The daughter of Manchester Royal Exchange founding artistic director, the late Michael Elliott, Marianne Elliott resisted the lure of the ‘family business’ until her late 20s, when she started the fringe theatre company, Small Talk, with friends.
After subsequent seasons as an assistant director at Regent’s Park’s Open Air Theatre, she was invited to assist at the Royal Exchange. She went for a year and stayed for seven, eventually promoted to one of the theatre’s associate directors.
Amongst Elliott’s many productions at the Royal Exchange were A Woman of No Importance, As You Like It, Design for Living, Fast Food, Martin Yesterday, Much Ado About Nothing, Nude with Violin, Pillars of the Community, Poor Super Man, Port, The Deep Blue Sea and Sex, Chips and Rock 'n' Roll
Elsewhere, Elliott’s credits include Little Foxes (Donmar Warehouse), Terracotta (Birmingham Rep and Hampstead), Much Ado About Nothing (RSC, transferring to the West End’s Novello Theatre next month) and, at the Royal Court where she was an associate director until earlier this year, Notes Falling on Leaves, Stoning Mary and The Sugar Syndrome.
Elliott made her National Theatre debut in November 2005 with a highly acclaimed production of Ibsen’s i>Pillars of the Community, starring Damian Lewis and Lesley Manville, for which she was last week shortlisted for the Evening Standard Best Director Award (See News, 9 Nov 2006). She follows that up this week with another 19th-century moral thriller in the NT Lyttelton, Thérèse Raquin, starring Charlotte Emmerson and Ben Daniels. Earlier this year, she was appointed an associate director at the National.
Date of birth
Born 27 December 1966.
Lives now in Tufnell Park, north London.
Why did you want to become a director?
How long have you got? I resisted for a long time because my family, grandparents included, are all in the business. I studied drama at Hull and did some productions at university, but I never thought directing was feasible professionally because I thought it was a male thing and I didn’t think women could do it. My father, who died when I was 17, was a director. Ten years later, I started a small theatre company, called Small Talk, on the Fringe with friends and it grew from there. I was very lucky because 27 is quite late to start. Then I went to Regent’s Park and then to the Royal Exchange and I just kept getting promoted.
If you hadn’t got involved in theatre, what might you have done professionally?
I would have been a psychologist, I keep thinking about it still.
First big break
Working at the Royal Exchange. It was quite a big decision to go to Manchester because my father had been there before he died. They came to see my work in London and asked if I’d like to assist there for a year. So I went and then I just stayed. They believed in me, more than I believed in myself, and they really gave me a chance. That’s what has to happen. It’s unfortunate but, if you’re just starting out as a director, someone has to take you under their wing.
Career highlights to date
I’ve had a brilliant year this year. I had a great time on Pillars. I loved working with Lesley Manville and Damian Lewis and they’ve become good friends. And I’m really enjoying Thérèse Raquin.
There are loads I’ve worked with already. One day I’d really like to work with Simon Russell Beale and Lesley Sharpe. I generally really enjoy rehearsal with all actors. I get very excited about being creative with them.
Simon Stephens. I directed his play Port at the Exchange, and I think it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done. His writing is so detailed, so psychologically rich, so daring in terms of his emotion. He’s not very English in that way. I’d also love to work again with Sam Adamson, who translated Pillars. I think we are going to do something, we’ve started working on a couple of ideas. I’d kill to do a great Arthur Miller or Tennessee Williams, particularly Miller. Something that is a really fantastic piece of work in the bare bones. You know it will work and, hopefully, whatever you do will just help. Sometimes your job as a director is trying to make something work that isn’t really working with the text, and you think, ‘can I just have a really great play now?’. I’m not just talking about new work – even Much Ado About Nothing is flawed.
What other directors do you most admire?
Deborah Warner, Katie Mitchell, Phyllida Lloyd, Nancy Meckler, Howard Davies, Ian Rickson. All of them try to to find the truth in every moment. They don’t do sweeping general statements, it’s about the meticulous details. It is good to have so many women in that list. I think it is just changing for women directors, but it is changing. I think people are less bothered about whether you’re a man or woman, they just want to know if you’re any good. But it’s still really difficult to juggle the demands of a director with your family commitments.
What plays would you most like to direct still?
A View from the Bridge, The Glass Menagerie and a great big huge sweeping musical because I love the exciting feeling you can get when the orchestra strikes up.
What's the best thing you've seen on stage recently?
I thought Katie Mitchell’s production of The Seagull was fantastic. I also saw a brilliant opera production, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, that Richard Jones did at the Royal Opera House. It was awesome in terms of atmosphere, staging and visual flair.
You’ve recently been appointed an associate director at the National, a position you held until recently at the Royal Court. What does this position actually mean?
It means that you do a couple of shows here a year, and you can more or less choose what you want to do. You’re also party to planning, programming and determining the overall image of the theatre. You can be very involved at all levels and give input artistically. Nicholas Hytner has always been incredibly supportive so this is a great opportunity. I didn’t want to do it while I was still involved at the Royal Court, but with Ian Rickson leaving, it was a good time to make the change. The two theatres are very different. The Royal Court, particularly under Ian, really is all about new writing. There are three auditoria and much bigger audiences at the National so you have to do classic plays a lot of the time. And it has a very different remit. It should be a theatre for the country that represents all different sorts of theatre. The Royal Court is much smaller, like a family almost. This is like a much bigger ship, though a surprisingly efficient and agile one.
What would you advise the government to secure the future of theatre?
Give more opportunities to younger directors. There isn’t really a pathway to take, it’s down to luck and chance. It’s similar in acting. Now you have to have money to go to drama school. So we’re narrowing down the selection of who can act or direct to just those people who can afford to pay school tuition or set up their own theatre company. Not many can do that.
Favourite holiday destinations
Somewhere hot where I can lie in the sun by the sea.
I’ve been reading lots of Emile Zola recently, that’s been taking over.
Favourite after-show haunts
Century or Soho House.
Why did you want to direct Thérèse Raquin?
I saw Julia Bardsley direct it at the Young Vic (in 1993). It was quite an expressionistic production, not like ours at all, and very very intense in emotion. It was one of the things that made me want to go into theatre. It stamped itself on my memory very clearly as something bold, brave, daring and very theatrical. And Zola really interested me because he’s not scared of going to the darkest parts of people – human beasts, that what he calls us.
When the novel was released in 1867, it apparently caused a scandal. What happened?
People thought it was pornographic. The prevailing genre of the time was romance, but Zola was trying to work against that. He was determined to start a revolution in the literary world – naturalism. He didn’t believe he was at the forefront of it – it really started with Balzac – but he wanted to push it on. He would observe and write down everything, not balking at anything just because it may seem undignified to the reader. His writing may not be what we’d consider natural today, because it’s also very gothic. He was interested in his characters’ psychological journeys and didn’t really care whether people liked it or not. It’s very harrowing. Three-quarters of the book is about how you deal with the consequences of murder, without much let-up. It’s about how these people behave, given who they are, in those circumstances and it’s an incredibly accurate portrayal. And remember, this was before Freud and psycho-analysis as we now know it.
Why do you think Zola wanted to adapt Thérèse Raquin for the stage?
I don’t think he did, he was a novelist. It was someone else’s idea to adapt it for the stage and Zola thought, ‘hey, why not?’ then decided to do it himself. It’s not really a play, but the structure he gave us is very good because it’s very dramatic.
What does Nicholas Wright’s version bring to it?
This is an existing version – it was first done 15 years in Chichester – but Nick has done more work on it so it’s quite different. It incorporates more of the book than the original play, in both dialogue and non-dialogue moments and some little things in terms of characterisation.
Why are new versions of old plays a good idea?
That’s quite a controversial question. I don’t always think it is a good idea. Sometimes it is, if you’re very careful about how you adapt something and try to be faithful to what the writ originally intended. Earlier versions can have the feel of the period in which they were translated so don’t feel completely modern, in a way that has resonance to now. If something was translated in the Fifties, it can feel very Fifties. Sometimes you want to pick out things to make the piece more immediate, slightly more modern voice.
Do you think Thérèse Raquin still has the power to shock?
I don’t know if shock is the right word; I hope it has the power to disturb. I don’t think the book is shocking anymore. People either want to go there or not. I personally do. There are some quite funny jokes, but then it just gets darker and darker and darker as it explores the consequences of a crime as great as murder. It’s fascinating - a lot of murderers now don’t think about consequences. In researching the play, we’ve had conversations with psychologists about that.
You had a huge hit at the Lyttelton last year with Ibsen’s Pillars of the Community. How does Thérèse Raquin compare to that?
Well, it is another Victorian melodrama and a moral thriller, so here we are again. But it’s not as political or convoluted as the Ibsen. There’s no sub-plot in Thérèse Raquin. It’s just one plot, driven relentlessly through to the end.
What are your future plans?
I have two big productions in the Olivier next year. The first is an adaptation of Michael Morpugo’s War Horse with big puppets and the other I can’t mention yet. Possibly there will be something else but maybe not. Two big shows in the Olivier back-to-back is going to be lot of preparation and work, and I need to try to strike the right work-home balance for the sake of my family.
Thérèse Raquin runs in rep in the NT Lyttelton from 13 November 2006 (previews from 4 November) to 21 February 2007.