Director Phyllida Lloyd has built an impressive career in film, theatre and opera. As her production of La Bohème opens in Leeds next week, she talks to Yvette Huddleston about Puccini, Thatcher and being on a film set with Meryl Streep.
Phyllida Lloyd’s hugely successful and popular production of Puccini’s La Bohème, first staged by Opera North in 1993, will be revived by the company at Leeds Grand next week. Looking back on that first production, the director says: “I entered the world of opera with great trepidation but actually I found that it is really down to earth.
“I loved to listen to opera and was happy to be invited to go along and watch it but I never imagined in a million years that I would be asked to direct it,” says Lloyd of the first time she was approached by the company back in the early 1990s. “I didn’t know how in my element I was going to be but I instantly felt at ease in the rehearsal room and I found the singers were very practical about how you go about creating stories.”
Rightly or wrongly opera is considered by many to be an “exclusive” art form reserved for a certain kind of audience – generally middle class and middle-aged – but Opera North has long been committed to trying to break down the barriers (real and perceived) that can prevent people from giving it a try. They strive to make opera accessible to all and Lloyd – who has enjoyed a very fruitful creative relationship with the company over the past two decades (“I have had some of my most important and exciting times in theatre at the Grand in Leeds”) – has helped them greatly in that aim. Her decision to set La Bohème in Paris in the 1950s is characteristic of her approach.
“Sometimes it is hard when you go and see a production done in its period – it often seems very grand and a little rarefied,” she says. “We wanted to strip away all the stuff that stops you linking the story to your own life. We wanted people to see it told in a way that really was roughhouse and makeshift. By setting it in the 1950s it is the era of the beginning of rock ‘n’ roll and the explosion of American culture in Paris, of the invasion of American cinema, the raciness of the movies – Marilyn Monroe and Elvis. Then there were the artists Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock and the influence of cultural philosophers like Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. So we were trying to create a world which although might not be familiar to an audience, would at least not be so foreign to them.”
The plot of La Bohème centres on the lives and loves of a group of bohemian young students with the focus on the intense love-at-first-sight romance between poet Rodolfo and his fragile neighbour Mimi. At its heart is a narrative that Lloyd believes everyone can relate to and she considers it “a beautiful introduction” to the world of opera. “I think we can all remember our student days and those irresponsible devil-may-care ways we have probably all experienced,” she says. “There is nothing highfalutin’ about La Bohème – it is full of real vibrant energy, humour and silliness. It’s fun; it’s zany – it is a real Men Behaving Badly and The Young Ones kind of a world, until into it comes this new friend Mimi who changes the lives of all of them.”
Aside from the accessibility of the story, there is, of course, the music. “It has these absolutely straight to No 1 hit songs that come at you almost like a magnetic undertow,” enthuses Lloyd. “It’s not surprising that Nessun Dorma was chosen for the World Cup theme in 1990 because it has that ‘oh my god this is the golden goal’ moment – there are several moments like that in La Bohème. It’s got everything – the humour, the energy and the anarchy but then it has also got this epic, romantic, soaring music that just blows your socks off.”
The revival is being directed by Michael Barker-Caven as Lloyd was not available to do it herself this time, but she has been closely involved with the production including one key aspect – working with the Opera North team to find the cast. And it sounds as though they have struck gold on that score, having come up with some exciting fresh new faces – and voices. ”We wanted to find truly sexy young brilliant actor-singers,” says Lloyd. “They are the finest of their generation – they really are rising stars.”
As well as a number of award-winning operas with Opera North, the ENO and Welsh National Opera, Lloyd’s CV includes an impressive list of acclaimed theatre productions – including her recent all-female version of Julius Caesar and a much admired interpretation of Friedrich Schiller’s Mary Stuart which transferred to Broadway. Her work has been staged at some of the most prestigious theatres in the country including The Royal Court, The Donmar Warehouse and the National.
She was already a highly respected figure in British theatre when in 1999 a project came along that became a smash hit in London and New York and boosted her career in a way she couldn’t have imagined. “Mamma Mia! was really a surprise miracle in my life,” she says. “And the idea that it has been running for 15 years in the West End is unbelievable. The great gift of it is that it has enabled me to do small scale things – these are not blockbuster projects but they are really important to me and they require a different approach. I am quite happy being in a rehearsal room with one or two people and very little else. For example, recently I worked with a young writer, Cush Jumbo, at the Bush Theatre on a one-woman-show she wrote about Josephine Baker and we are now going to take that to America.”
In 2008 Lloyd was at the helm of the big screen version of Mamma Mia! – which went on to become the biggest grossing British movie of all time. It was her first time on a film set and she found it quite daunting, although the scale of it reminded her of working in opera where the logistics of managing a large cast and crew are similarly challenging. The big difference with film, she says, is the pressure that comes with knowing there are huge costs involved. “Every day the stakes feel astronomically high – there is no time to sit and think. Unlike in the theatre where you can allow yourself days with the actors in the rehearsal room in which nothing necessarily earth-shattering happens but you are moving towards your goal, with film you have to come back from the set every day with a gold medal. It is very high pressure and I couldn’t do that every day for the rest of my life, but it is also thrilling.” And there was fun to be had during the making of Mamma Mia! “When you are on set and that music starts, everybody in the crew starts dancing along...”
Lloyd also found it a pleasure working with the top-quality ensemble cast that included Julie Walters, Colin Firth and Pierce Brosnan and was headed up by Meryl Streep. She went on to work with Streep again when the multi-award-winning actor played Margaret Thatcher in Lloyd’s 2011 film The Iron Lady. “I think nothing will ever be the same again having worked with Meryl,” she says. “She asks a vast amount of herself and you are challenged to rise to that level of ambition. The extraordinary thing about her is how far beyond her own role she is able to see on a film – she is constantly aware of not just her bit but the whole thing and everybody’s concerns. I used to tease her and say that she was IAD (‘in all departments’). I would suddenly see her helping the props man lift something into position – she is someone who is prepared to get stuck in.”
Lloyd admits she had mixed feelings when she was first approached to direct The Iron Lady. “To say I wasn’t fond of Thatcher’s policies is an understatement,” she says. “But I realised pretty quickly that Abi Morgan’s script was really about something else. It was a mythic story of the rise and fall of somebody who came from nowhere – it was almost Shakespearean or operatic. It was a story about class and gender and a lone woman in a world of men and it was also a story about dementia, dealing with grief and what happens at the end of someone’s life. And that’s something that Abi and Meryl and I were all eager to explore on screen. I had certainly had experience of dementia within my family and we felt that it was something that wasn’t shown or talked about.”
The film divided the critics at the time but Lloyd says she had never set out to make a political film. “There is only one thing that is more invisible than an old lady and that is an old lady with dementia. We wanted to look at that compassionately,” she says. “Some people – particularly in this country – weren’t ready to explore Margaret Thatcher in that subtly abstract way and they leapt on it from one political position or another. There seemed to be only two ways of looking at Thatcher – either deifying her or depicting her as the devil incarnate; the film was saying that there were many grey areas within that.”
La Bohème, Leeds Grand Theatre, April 29 to May 10; The Lowry, Salford, May 14-17. 0844 848 2700 or www.operanorth.co.uk.