
Landmark productions:
• Billy Budd, Madrid (2017); Teatro dell’Opera, Rome (2018); Royal Opera House (2019)

• Death in Venice, ENO (2007); La Scala, Milan (2011)
• Hedda Gabler, Abbey Theatre, Dublin; Playhouse Theatre London (1991)
• The Waste Land, world tour (1995-2010)
• Richard II, National Theatre (1995)
• Mother Courage and Her Children, National Theatre (2009)
• Medea, Abbey Theatre, Dublin (2000); Queen’s Theatre, London (2001); US tour (2002); Brooks Atkinson Theatre, New York (2003)
Awards include:
• Olivier awards for Titus Andronicus (1988) and Hedda Gabler (1992)

• Evening Standard awards for Titus Andronicus (1988) and Medea (2001)
• CBE (2006)
• Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres, 2012
Agents: Askonas Holt for opera and the Agency (Leah Schmidt) for theatre


Billy Budd runs at the Royal Opera House [16] from April 23 to May 10

Alex Reedijk: ‘I want Scottish Opera to feel like a festival all year round’ [17]