Joyce Branagh most recently directed Melanie Blake’s play The Thunder Girls, which tells the story of a reunion between members of an 1980s girl band. Branagh chats to Giverny Masso about why she wants to see more stories centred on women over 40.
Tell me about the most recent show you directed, The Thunder Girls…
The Thunder Girls were a girl band of the 1980s, in our world anyway, and this is the story of the reunion dinner from hell 30 years later. The whole evening unfolds with various recriminations about why they split up, who stole who’s boyfriend, who drank too much, and all of those 30-year-old grudges that come out and explode.
The show has been praised for its empowering roles for women over 40. Was this important to you?
It’s very much why I did the production, because there’s not enough female-led drama anyway, then when you say female-led drama with women over 40, I think you take that percentage down again, and if you say those characters are also from a working class background, it gets even narrower. You just go: ‘Come on, these stories need to be told’.
How do your acting, writing and directing practices feed into each other?
Hopefully I give less awful notes now than when I wasn’t doing acting. And with the writing, it’s about trying to stand up for what’s on the page, and if the actors are approximating it, it’s knowing that the writers have spent a long time choosing those words, so let’s get our heads around what they mean and honour that as much as we can. But it’s also knowing that if an actor has tried that line ten times and they get tongue tied on it every time, maybe talk to the writer because that line doesn’t quite work.
What has been a challenge in getting to where you are now?
I didn’t come from a poor background but my folks were very much working class and didn’t go to the theatre. I think despite my brother [Kenneth Branagh’s] success, I for a long time felt like [working in theatre] was not a real job or that it’s really difficult to succeed. Even though I knew I wanted to be a director from about the age of 18, I was probably 28 before I called myself a director. And I think that’s about background.
Have you and your brother ever collaborated?
I was a runner on Much Ado About Nothing, which he directed, and Othello, which he was in, so we worked together in that we were in the same production team, but I was very much on a walkie talkie and bringing people cups of tea and he was doing the big stuff. We talk about things and he’s very supportive. I recently directed Twelfth Night at the Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre in York and he came along and had a nosey.
What else are you working on?
I’m waiting on a funding decision for a play I’ve written called Ladies That Bus. It’s three actors all multi-roling lots of different characters that happen to be on the 555 bus in Cumbria, which goes from Lancaster all the way up through the lakes to Keswick. I’ve also written the script for Aladdin at South Hill Park Arts Centre in Berkshire. At Christmas I’m directing Sleeping Beauty at the Lawrence Batley Theatre in Huddersfield, which will be my fourth year directing their pantomime.
Training: Orange Tree Theatre Directors Scheme (1999), Regional Young Theatre Directors Scheme at Bristol Old Vic (2000-2001)
First professional role: Handbagged at the Studio in Beckenham and Dublin Fringe Festival (1995)
Agent: Amber Personal Management
Aladdin runs from November 29 to January 4 at South Hill Park in Berkshire and Sleeping Beauty runs at Huddersfield’s Lawrence Batley Theatre from December 6 to January 5.