Jamie Lloyd, currently directing the Donmar Warehouse’s revival of Sondheim’s Passion, tells Caroline Bishop why he is an actor’s director.
Some people just make you wonder what you have done with your life. Jamie Lloyd, Michael Grandage’s right-hand man at the Donmar Warehouse, is one of those. Since assisting Artistic Director Grandage on Guys And Dolls and Evita in the West End, Lloyd has risen to become one of the leading young directors of the day. Now an associate at the Donmar, he has worked with Rupert Goold’s Headlong company, directed James McAvoy and Tamsin Greig in the West End and was on first name terms with Harold Pinter before the esteemed playwright’s death. Now he is hobnobbing with world-renowned American composer Stephen Sondheim as he directs the centrepiece of the Donmar’s festival celebrating his 80th birthday, the musical Passion. Did I mention Lloyd is only 29?
Despite his inadvertent ability to make an (only slightly) older theatre journalist feel like an underachiever, I can’t fail to like Lloyd when we meet for a chat during a break from rehearsals for Passion. He looks 29; that is, he has a fresh-faced youthfulness that belies the responsibility he holds, a youthfulness that is accompanied by an unpretentious, entirely down-to-earth manner which would be hard to dislike. What’s more, he knows he is “jammy,” as he puts it. “I’m totally lucky, I’m genuinely really jammy and I just love to be able to do lots of different things and I’m so aware that it’s happened very quickly and I’ve been given lots of opportunities early on, and I’ve got to work with some amazing actors.”
But Jammy Lloyd, as he will now be known, has earned his opportunities. The first London production he directed in his own right – as opposed to assistant-directing – was Pinter’s The Caretaker at the off-West End Tricycle theatre in 2006, which garnered good reviews and Pinter’s seal of approval. Since then he has directed well-received West End productions of The Lover & The Collection and Three Days Of Rain, the Laurence Olivier Award-winning production of The Pride at the Royal Court and Piaf at the Donmar, which transferred to the West End on the back of huge acclaim. Even the productions that have received more mixed reviews, such as Hollywood comedy The Little Dog Laughed and Mark Haddon’s Polar Bears, have enjoyed popular success.
“Strangely I don’t have many memories about acting at all”
So the fact Grandage has entrusted the highlight of the Donmar’s Sondheim festival to Lloyd should not be cause for surprise. Passion sees him reunite with Elena Roger, the star of Piaf and Evita, for a musical Lloyd has had his eye on for some time. “When Michael [Grandage] asked me to be an associate at the Donmar – I’m in my third year of associate-ship – it was at the top of my list to direct. It’s always been the thing I wanted to do. Then of course I ended up doing Piaf and Polar Bears before it. But in a way that was amazing, I could learn the space – because it’s a very tricky space to stage in – with those two pieces, because this is obviously much more complex than those two.”
The 1994 musical Passion is based on the 19th century Italian novel Fosca and tells the story of a sickly woman’s obsessive love for a soldier, Giorgio, who in turn is in love with a married woman. “You have to be so very thorough with it,” Lloyd says of the challenges posed by the musical. He compares Sondheim’s work to that of Pinter “in terms of absolutely excavating the language for all the clues. The great thing about working on a Pinter play and a Sondheim and a Shakespeare is that it’s all in that language. So it’s about really pulling apart the language to see what it’s all about, but then when you put it back together again just trusting that he does most of the work for you.”
He has been working both with the composer and the book writer James Lapine to reconceive the show for this ‘stripped down’ production on the Donmar’s intimate stage. “We’ve cut some of the score and some of the book and we’ve reshaped it and they’ve allowed me to do that and they’ve been absolutely brilliant about hearing me out on those decisions and making suggestions themselves based on my ideas. So it’s a great privilege really to be able to rediscover it with them.”
I would think it could be intimidating for a sub-30-year-old director to tell an 80-year-old Pulitzer Prize-winning composer that he wants to cut his score, but Lloyd says not. “Only because it’s so exciting. And I suppose if he wasn’t involved it would be more nerve-wracking… I want him to agree and enjoy the choices that I’ve made.”
He acknowledges the kudos of working with such a person, but at the same time stresses that even Sondheim is only flesh and blood. “Bizarrely you think, once upon a time someone knew who Beethoven was, or Mozart walked down the street. They’ve just becomes names, identities, massive icons of culture, and I guess one day Sondheim will be that. When I’m 80 I will be saying that he was in my rehearsal room, which is the biggest thrill in the world,” he says, before adding: “When you chat to him, of course he’s just a human. You don’t need to revere these people, you just have to respect their enormous genius, their talent, but you go head to head with them, that’s the way to do it really.”
“I think I’d really love to work towards running a theatre, that’s ideally what I’d love to do”
He has seen first hand how a person can be revered through his association with Roger, the diminutive Argentinean who was plucked from her native country by Andrew Lloyd Webber to take the title role in Evita in London in 2006. Now a Laurence Olivier Award-winning actress after her performance as French chanteuse Piaf, Roger’s work in London has elevated her to icon status in her homeland, as witnessed by Lloyd when he travelled with her to stage Piaf in Buenos Aires. “I went to her hometown. It was her homecoming and it was an exceptional moment in my life really because it was so deeply moving,” says Lloyd. “She was a young girl in Barracas, which is a very humble area of Buenos Aires, and they perceive her as an absolutely world class star, and it was an event. They were queuing for hours and hours just to see her. She’s more famous over there because of the work she’s done here.”
Working relationships like the one he shares with Roger, with whom he is collaborating for the third time on Passion, are important to Lloyd. “I love the idea of forming relationships and going on a journey with those people. You can’t do what you do single-handedly, and the exciting bit, the fun bit, is to get together with people. I think the more you get to know someone [the more] you can challenge them; you can push them further, especially with actors.”
The most significant relationship in his short career must be the one he has with Grandage. But their collaboration didn’t have an instant genesis. Lloyd’s first encounter with the future Donmar Artistic Director was when Grandage was still AD at Sheffield theatres. “I applied for their resident assistant director scheme which they advertise every year, and I didn’t get it,” laughs Lloyd. He then applied for another post, also at Sheffield, and didn’t get that either. “So I’d met him a couple of times. I got to interview stage but never got the job.” But his work at the Edinburgh Fringe and National Student Drama Festival and later at London’s Bush theatre led to his first big break, assisting Trevor Nunn on the National Theatre production of Anything Goes. “Michael had seen Anything Goes very late on in the run at Drury Lane, thought it was in good shape, looked up who was the resident on that, saw it was me, and then because we had built up a little bit of a history he got in touch.”
He was soon signed up by Grandage for Guys And Dolls, working on the cast changes at the Piccadilly theatre and the subsequent UK tour and Australian productions. He says Grandage gave him enough freedom to make the project his own – “it was amazing that he trusted me to do that” – and he must have done something right, because he was soon assisting him on Evita.
“When I’m 80 I will be saying that he was in my rehearsal room, which is the biggest thrill in the world”
“Ever since he’s just been a really amazing supporter of my work, an amazing mentor,” says Lloyd. “In Sheffield he was always the one who was championing young directors.” He cites the new Donmar Trafalgar season, which will showcase the work of young directors, as evidence of Grandage’s continued involvement in this area. “He absolutely is all about the next generation, more than any other director I think. So I guess my relationship with him comes from that. He obviously saw something in my work that he liked and ever since has just pushed me further and further.”
Perhaps their synergy is helped by the fact they were both actors before directing took hold of them. Lloyd trained at the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts and after graduating acted briefly on stage and telly. But he says his heart was never in it, and he felt the pull of directing, which he had started to do at school and then at LIPA. “I always wanted to direct, and because I’d started directing when I was at drama school anyway I kind of knew that’s what I wanted to do. But it was the most amazing thing to train as an actor and work as an actor because that’s how you can really understand what actors go through.” Was he any good? “I have no idea. I think I was pretty dreadful. I was very self-conscious. Strangely I don’t have many memories about acting at all.”
He says his understanding of acting is vital. “I think sometimes directing can get too heady, too analytical, too literary. I think whatever helps an actor to get the results, which may not be sitting around a table for weeks analysing a text… I’d much rather discover the text on its feet, whilst staging a scene.”
His approach is paying off; with Passion, Lloyd truly establishes himself as one of the West End’s foremost directors and his ascent is only going to continue. Next year Lloyd will work with the Royal Shakespeare Company on a new play at Hampstead theatre after returning to the Donmar to direct another musical, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Add to that his position as associate artist with Headlong, for which he directs a production a year, and it is a good thing that he says “I really like being busy.”
He is kept busy at home, too, by his three-year-old son, another achievement notched up to Lloyd’s 20s. He turns 30 in November. What will be on the agenda the other side of the milestone? Film perhaps? “I would love to direct a film actually. But I’m not in any rush. I genuinely love what I’m doing. I think I’d really love to work towards running a theatre, that’s ideally what I’d love to do.” Perhaps one day the Donmar might be in need of a successor to Grandage, I suggest. “Oh I don’t know about that, the man who’s running it is doing a brilliant job of it,” he laughs. He is right, of course. But it would be rather jammy…