Richard Jones: Have-a-go hero

He's the risk-taking director who brought cookery demonstrations and scratch'n'sniff cards to opera. On the eve of his 'Lulu', Edward Seckerson meets Richard Jones
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"Can I talk some more about Lulu?" After close on an hour of gently combative conversation, Richard Jones suddenly appears to become fretful about his latest child. Actually, something has just occurred to him: something that underpins the way he feels about her; something that must surely influence attitudes to her in the year 2002. She is Frank Wedekind's "earth spirit" as reimagined by Alban Berg in his unfinished opera, opening next week at the London Coliseum. Jones, the director, finally has this to say: "I think it's difficult now to do a piece where someone gets punished for being sexual."

It's a simple but penetrating statement and it gives the lie to decades of stagings that have made Lulu about the tragedy of sex and projected a backstreet brothel image of her in fishnet tights. In less enlightened times Lulu was the femme fatale, the hussy, the temptress, the seducer. The fallen female. The object of men's contemptuous pleasure. But times change, and Jones's point is that attitudes to great drama change with them. It's all a question of context. Nothing is set. There is no such thing as "the definitive" production. Theatre is eminently disposable.

That's a view that has tended to get Jones into big trouble with those for whom great plays and great operas are subject to only one possible reading. Over the years, his distinctive, highly visual, style – part theatre of the absurd, part theatre of cruelty, part Grimm's Fairy Tales; surreal, cartoonish – has become the object of much vilification, but mostly, it has to be said, in the somewhat rarefied world of opera, where dreary conventions have proved hard to displace. It's interesting that Jones is cited more for what is perceived as the gimmickry of his realisations than the reasons for them. He's the man who brought scratch'n'sniff cards to Prokofiev's Love for Three Oranges, who had Fenella Fielding give a cookery demonstration during the interval of Die Fledermaus, who endured howls of derision at Covent Garden for daring to cut Wagner's Ring down to size; he's also the man who brought the nation's most irritating game-show personality, Nicholas Parsons, to a sticky end in Stephen Sondheim's Into the Woods. But not even that endeared him to the general public (though he did win an Olivier Award for what was, in my view, a huge creative advance on the original Broadway production). Most recently, he's been used as the stick to beat the RSC's beleaguered director, Adrian Noble. Jeremy Paxman waved poor reviews for Jones's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream at Noble on Newsnight. Jones sort of enjoyed that. Theatre of the absurd comes in many forms.

So here he is – tall, lean, somewhat shifty in appearance behind his rimless glasses, and it occurs to me that it wouldn't be such a stretch of the imagination to see him as the Child Catcher in Adrian Noble's Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. There is a kind of benign malevolence about him. In fact, the reality is very far removed from the reputation. Ask almost anybody who has worked with Jones how they enjoyed the experience and the response is unanimously positive. He's much liked by performers. He challenges but doesn't bully. He stimulates debate. And no matter how many times he uses the word "nerdy" to describe himself, nothing could actually be further from the truth. True, he seems awkward. First impressions are of a shy, nervy character. But mentally he's very focused. He requests clarification of all woolly questions.

So I'm straight in there with whether or not he is comfortable with the third act of Lulu, which Berg left incomplete at his death (Friedrich Cerha was responsible for the performing version). Jones's answer is an emphatic "yes" for the final scene in London when Lulu meets a squalid end at the hands of Jack the Ripper, and "no" for the casino scene in Paris that precedes it. Too cluttered.

His take on Lulu is "transference in action" and before I can pin the "nerd" label back on him he explains: "I think Lulu will play any script that a man or woman will bequeath her. In that way she's essentially unknowable, because she's always playing a new script. I've seen productions where she's mysterious and passive, Mélisande-like, but I really don't think it 'glues'. I think Lulu strives to be some of the things that others think qualify her as a Lulu." So is her final script as victim? Jones pauses. "Snuff movie." And that prospect is left hanging uncomfortably in the air.

Jones makes you work for your answers. He makes audiences work for theirs. He is quietly reluctant to discuss the meaning of his work but happy to debate the issues. You learn that he read anthropology at university; that he dabbled at being a musician (a pianist – he's a whizz at Bill Evans chord progressions); that it took him a while to realise he was playing around the edges of music theatre and he might actually "have a go" at doing it. "Have a go": that's a favourite phrase of his. Psychologically, it seems to take off some of the pressure: the implication being that in "having a go" you make no promises.

"Having a go" usually begins with drawings. Ideas as doodles (his detractors would argue that that's what ends up on stage). The doodles then go to the designer who may laugh at their ineptitude but may also find stimulus in them. It's these design meetings, says Jones, that give you a more solid idea of what you want to say and how you might say it. He never goes into a rehearsal room not knowing how he wants to drive a show. "But then you are surprised by the actors – they've got a lot to say." Pace those who believe that Richard Jones simply imposes his will on unsuspecting performers: it just doesn't happen, folks.

So is there a "eureka" moment when one central idea becomes the driving force of a show? His startling Welsh National Opera production of Hansel and Gretel (which also won him an Olivier Award) has food as its unifying element. At its heart is the Dream Pantomime, in which Jones has the children as guests of honour at a surreal banquet. He looks puzzled when I compliment him on the idea. "But the opera is about starvation and cannibalism. And when people are hungry they dream of food." So there.

The amazing thing is that no other production of Hansel and Gretel I have seen has put these elements – hunger, food and dreams – together. Jones has an amazing capacity for nailing the central issue of a work. He's a great believer, too, in relating the work to the culture and temper of the times in which it is performed. It's the reason he took such a "childish" view of Wagner's Ring. To Jones, the Ring is "a meditation on failure". "It's about horrendous immoral behaviour on a massive scale and, after the events of the 20th century, I didn't feel I could do a production which dignified the behaviour of these characters. I felt I had to look at them ironically."

But in doing so, in playing against the scale, the grandeur of the piece, wasn't he essentially belittling it? Wasn't that really why he was showered with abuse? He can't see it. "I have only love and respect for this piece. I'm passionate about it. But, as a director, I needed to alert the audience to the vanity and triviality of the main characters' behaviour." So the key word in his conception became "triviality". Not a word generally associated with one of the great monuments of Western culture.

Next season at English National Opera, Jones tackles a rather different kind of monument: Berlioz's The Trojans. To this two-part tale of two cities and two worlds he'll bring two designers. He's well aware of its dramatic shortcomings – more cantata than opera or play – and is fully prepared, as director, to some extent "write the characters". That should send shock waves through the Berlioz Society.

But Richard Jones is never merely provocative. He just refuses to sideline the issues that drive the pieces he directs. He has a theory: "In the past, many of us had a reassuring experience of opera with our parents. So there is a kind of in-built resistance in some to confronting the kind of questions these pieces throw up... a sort of cultural amnesia." Then he adds: "I don't quite know where I fit in to all this..." I do.

'Lulu' opens on 1 May at the London Coliseum (020-7632 8300)

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