There must be something in the air in the West End. Scarcely has Michael Grandage and his eponymous company opened his five-play season at the Noel Coward than Jamie Lloyd, his former associate, launches a similar venture, in partnership with ATG, at a radically transformed Trafalgar Studios.
And Lloyd’s production of Macbeth, with James McAvoy in the title role, which inaugurates the new regime at the former Whitehall Theatre, marks a further stage in the close professional relationship between director Lloyd and his frequent colleague, the designer Soutra Gilmour. Their recent collaborations have included Osborne’s Inadmissible Evidence at the Donmar and The Duchess of Malfi at the Old Vic and as well as designing Macbeth and the three further productions planned for the season, Gilmour has also master-minded the transformation of the venue. Interestingly, both the Grandage and the Lloyd initiatives suggest a greater focus on the director’s pulling power than has been previously attempted, for all that both seasons have no shortage of star names to draw the public.
[pullquote name=”Jamie Lloyd”]By having part of the audience on stage, I want to convey the idea that we are pointing outwards and that Macbeth could be us. Any one of us is capable of carrying out his actions[/pullquote]
The makeover applied to Studio 1 is good news for a Cinderella venue that has struggled to develop a tangible identity since its rebranding from the Whitehall and its division into two auditoria in 2004. Like most commercial theatres, Trafalgar Studios has, to an extent, had to play host to whatever production has been available, but its situation, cut off from the main thoroughfares of Theatreland by the expanse of Trafalgar Square, has perhaps increased its sense of isolation. Its abnormally steep rake which, in Lloyd’s words “forced actors to arch their backs in order to reach the back of the auditorium” has been reduced and no longer will buying an ice cream be the equivalent of an assault on the north face of the Eiger.
Sitting in the middle of the auditorium, gazing at the realisation of her ideas, designer Soutra Gilmour reflects on what has been achieved and what she hopes for the future for Studio 1.
“We’ve raised the floor of the stage by just under two metres – about the height of a tall person and transferred the front four or five rows of seating to the stage. It’s not quite theatre-in-the-round but I have managed to find 16 different exits and entrances in it for the actors in Macbeth. And we have the potential to have a thrust as well – we’ll utilise the space in a number of different ways.”
A guiding principle of her work, says Gilmour, is her desire not to have her sets look as if they have been independently placed in the theatre. She seeks a kind of fusion of her design and the fixed architecture of the space where she is working. Accordingly she has attempted to create in this venue “the reality of a studio space with the grandeur of the theatre’s proscenium arch”.
“What’s really important is that I have no interest in designing sets that simply sit in a theatre in an isolated manner,” she says. “For me, my job is about responding to a theatre – almost as if the production were site-specific – and about creating a link between the auditorium and the stage.”
Close collaborations between directors and designers are nothing new, of course, but both Lloyd and Gilmour describe their relationship as “symbiotic”. It began several years ago with a production of Pinter’s The Caretaker at Sheffield Crucible, although Lloyd had become aware of the character of Gilmour’s work almost by osmosis.
“I tend to buy a programme at the interval or after the show,” says Lloyd. “I’d been going a lot to the Gate in Notting Hill and whenever I was particularly excited by the design in a play, I’d look at the programme afterwards and it would always be Soutra’s name in the credits.”
Gilmour recalls their first meeting: “[It was] backstage at the Adelphi when Jamie was assistant on Evita when we discovered that we had a lot in common, including a passion for Hollywood movies that created a real world but which also had a heightened drama and a weight to them.
“We’ve developed a kind of a short-hand,” explains Lloyd. “I’m able to give Soutra a few phrases or some key words and that’s all she needs. The detail and thought which I try to apply to the text is always reflected in Soutra’s design and what makes her work special is her insistence on reality. She uses real materials – her rocks are rocks and not made of polystyrene.”
To some extent, the relationship between ATG and Jamie Lloyd Productions mirrors the ties which the company has formed with a number of individual theatre professionals. According to Lloyd, he was approached by ATG’s Howard Panter while he was directing She Stoops To Conquer at the National a year ago.
“After a number of discussions, I eventually said to Howard that what I’d really like to do was to develop a body of work under a single vision in a single space. Unbelievably, Howard agreed.”
Gilmour’s design for Macbeth suggests a post-independence Scotland that has undergone the kind of internecine strife that recalls the Balkan disintegration of the 1990s.
“We’re setting it in a post-industrial society within the dilapidated skeletal framework of what was probably an engineering works or a munitions factory,” she explains. “The infrastructure has been destroyed and people are having to live on a much more basic level, in a hand-to-mouth existence.”
In planning his inaugural season, Trafalgar Transformed, Lloyd has partly taken his cue from the venue’s address: “Since the Trafalgar Studios stand at the end of Whitehall, it is close to the centre of British politics and so it made sense to programme plays that are politically charged. By having part of the audience on stage, I want to convey the idea that we are pointing outwards and that Macbeth could be us. Any one of us is capable of carrying out his actions.”
Lloyd is determined to realise his ambition of developing “a commercial theatre with a social conscience” and to that end there will be a number of £15 tickets available on Mondays aimed at those who are genuinely short of funds and who have only a limited knowledge of the plays in the season or of the theatre in general. The politicised atmosphere of the season has extended to rehearsals, it seems.
“Since 99% of the cast is Scottish, we’ve already had a lively debate on Scottish independence and every Monday night, I plan to hold Q&As and host panel discussions. I’ll also be visiting schools and colleges, accompanied by some of the actors.”
Lloyd is keeping tight-lipped about the choice of plays for the rest of the season. Having James McAvoy, whom he directed in the West End production of Three Days of Rain in 2009, will no doubt boost the box office takings. Has he felt any pressure to cast commercial names for a commercial theatre?
“No more than I was working at the Donmar or at the National,” replies Lloyd. “Besides, James and I have been discussing working together for the past four years and we both agreed that there was no point in doing just another production of Macbeth for people who either knew the play or had seen it many times before.”
Lloyd, Gilmour and ATG are to be congratulated for the span of their joint aspirations for this project.
“As the year passes, I’d like the space to develop in such a way that each time people enter the auditorium, they’ll be surprised,” says Gilmour. “It’s a journey of discovery and each of the four sets will reflect a different way of responding to the space. This has been a great opportunity to do something bold and it’s been a great experience to be the only person to design the shows in the same venue. We’ve had an unbelievably short time to get it all done but I love working to tight deadlines and people enjoy throwing them at me.”
Lloyd is similarly optimistic.
“We’ll learn so much from this coming year when I hope that I’ll be revisiting past relationships with composers, lighting designers, writers… I feel that the West End has suffered in the past from the perception that it’s all about making as much money as possible. Of course, everybody working on this project will be paid for their services, but this is a commercial theatre that will be radically different and I’d like everybody connected with it to feel as if they are part of something bigger.”
With such high aspirations for Trafalgar Transformed, let’s hope that none of the traditional ill luck of the Scottish play will be visited upon the enterprise and that there will be hours of vintage strutting upon this revitalised stage in an increasingly vibrant West End.
Macbeth continues at Trafalgar Studios, London, until April 27.