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Lucy Bailey on What Lies Beneath the Surface of Dial M for Murder

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Director Lucy Bailey returns to the West Yorkshire Playhouse for the first time in five years since her last directorial outing there with The Postman Always Rings Twice in September 2004, which transferred to the West End starring Val Kilmar. She now directs a new production of Frederick Knott’s play Dial M for Murder, which was the basis for Hitchcock’s 1954 film version.

Her early directorial career included the world premiere of Lessness by Samuel Beckett, in consultation with the author, whilst at Oxford University, and after this worked as assistant director at the Royal National Theatre, Glyndebourne Opera and the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Bailey co-founded the gogmagogs with the violinist Nell Catchpole, comprised of seven young string players, and has devised and directed seven shows for the company which has toured extensively throughout the UK as well as internationally, including the Sydney Opera House, and Miller Theatre New York.

Bailey comes to the Playhouse straight from her recent RSC debut, an acclaimed, bloody production of Julius Caesar. Her other theatre credits include Private Lives at Hampstead Theatre, Timon of Athens at Shakespeare’s Globe, and the first British stage version of Tennessee Williams’ Baby Doll in 1999 at Birmingham Repertory Theatre, which transferred to the National Theatre and finally the West End.

Are you excited about returning to the West Yorkshire Playhouse?

I really am excited actually, I said to the actors, oh it’s been nearly two years since I was last here, and I realised it more like five, if not at least six. I’m delighted to be back, as it’s been so long, and to be honest, they have asked me back quite a few times, and it’s been rather sweet, so it’s nice that this time it’s worked out, I’m pleased!

How did you get involved with this Fiery Angel production?

Well, about a year ago that I was just in the mood to look for new plays, and I went to the library, but didn’t know quite where to begin; I hadn’t got a definite thing in mind. So I came across this shelf that had a huge row of books, just saying, the best plays of 1951, the best plays of 1952, and so on. And I literally shut my eyes, walked to the shelf, and pulled out one book, and its title was Dial M for Murder. So I read through it that night and I hadn’t thought it was a play, I thought it was a film, and I didn’t realise it was a great play. It turned out to be a great play. So I spoke to my agent, and said to him, Look, I’ve found this play that I thought was a bit of a pot-boiler, an overused piece, but it is actually a terrific thriller. And he mentioned it to Fiery Angel, who quite extraordinarily had just enquired about the rights to the play.

That’s quite an unbelievable coincidence.

Yes, isn’t it wonderful, and it seems as it were almost meant, somehow.

Do you have a routine for preparing a script for performance?

I don’t really... If you love the play, you research it really, but then Dial M is different. It’s not like Julius Caesar which I’ve just done for the Royal Shakespeare Company, because you can spend a long time looking at the sources for that play, and really go very deep into the history of the events. Dial M is different because there isn’t the same amount to do, so I’ve really read it very carefully, a lot of times, and become extremely familiar with it. Then I looked at a few fifties films and of course the film that Hitchcock made, and I read as much as I could about Hitchcock’s making of that film; his view of the play.

There’s not a lot written about Frederick Knott, most people know nothing about him. I found next to nothing about the writer – a few intriguing things, like how he spent eighteen months writing the play, which makes sense when you get to know the play because the detail is immaculate. Apparently he hardly got dressed sometimes; he wrote it at his mother’s and father’s house, and he would just wander around in his dressing gown and she would put food outside the door for him. It does give you a picture of the intensity with which he approached the piece. And how carefully he must have gone over and over it to get this very intricate story worked out.

Having talked about it, myself and the designer (Mike Britton) felt that we understood there was a surface to the play and underneath the surface it was very dark, an almost David Lynch-like quality, of unspoken violence to the piece, however polite the surface is. And it’s trying to get to that underwater, subterranean feel that we’ve approached the staging of it.

How does the casting fit into this approach?

Well, once I’ve done the research I move forward into the casting. In a play you have to find certain agendas that push the action, push the tension of the piece, so that the characters are not always behaving rationally, even the Inspector. So I suppose it’s a case of finding the right actor. And I haven’t had to struggle to find the right actors which is a very nice feeling, people seemed to walk in who were right. It was an easier process, but then again there are only five characters so that makes it less stressful. It’s a very claustrophobic play, so you can choose well.

I’m assuming that you’re taking a different approach to this Fiery Angel production than they did with their last, fairly ironical Hitchcock outing with The 39 Steps?

Yes, the gimmick with The 39 Steps was trying to convey all the characters with a small amount of people. That production was to do with the theatricality of it. But we can’t do that gimmick as we do only have five characters, so we have to be a bit more ‘straight’ in our approach. So what I’m hoping to do with it is to release some of the play’s brilliance and the play’s darkness and sensuality, and the sense of threat. To try and get under the skin of the piece.

How are you trying to bring that out in rehearsals?

We’ve really gone into detail in rehearsals, and we’ve done a lot of excavation, really fleshing out who these people are, and what they do and why they’re doing it. To make it explainable - why does this man want to murder his wife, well you can say he’s jealous, but it goes right back to something in his childhood. We have to work it out, why he executes himself with such coldness and precision. It’s difficult to really explain but we’re trying to. We’re trying to find moments of lucidation.

We’re trying to find the truth of their situation. And how they’re trying to cope with it. All of them are playing some sort of deceptive game, but for very different reasons. So for Sheila (played by Aislin McGuckin), she’s actually trying to break off her affair and save her marriage to Tony, but you feel for her because she’s married to someone who wants to sleep with her but also murder her. We have the feeling that his coldness has pitched her towards another man. It’s so human: if it’s an essentially cold marriage you’re going to eventually seek something warm, and a lover (Max, played by Nick Fletcher) offers her that. But she is struggling, she’s trying to do her best, for her husband, and he tries to murder her despite that. So I think we are with the woman.

That’s why the play’s so clever. You spend a lot of your time worrying that the plot is going to be found out, so you spend a lot of your time empathising with Tony (played by Richard Lintern), in his plotting, and strangely that the play is written so that you’re on the edge of your seat because you think his plan is going to fall through.

Can you pinpoint a moment when we begin to sympathise with Sheila?

It’s at any point, even in the beginning scene when she’s trying to deal with an affair, you aren’t unsympathetic, especially for modern temperaments, these days affairs aren’t so shocking. And because she’s trying to be moral about it you’re not totally alienated by her. Whereas in the film you are more, because Hitchcock really pointed up this kiss, she kisses her husband and then runs straight into the arms of her lover; and she’s wearing a red dress at that point. Whereas in the play it starts differently, she’s trying to tell her lover that the affair is over, and then the irony of course is that Tony doesn’t realise this, and is probably going to kill her anyway.

Are you using one space, which would be more faithful to the stage version, or utilising the added locations that Hitchcock introduced?

We are doing some stage tricks. Our whole stage revolves imperceptibly, so that the room changes in perspective in certain places and not all the time, very, very slowly. So the curtain by the window that the murderer stands behind sometimes revolves separately and sometimes with the space. So you have this surreal dreamlike feel to the piece, when you thought that the chair was in one place you realise that actually it’s travelled. And then of course there’s the wall... Hitchcock put his cameras in the corridor so you can see characters coming through the door and up through another door. We have a gauze wall so that the audience, not the characters, can see through it. The space itself is transparent at times, and that seems to be really right, and sort of dream-like. But it also means that we can access spaces beyond the room without making it less claustrophobic.

So with this combination of see-through walls, along with the room itself which doesn’t have a solidity, it shifts, the piece will hopefully have this heightened surreal, and I think also an erotic, edge.

You have a great musical background: your work with gogamagogs, and on many opera productions; will any of this come into play in Dial M for Murder?

I don’t have a composer, which is a budget thing, when you’re working with smaller theatre pieces, and I think it would really be grand, but we have a fantastic sound designer (Mic Pool). So I think the emphasis has been more on sound design with this show. It will be very delicate, and clever, our use of levels of sound.

Finally, what is your favourite moment of the production?

What is my favourite moment? One of my favourite moments is the shock that you get when you find Tony after he’s tried to frame his wife for murder, and she’s about to be executed the next day. You start by coming back into his flat again and everything’s completely different. He’s lived in the sitting room, so it’s changed from an immaculate space to absolute bedlam; there are plates of food everywhere and clothes all over the place. And then Max comes in with the saving plan, to save Sheila from hanging, and he’s actually worked out the whole plot which is actually what Tony did, without realising it. So he suggests that Tony own up to the murder he did and it will get Sheila off. So that’s my favourite moment, where Tony’s been drinking too much and is in this real state, and Max comes in with this plan. Actually, I’m enjoying working on the actual moment of the action, with the scissors, the world famous scissors, the actual asphyxiation. It sounds horrible to say that, but it’s enjoyable to really expurgate and explode that moment.

Lucy Bailey was speaking to Vicky Ellis

Dial M for Murder runs at West Yorkshire Playhouse from 11 September to 3 October before commencing a national tour, to Oxford Playhouse, Theatre Royal Bath, Theatre Royal Nottingham, Richmond Theatre, Everyman Cheltenham, and Theatre Royal Brighton.


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