As the epic Angels in America continues its run at the National, its director – who has helmed some of theatre’s biggest hits, including War Horse and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time – has set up her own production company. She tells Nick Smurthwaite about gaining more control, and how to talk Sondheim round
Marianne Elliott seems far too nice to be a top director – or, for that matter, a top producer. Even though our last meeting took place 10 years ago, she greets me with the warmth of an old friend.
Since that meeting, Elliott has become a serious theatrical player at home and abroad. She directed The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, winner of 24 awards, and, more recently, established her own production company, Elliott and Harper Productions, with long-time collaborator Chris Harper. It gets under way in October with the first of three productions.
There is also the National’s sell-out revival of Angels in America, Tony Kushner’s massively ambitious two-part epic drama about the effect of Aids in 1980s New York.
Despite this frenzy of activity, Elliott is looking calm and chic in the coffee lounge of the Covent Garden Hotel. She says nonchalantly: “I keep thinking things are going to calm down a bit, but they never do.”
It was her idea to do Angels in America at the National, even though the Old Vic held the rights (because Kevin Spacey wanted to play Roy Cohn, the crooked lawyer who refuses to accept that he has Aids). “I pestered them to let me do it,” she says. “I’ve never pursued anything quite so keenly. When they finally decided they weren’t going to do it, the National grabbed the rights within 24 hours of them becoming available.
“I believe it is the best play of the 20th century, a modern classic,” Elliott continues. “It took a year and a half to work out how we were going to do it on the Lyttelton stage. I agonised over whether it should be the Lyttelton or the Olivier, because I love the Olivier, but in the end we chose the Lyttelton because it was slightly easier technically. It is really two plays so you have to find a way to make the design concept work all the way through, and with such an epic it is important to come up with ways of energising the audience.”
The challenges for Elliott and designer Ian MacNeil were immense, not least because of the weight of responsibility on them to match up to Declan Donnellan’s original NT production in 1992. “It was incredibly daunting,” says Elliott. “If I did fuck it up everybody would know it was my fault. I was very conscious of having to be worthy of Tony Kushner’s work and intellect. He sat in on some rehearsals and gave plentiful notes to me and to the actors. There were times when we disagreed and he was respectful of that. I’m very much of the opinion that theatre is a collective art form, not just one person’s vision.
“The plays themselves are so ambitious, delving into the subconscious, the supernatural and political debate. The enormity of Tony’s vision is daunting.”
It is also a play that delves into the heart of darkness. How did Elliott cope personally with its gut-wrenching honesty?
“If you’re steeped in it day and night for 11 weeks you’re going to take on some of that despair yourself. It is the most demanding thing I’ve ever done in the theatre. There were days when I drove into the National’s car park before rehearsals and thought, ‘How am I going to get through the day?’ It took a huge toll on my health, like running a marathon. But equally there were times when I looked at what the actors had achieved in amazement. They were every bit as daunted by it as I was, and if it goes to New York I don’t know how the actors are going to cope with doing eight shows a week.”
What was your first non-theatre job? Working for the late TV and film casting director Doreen Jones, who taught me a lot about casting and interviewing.
What was your first professional acting job? Assistant director at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, working across all its shows for a year.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? That nobody has the right answer. That everyone in this game is vulnerable and insecure. That life’s too short for petty jealousies and rivalries this business engenders. That success doesn’t always mean critical success, and failure doesn’t always mean critical failure.
Who or what was your biggest influence? Greg Hersov at the Royal Exchange. He believed in me at a time when I didn’t believe in myself. I was impressed by how experimental he was with things like sound design.
What’s your best advice for auditions? A bad audition is usually the director’s fault, not the actor’s. It’s up to the director to get the atmosphere right to get the best out of your auditonees.
If you hadn’t been a director, what would you have been? I’m really interested in psychology and what makes people tick, so probably some kind of therapist.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals? I’ve seen many shows ruined by bad reviews and good reviews, so I always tell my actors not to read the reviews until after the run is over. The actors work out how to create the show with me during the rehearsals. They owe it to themselves and each other to maintain that contract regardless of what the critics say.
The kind of commitment and passion required for shows like Angels in America and Curious Incident is probably etched into Elliott’s DNA. She grew up in a theatre-mad environment. Her father, Michael, was an eminent director and co-founder of Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre; her mother was the actor Rosalind Knight, and two of her grandparents were actors.
“You couldn’t get away from it,” she shrugs. “My family talked of little else, so sometimes a rebellious streak kicked in. But I rejected it. As a teenager, I was depressed and didn’t do well at school. My dad left home when I was in my early teens and then died in 1984 when I was 17. Nobody ever really talked about their feelings.”
Elliott went on to study drama at Hull University but says she used to sneak into English lectures because she found them more interesting. “I don’t think I would have gone into the theatre at all if my father had lived because he was so good at it. I didn’t make the decision to direct until I was in my late 20s, a good 10 years after he died.”
“In this age of Twitter and instant digital gratification, it is amazing to see audiences sitting through seven and a half hours of Angels in America. They hear some pretty complex stuff, both politically and emotionally, over a very long period. And they stay with it. They seem hungry for what Tony Kushner has to say. There is something about theatre being live. The audience knows it is part of the evening, and that every evening is different. Great theatre actors mould their performances according to the audience, or their mood, or what they’re receiving from the other actors. It is about being in the moment. That cannot be repeated. Theatre is ephemeral by its very nature. It is a form of magic. Catch it now, or it’s gone.”
What did she learn from her father about directing? “One actor I worked with, who had worked with him, said we were quite alike, which amazed me. I think it was something to do with listening to actors and allowing them to contribute to the rehearsal process. I try to create an atmosphere in rehearsal where nobody feels judged, where being experimental isn’t ridiculed, and where everyone has the right to fail. Apparently my dad was really good with actors, very gentle and patient. He’d had a difficult childhood and, like a lot of people do, he used the theatre to help deal with things from his past.”
Having been intimidated by “the aura of the Royal Exchange” when she was younger, Elliott unexpectedly gravitated towards it once she had resigned herself to following in her father’s footsteps. “There was a fork-in-the-road moment in my late 20s when I had to decide between a job as script editor at Granada and a job assisting Brian Cox and John Doyle direct two plays at Regent’s Park. I chose the Park job. I still wasn’t sure whether directing was for me, but then I had a call out of the blue from Jacob Murray [son of Braham] offering me an assistant director’s job at the Royal Exchange. It was really surprising because there had been a nasty falling out between my family and the Exchange after my dad died.”
Evidently, co-founder Braham Murray, a former friend and colleague of Michael Elliott’s, and the then artistic director Greg Hersov were eager to lay the past to rest. “Greg took me under his wing and he proved to be a great director to assist, being interested in the deeper psychology of the characters at every point in the play. Over the next 10 years I worked my way up from assistant to become one of the artistic directors.”
In her own estimation, her two stand-out productions of that period were As You Like It – “for various personal reasons such as meeting my husband, the actor Nick Sidi” – and Simon Stephens’ 2002 play Port. The latter marked the start of an enduring director-playwright relationship that has yielded, among others, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Harper Regan and Stephens’ latest play, Heisenberg, which will be the second production in the inaugural Elliott and Harper season. It was only some time into working together that she and Stephens discovered not only that they were both from Stockport, but that they used to get the same bus to their respective schools every day.
When the call came from Nicholas Hytner to come and direct at the National – “he seemed to value my talent more highly than I did” – Elliott was amazed and flattered. She said she’d love to, but not in the Olivier because it was too big and scary. She cut her teeth with a new version of Ibsen’s Pillars of the Community in the Lyttelton that managed to make a worthy classical text appear urgent and topical.
Then Hytner offered her Shaw’s Saint Joan in the Olivier and told her to get on with it. “I didn’t think the Olivier was right for it. In fact, I didn’t think it worked at all, but working in such a huge space was undeniably liberating. But I still would have preferred the Dorfman space.”
Luckily, most critics counteracted her self-flagellation and Saint Joan went on to win an Olivier for best revival and a South Bank Show award in 2008.
Her charismatic warrior heroine was played by Anne-Marie Duff, also starring in the upcoming Heisenberg, who says of Elliott: “She has this rare capacity to be completely in charge in the rehearsal room while at the same time encouraging collaboration and input from the actors. She made me feel really capable and free in what was a very challenging role.
“Directing is not an old boys’ club any more and one of the great things about the proliferation of female directors is that they are so supportive of each other’s work.”
Of course it was War Horse, the initially modest adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s children’s book that turned into an international phenomenon, that put Elliott and her co-director Tom Morris on the world map, and secured her future financially. It comes as no surprise to discover that Elliott didn’t think it would work.
“It was Nick Starr [then executive director of the National] who really believed in it and wanted it to transfer to the West End,” she recalls. “The rest of us were quite cautious. It’s a big, physical show and I think audiences love to see people working in harmony together on stage. The feeling of ensemble is very special.”
Ten years on, War Horse begins a second UK tour in September. Is she still as involved as she was? “Not so much. I used to go and see it all over the world – Berlin, Australia, New York, Idaho – to polish up new productions. It‘s more of a consultant role these days. The horse puppets seem to have got better and better, more lifelike, as time’s gone on.”
An associate director at the National for 10 years, Elliott directed more than a dozen shows there in that time.
“The good thing for me about the National was that it was very nurturing. You are surrounded by a lot of people who are passionate about what they do. The two Nicks created a very special atmosphere in that building that was unlike anything I’d experienced.”
Determined not to be thought of as a one-trick pony, Elliott took on another seemingly impossible book adaptation, Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, this time collaborating with her old bus-stop chum, Stephens, and the designer Bunny Christie. Its main protagonist is Christopher, a 15-year-old boy with severe autism who takes it upon himself to solve the mystery of who killed his neighbour’s dog. The challenge for the creative team was to strike the right balance between the adult subject matter and Haddon’s child-friendly narrative style.
Stephens said in an interview at the time: “Marianne has an innate sense of democracy. She combines a fearlessly theatrical imagination with a real concern for her audience. [Curious Incident] has to be a piece of theatre you can come to if you’re 10 or if you’re 90. Marianne and the rest of the artistic team were completely committed to trying to get inside Christopher’s head and dramatise his world from within.”
The resulting show won a record seven Oliviers in 2013, and ran on Broadway for 800 performances. When its current UK and Ireland tour finishes in September, it will tour internationally.
Now she is looking ahead to a first season of work from her new company, whose stated mission is to create “good shows, good plays, really well produced”. This will include Stephens’ Heisenberg, a two-hander – Kenneth Cranham stars opposite Duff – opening in the West End this October; a radical new interpretation of Stephen Sondheim’s 1970 musical Company, in which the main character, Bobby, is played by a woman, instead of the usual male casting; a new show by Yael Farber; and a reworking of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by director Sally Cookson at the West Yorkshire Playhouse.
Why did Elliott opt for setting up a production company rather than pursuing the route of running her own building?
“Chris [Harper] first suggested this and I knew immediately it was something I wanted to do because it would enable me to have more control over the work yet not have to be involved with all the things that suck your energy when you run a building. The most important thing for me is that the production values are as high as you can make them. The other thing is that I wanted to have more control over how the work was looked after, marketed and supported. Chris is the best producer I’ve ever worked with so I shall be learning from him as we go along.”
Born: London, 1966
Training: Drama degree course, Hull University
• Associate director, later artistic director, Manchester Royal Exchange (1995-2005)
• Associate director, National Theatre (2005-2016)
• Co-founder of Harper and Elliott Productions (2017)
• Pillars of the Community (2005)
• Therese Raquin (2006)
• War Horse (2007)
• Harper Regan (2008)
• Saint Joan (2008)
• The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (2012)
• The Light Princess (2013)
• Angels in America (2017)
Agent: Mel Kenyon, Casarotto Ramsay
What did Sondheim think about her casting Rosalie Craig as Bobby in Company? “He didn’t like the idea at first, but he agreed to let me workshop it in London. We filmed part of it and sent it to him in New York, and he said he loved it. He has agreed to the odd lyric change, but essentially I’m hoping to tweak it as little as possible. Reviving Company 47 years on, I think it actually makes more sense for Bobby to be a woman.”
In the past, Elliott has talked about being insecure and unsure of her talent, but there is an authority and composure about the 50-year-old woman sitting opposite me.
“The biggest perk about getting older, as a woman, is that I don’t feel I have to prove myself all of the time. People will have heard of me, or seen one of my shows, and maybe think, ‘Yes, I’d work for her.’ The flip side of that is that I do believe insecurity is part of the fabric of what one does, and the more I do it the more I realise that everybody around me is insecure.
“It’s not always a bad thing. You have to be sensitive to be truly artistic. It can be annoying for other people but it can also help to motivate you. At 50 I’m starting to appreciate my insecurity rather than trying to overcome it.”
Angels in America runs at the National Theatre until August 19. Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle opens at Wyndham’s Theatre, London, on October 9 and runs to January 6, 2018.