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Brief Encounter With ... Jamie Lloyd

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Rising-star director Jamie Lloyd has set Oscar Wilde’s quasi-biblical 1891 tragedy Salome in a post-apocalyptic future for the latest offering from Rupert Goold’s Headlong Theatre. The production opens this week at Leicester Curve prior to a regional tour and London season at Hampstead Theatre this summer.

Lloyd is an associate director at the Donmar Warehouse, where his credits include Piaf, the current production of Mark Haddon’s debut play Polar Bears and the upcoming revival of Passion, as part of the year-long 80th birthday celebrations for American composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim.

In the West End, Lloyd has recently directed high-profile productions of The Little Dog Laughed, Three Days of Rain and The Lover/The Collection, which his other credits include The Pride (Royal Court) and The Caretaker (Sheffield Crucible/Tricycle).

What’s the story of Salome in a nutshell?
King Herod, who is terrified of death, is aware of evil omens to such an extent that he has imprisoned an ancient prophet called Jokaanan (John the Baptist) beneath his palace. Herod’s stepdaughter Salome lusts after this prophet, gets him out of his prison and falls in love with him but is rejected by him. She then ups her desire: in return for doing a dance for Herod, she will get the head of Jokaanan for her own pleasure.

Does the fact that it’s written in verse present extra challenges?
It isn’t actually written in verse, though it’s certainly a heightened form of expression. Oscar Wilde, of course, took the story from the Bible and, inspired by that, uses a heightened, quasi-biblical language that’s really entirely his own. It’s unlike anything else Wilde ever wrote. When we were auditioning, we didn’t put the author’s name on the front of the script, and some younger actors were asking “who wrote this?” – it really doesn’t sound familiar. I don’t know what he was on when he was writing it!

Wilde wrote the play in 1891, but it wasn’t performed in the UK until 1931, long after Wilde’s death. Why?
That’s right. He actually wrote it in French, probably for the actress Sandra Bernhard. One theory is that he wrote it in French to get past the British censor in Britain - which ultimately he didn’t. It was illegal to deal with religious matters. And also the piece is very lewd, very coarse and there’s a clear homo-erotic subtext.

Why has it been performed so rarely since then?
Maybe it’s because it needs a big cast. You could have hundreds of people in it. I’ve taken the Wilde text and conflated some of the characters to create new characters, new through lines. I’ve essentially created a new adaptation of the play, which is played by an ensemble of ten. I think Salome demands a new take, a new vision, and you need to let your imagination run riot to achieve that. In the past, it has certainly attracted practitioners like Steven Berkoff, who work outside the mainstream. Wilde himself envisaged a big, overblown visual production, far removed from its biblical setting.

According to the press release, in this adaptation, “ancient myth collides with 20th-century decadence”. Tell us more.
Because it’s for Headlong and because they’re building a reputation for doing highly visual dynamic work under Rupert Goold, I feel like I’ve been let off the leash. My version is based on the fact that Herod is a very wealthy, Middle Eastern leader who’s afraid of dying and living on the verge of the apocalypse. It is a world in flux, so he’s surrounded himself with an armed guard. We’ve set it in a claustrophobic, sweaty, oily, dripping, underground bunker, which Herod has created to protect himself, but which represses those inside. The prophet Jokaanan is trapped under a gigantic manhole. It’s like an oil rig, where jewels are hidden but oil, Herod’s most precious commodity, bubbles up from beneath the surface.

I wanted it to have a timelessness. I’ve heard rumours saying I’m doing the “sci-fi Salome”. That isn’t quite true, but it is definitely set in an abstracted Middle East, sometime in the future. I think the setting ups the stakes and intensifies the action. This is not the average day in the life of any of these characters!

You mentioned Rupert Goold. Which other directors do you admire?
Rupert Goold is brilliant. I’ve enjoyed seeing all of his work, and I wanted to work for Headlong because I believe in what he’s doing. My mentor is (Donmar Warehouse artistic director) Michael Grandage so I am so thrilled to be working as an associate director at the Donmar. That’s my home essentially; I get to do two productions a year there and I am involved in their programming, development and education work. Michael has been incredibly supportive and inspiring and I love his work. I was his associate director on Guys and Dolls and Evita, that’s how we met. He’s been amazing. I also love Dominic Cooke at the Royal Court and I love working there too. Dominic does really thorough text work, gets great performances out of actors and yet also puts on interesting visual productions.

Your next production is Passion, part of the [email protected] celebrations at the Donmar. What can we look forward to with that?
The return of Elena Roger is thrilling, and also we have Scarlett Strallen and David Thaxton as the other leads. I don’t think many people know David. He’s played Enjolras in Les Miserables, but Passion is his first leading role so it’s exciting to discover someone new. Just to have those three leading young actors from musical theatre at the Donmar in a major Sondheim revival - I can’t wait to work with them and the great ensemble we’re putting together. Apart from Scarlett and Elena, it’s going to be an all-male cast with the soldiers playing various roles, with all the action taking place in this remote Italian outpost. I hope it’s an interesting take on the material.

Stephen Sondheim definitely warrants all the attention he’s getting in his 80th year. He’s obviously a mighty, legendary composer and it’s about time that we celebrate him. Also it’s a great opportunity to compare and contrast so much of his work being put on in one year, along with a great series of concerts, discussions, debates and conversations with the man himself.

Back to Salome, why should theatregoers see this production?
Apart from what I’ve already said, we have a very dynamic cast. Zawe Ashton as Salome, Con O'Neill as Herod and Jaye Griffiths as Herodias are doing sensational work. And there’s another amazing ensemble. A lot of what we’re doing has been created through improvisation so the whole company feels ownership of this piece. There’s also lots of movement, massive visuals, bold lighting effects, big sound effects, original music – and lots and lots of blood!

A co-production between Headlong Theatre and Leicester Curve, Salome opened 12 May 2010 (previews from 5 May) in Leicester, where it continues until 15 May, before visiting Guildford, Richmond, Oxford, Newcastle and Brighton and concluding with a London season at Hampstead Theatre from 22 June to 17 July. Passion is at the Donmar Warehouse from 21 September to 17 November 2010 (previews from 10 September).


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