Jamie Lloyd: ‘You’ve got to be fearless’

As Jamie Lloyd’s latest production, a revival of Alexi Kaye Campbell’s The Pride, opens as part of his season at Trafalgar Studios, he talks to WhatsOnStage about equal marriage, his rehearsal room approach and his next project – the West End premiere of The Commitments

Jamie Lloyd
Jamie Lloyd

How’s The Pride shaping up?
It’s really exciting. We had our first preview last night and it’s amazing to hear the audience’s response again. I did it at the Royal Court in 2008 and it’s fascinating to gauge the responses this time – some lines are getting the same laughs and others are completely different. But then it’s an entirely different production, with a different feel and atmosphere.

Since it premiered the political climate has changed significantly regarding gay issues
I think that’s what makes it incredibly pertinent. The idea of the entire season is to be as reactive as possible, to hold our nerve and programme the right production for the right moment, and this really feels like we’ve achieved that. You look at every newspaper and practically turn on the TV at any one moment and there’s going to be a new story to do with gay issues or gay rights. This all increases the feeling that it’s an important play to perform at this particular moment. I’m interested in the notion of what equal marriage means for gay culture and gay identity, and I think it’s going to be fascinating for audiences to enter into a debate about the notion of an idiosyncratic sex culture, whether that’s Grindr or cottaging or whatever.

Idiosyncratic in that it’s counter-cultural in an age of equal marriage?
Well I think that’s the question that could be asked. You could argue that, in an age of total equality, this casual sex culture is perpetuating a level of oppression in some way. It’s fascinating. Even last night you could hear grown men in the audience starting to have a conversation about it: ‘What have we fought for? Was it to f**k in parks and wear designer clothes?’ I love the notion that the play can provoke that kind of response politically. But it’s also a reminder that we have the luxury of being able to analyse these things in our country, which has become one of the best places in the world to be gay, whilst other people are facing extraordinary and unfathomable cruelty and oppression.

For those who don’t know it, could you give an overview of the story of The Pride?
It centres on a complex love triangle between two men and a woman, and explores changing attitudes to sexuality in two different ages. Hayley [Atwell], Harry [Hadden-Paton] and Al [Weaver] play Sylvia, Oliver and Philip, who are actually six different characters who share the same names but in two different time zones. It’s a huge challenge for the actors in that they’re switching quickly between two very different time zones. Every cell of their body has to change in an instant from 1958 to the present day.

Hayley Atwell and Harry Hadden-Paton in The Pride
Hayley Atwell and Harry Hadden-Paton in The Pride

Are you enjoying working with Alexi again?
He’s a thrilling writer and I think he’s ambitious and daring; it’s an amazing thing to work with him again. This is the third time I’ve worked with him and it feels like a really dynamic relationship. He writes great parts for actors, and he’s not afraid to talk about really big, universal concerns. He does it with such wit and integrity and such emotional connection that it’s a gift for actors and it’s very accessible for an audience.

Previously in the season you’ve directed Shakespeare and Pinter. Does your rehearsal room approach differ for each playwright?
I think it’s absolutely about serving the particular text I’m working on. Some plays need a lot more discussion round a table, whereas others you want to get up on their feet and explore that way. But any approach I take is dedicated to the words on the page, and a rigour when it comes to the detail of each character. I take a very practical, very hands-on approach. It’s not especially an academic approach, it’s more about instinct and about allowing the actors to play and explore and make mistakes.

You did a Pinter workshop as part of the Hothouse run – what did you teach people?
Directing Pinter is all about subtext and what I call ‘topspin’, so the first steps are to try and ask as many questions as possible. The characters will often have different interpretations of a particular event, so as a company you need to make a decision otherwise you’re just flailing around trying to play it ambiguously, which isn’t going to be helpful. So for example in The Hothouse the whole question is about who killed patient 6457 and who impregnated patient 6459. There are various clues that Harold puts in, but there’s not definitive evidence. So within the company we had to decide what we thought, without necessarily feeding that to the audience. The next thing is to absolutely explore the subtext. Often in Pinter – and actually in a lot of Alexi’s work as well – there’s a volcano of emotion going on below the surface and yet the line you’re saying is something like “can I take your coat?”.

It’s a very English sense of reserve
Absolutely. When I took Piaf to Buenos Aires I was struck by how outwardly emotional everyone is over there, whereas here we’re more usually trying to hide what’s really going on. But without that level of cover up, in both The Hothouse and The Pride, there’d be no play. There’s a wonderful scene where Hayley Atwell‘s character has to confront Harry Hadden-Paton‘s about the notion he might be gay, and she does it without ever stating it explicitly. That would be a difficult conversation to approach between a husband and wife in 2013, let alone in 1958 when you didn’t even have the language to talk about homosexuality. It’s a perilous conversation and it needs a light touch because you don’t want to scare him out of the room by confronting it head on. You need to do it as if it isn’t a big conversation, but underneath you are almost breathless with terror. That’s what I think makes brilliant drama.

You’ve worked with several of the cast before
One of the things I want to do with Jamie Lloyd productions is harness those relationships that I’ve created before. We’ve done that on each show to varying degrees and I really wanted to push that even further this time. So we’ve got Harry who I worked with at the National [on She Stoops to Conquer], Hayley and I did The Faith Machine at the Royal Court together, Al and I worked on Inadmissible Evidence, and I’ve worked a lot with Jon Clark who’s doing the lighting and Max Ringham doing the music. It really is about pushing those relationships further, creating new challenges and seeing where those relationships might take us.

Some might say that’s nepotistic
No, because I try and maintain a balance. If you exclusively worked with previous collaborators then that would be nepotistic. There are a lot of directors who only work with the same people again and again and if you do that, you’re in danger of repeating yourself and forming a kind of house style. What I love is that there is an unpredictability in the season; each production is different, it doesn’t feel like there’s a particular ‘Jamie Lloyd’ stamp on it. The tone and atmosphere of each production is as surprising as the next. Apart from James [McAvoy], I’d not worked with any of the cast of the Scottish play before, and most of the cast of The Hothouse I’d never worked with before; it’s all about finding that balance.

Next up is The Commitments – when do you start work?
The cast are doing two weeks of music rehearsals at the moment. I can’t do anything with them until they’ve formed the band because every cast member plays their own instrument. They’ve got an extraordinary amount of music to learn before I can begin to stage it. After that, I’ll go in for about four weeks and we’ll put it all together.

Were you a fan of the book and film?
I saw the film when it came out on video all those years ago, but I don’t remember it vividly. I hadn’t read the book at all. They approached me a couple of years ago and asked if I might be interested in it, so I read the book and thought it was very funny and very honest. It offers a snapshot of the working classes in the 1980s which feels very personal to me; of people who are struggling financially and finding ways to cope with life. It was very truthful to me. And the clincher was that Roddy Doyle was doing his own adaptation. The chance to work with him was too much to resist.

Stylistically, what can we expect?
It’s more like a play with songs than a book musical. The aim is to keep the integrity of the novel without it feeling like a flashy West End version of it, so it’s not really a musical in that respect; there’re no songs shoe-horned into the text like in some other shows – it’s not like there’s a woman called Sally who happens to drive a Mustang. All the songs are performed within the context of a rehearsal or a gig, so they fit naturally into the story. It’s been amazing to connect with all these incredible songs, some of which I didn’t know and some of which are very famous. It’s really cool to listen to endless soul on your iPod; it gives you enough energy to get through every day.

Is it daunting premiering it ‘cold’ in the West End?
You’ve got to be fearless. Something can only truly come alive in the space in which it’s meant to be performed. I’ve done it before where you up set a show in one space and then you’ve got to reconceive it for a transfer, which can be challenging because you think ‘Wow, it’s great, I’m really pleased with those particular moments, but they’re not going to work in the next place.’ So I love the notion of creating it for a particular space, and that’s also the fun of being at Trafalgar. There’s something about having a home and saying ‘this is where it’s going to be’ – you can design it very specifically to that theatre.

What can we expect from your next and final production at Trafalgar Transformed?
Well let’s just say it might not be my final production. I said in the past that it was going to be a four-play season, but I’m not sure if it will be. In terms of the next play, I want to continue what all of them have done so far, which is to absolutely enter into a conversation outside of the theatre’s walls. And I’ve said before that, being on Whitehall, you’ve got to use the inspiration of the location because you’re two steps away from the centre of British politics. That’s all the clues you’re getting for now!

The Pride runs at Trafalgar Studios until 9 August. The Commitments opens at the Palace Theatre on 8 October 2013 (previews from 21 September).

Come on our hosted WhatsOnStage Outing to The Pride” on 18 September 2013 including a top-price ticket, a FREE poster and access to our EXCLUSIVE post-show Q&A with cast including Hayley Atwell – all for £32.00