Deborah Warner: Breaking the rules - again

Stand by for controversy: Deborah Warner's take on Julius Caesar opens next week. The director talks to Paul Taylor about control, conspiracy and her mid-life crisis
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She's back - back with the Bard, back at the Barbican and back in ancient Rome. Which is where, in a sense, it all began for Deborah Warner. In 1987, she catapulted herself into the front rank of international directors with a landmark staging in the Barbican's Pit theatre of Titus Andronicus, which had members of the public fainting and critics drooling.

She's back - back with the Bard, back at the Barbican and back in ancient Rome. Which is where, in a sense, it all began for Deborah Warner. In 1987, she catapulted herself into the front rank of international directors with a landmark staging in the Barbican's Pit theatre of Titus Andronicus, which had members of the public fainting and critics drooling.

For a complex cluster of reasons, it is a whole decade since Warner last premiered a Shakespeare production in this country. The last one was her brilliant, controversial Richard II in 1995, where the weird existential status of the title character (brought up to think of himself as a god; brought down to recognise himself a poor, bare, forked human being) was embodied, with a haunting suggestiveness, by a cross-dressed Fiona Shaw. The pair combined brilliantly again in 2001 in a riveting production of Medea.

In the meantime, Warner has been busy with opera (provoking some boos from the first-night audience at Glyndebourne for her Don Giovanni, in which the Don took blasphemy to new lengths by getting seriously fresh with a statue of the Blessed Virgin), where she has been highly active in pushing at the boundaries of the art form. This has partly been a matter of disputing accepted notions of demarcation (she has done staged versions of the St John Passion and of song cycles such as Janacek's The Diary of One Who Vanished, with the tenor Ian Bostridge).

It has also partly been a matter of experimenting with atmosphere, and with the notion of what it means to participate in a piece of theatre, in her celebrated site-specific ventures. In 2003, as part of the Lincoln Centre Festival, her Angels Project turned the whole of New York into a kind of vast, angelically-inflected installation piece. More often than not in these intervening years she has worked abroad, especially in France.

So Warner's new production of Julius Caesar, which opens next week on the Barbican main stage, is a cultural event of major proportions. She certainly can't be accused of sidling sheepishly back into Shakespeare. As well as boasting a cast of top-notch principals (Ralph Fiennes as Mark Antony, Simon Russell Beale as Cassius, Anton Lesser as Brutus, Fiona Shaw as Portia), the production - of a play offering a baleful object lesson in how clever oratory can turn a gathering into a murderous mob - deploys a hundred-strong crowd of 40 professional actors and 60 amateurs recruited through the outreach work of the Young Vic.

The project demonstrates Warner's international clout in two vivid ways. It is only the second piece of work that the Barbican's Bite programme has self-generated rather than imported from abroad. (The first was The Black Rider, the Tom Waits/Robert Wilson theatrical makeover of a William Burroughs text.) And the production, characteristically for her, is a European co-commission with the Théâtre National du Chaillot in Paris (whose artistic director Ariel Goldenberg has been a long-standing ally and champion of her work), Madrid's Teatro Espanol and the Grand Theatre de la Ville in Luxembourg. After its London run, the show will visit these venues.

Adding a new dimension to the difficulties of crowd control, the mob in Julius Caesar will be drawn from the indigenous population at each of these ports of call and re-orchestrated with a crucial contribution from Warner's assistant director, Doug Rintoul. Logistically, she has not gone for the soft options.

Plainly, the driving force behind the project is a passionate and freshly pondered belief in the play and in the political timeliness of reviving it now in a world where, after the dubiously motivated toppling of a somewhat different dictator, analogous bloodshed and appalling waste of human life ensued.

Warner has been working flat out to a punishing schedule. But talking to her (on three occasions in the past couple of months), it becomes evident that the production has a strong personal significance for her in terms of her career, and indeed her life. Consider this statement, which she made during our second meeting: "Yes, Julius Caesar is a sort of return to my roots. And I'm doing it partly to see if I can jump off it at the end. There's a big conversation about whether one can or should go on doing large-scale classical productions for ever."

She opens one of our encounters by wryly declaring: "So here I am, in the middle way," alluding to a line in TS Eliot's Four Quartets, a poem she intends to make into a piece of theatre (as she did with The Waste Land, which she staged in various site-specific spaces around the world). In the context of our conversation, it's the remark of a woman who, having reached the age of 45, is openly taking stock of her life, her purpose and her potential. "I am going," she says, with a laugh, "to massively enjoy my mid-life working crisis."

More than any director I have met, Warner, when she talks about one of her productions, takes you deep inside the work and simultaneously makes a penetrating analysis of the cultural conditions within which it is being brought to birth. Julius Caesar is evidently a test case for her. How do the difficulties and rewards of directing it as this moment help to diagnose the state of our theatre culture? That's the sort of question she has always asked, and perhaps is asking now with a special keenness.

Two entries in the diaries of Richard Eyre, who recruited her as one of his associate directors when he ran the National Theatre, are illuminating about Warner and her approach. The first is from April 1989: "Meeting with Deborah Warner. She's deeply concerned with doing things for the right reasons. It's almost a religious thing with her, it can't be casual, or opportunistic or haphazard."

That observation crisply captures a crucial aspect of her. It reminds me of when I first met her, on the Fringe at the Edinburgh Festival, in 1983. She, the 24-year-old daughter of an antiques dealer in Burford, was not yet famous; I was not yet a critic. We were introduced by a mutual friend after a performance of The Tempest by Kick, the theatre company she had precociously founded two years earlier. I was knocked for six (or possibly seven) by the production's uncluttered freshness, and by that combination of purity of purpose and provocativeness of effect that has run through all her work since. I immediately liked her, but thought: this girl will never be able to compromise sufficiently to make it big. Clearly, I was wrong. She steadfastly refused, and refuses, to compromise - and that's one of the reasons she has made it big.

In the second diary entry (from 1990), Eyre reports on a certain irritation that this director can arouse: "Meeting of associates. Started genial but later became slightly acrid... Deborah Warner talked about wanting better conditions and got up [fellow-director] Howard Davies's nose. Howard said why don't we spend more money on new writing, rather than 14-week rehearsals." That irritation is a reaction (if my own experience is anything to go by) to the slight sense of guilt she unwittingly induces. In her presence, you can feel faintly ashamed of the many accommodations you have allowed yourself to make with the less than ideal, whether in the interests of a quiet life, or clinging on to a job, or keeping a tactically low profile. She has a very good sense of humour, but she radiates what Eyre characterises as a certainty about her "destiny". It can leave you feeling a tiny bit aimless.

The conditions the English classical theatre could not offer her are what sent her (on the one hand) into opera and (on the other) to France. "When I started with the RSC in Stratford in 1987, along with people like Nick Hytner, we were just on the cusp of a big change. Actors [because of better-paid film and television work] were beginning not to want to commit themselves for those seasons. And you could no longer rely on getting the kind of leading actors you needed. When I did A Doll's House at the Odeon in Paris, I discovered that they pay actors the equivalent of what they could earn on a medium-budget film. So, unlike here, all my first offers of parts were taken up."

In opera, where her work has ranged from Wozzeck for Opera North to a brilliant The Turn of the Screw for the Royal Opera House (which boasted the best direction of child performers on a* *stage I have ever seen), the attraction for Warner is the thoroughbred preparedness of the singers: "You go to the stable and there are these fabulously well-trained creatures to pick from." Through no fault of the actors (but through lack of opportunity to become really practised), there's not the same degree of primed, raring-to-go readiness in the world of verse-speaking classical theatre.

On the problems of casting, she says: "I'm not sure that is why I moved into opera. But I think it's why I spent longer there than I ever suspected. And perhaps I got a little bit frightened of returning to the large-scale classic text because of what it would mean in terms of difficulty of casting. But was talking to Nick Hytner about this, and we agreed that it looks as if the tide is turning." Work in film and television is not as readily available, and theatre (thanks in part to the buzz and the affordability of the work at Hytner's National) is becoming sexy again.

Warner does not go into a production with many preconceived ideas. "I find that the casting process - which is what a casting process ideally should be - is where I begin to understand the play." On Julius Caesar, she teams up with Ralph Fiennes who, back in 1988 before the movie world beckoned, played the Dauphin in her RSC production of King John. The high-wired Paul Rhys was to play the self-gnawing intellectual Brutus, alongside the scorchingly scholarly Simon Russell Beale as the terrifically touchy Cassius. "I'm aware," she laughs, "that some people might regard casting them that way round as perverse" - but there was deep intuition in the counter-intuitiveness of her role assignment.

Then, coming straight to rehearsal from a terribly taxing shoot of a film in which he plays the lead as Beethoven, Rhys succumbed to complete physical collapse and had to withdraw. Salvation was at hand in the person of Anton Lesser, fortunately available. But the experience threw piercing light, for Warner, on her rehearsal procedures.

Thanks to the munificence of Bite, she had more or less the working conditions she desired for the £1.4m production. "I chose that there would be two weeks of preparation before we started rehearsing the interior of the scenes. We read the play eight times; we put it into our own words; we did group exercises. We did a marvellous 'hot-seating' exercise where a character from the play sits in front of the entire cast, who shoot questions at him or her that must be answered in character. Someone said to Cassius, 'What do you think of suicide?' Simon, as Cassius, said, 'Well, I've wanted to commit suicide since I was about eight.'

"But of course you never know - and you should almost never know it - whether, if you were hauled before a tribunal and asked, 'Are those two weeks really a priceless part of the process?', you would be able to answer with a definite yes." Warner, though, is now closer to being able to say yes to this, because of the revealing business of having to introduce a leading actor into the company more than a fortnight into proceedings.

In a characteristic comment, she declares that this production of Julius Caesar "will have to make the audience un-know what they already know". The story up to the assassination and Antony's speech over Caesar's corpse are perhaps over-familiar. Not wishing to give too much away, it would be fair to say that in this version the audience will, for example, have to cope with the initially startling proposition that there is no real political conspiracy as such. "You have to work very hard to play 'no conspiracy'," Warner says. And she returns to the idea of having a creative mid-life working crisis by saying that she thinks that "the rediscovery of classic texts is perhaps quite a young person's role. I may be happy to be on the edge" when the handover between generations takes place.

When you talk to her about her list of future projects, you realise that she intends to develop the "auteur" side of her creative work: the side that enjoys "reading atmospheres" (as she did when she sent people off on lone walkabouts through the derelict glory of the St Pancras Hotel in St Pancras Project), and the side that delights in taking text that was not destined for the stage and making a theatrical experience out of it.

Four Quartets is in the pipeline. And Warner has bought the rights to Alice Oswald's Dart, a beautiful tracing of the songlines of the river Dart. It's significant that the funding for the workshops for this will come from the Lincoln Centre Festival in New York. And, in the autumn, the studio space of the Théâtre National du Chaillot in Paris will be put at her disposal for the creation and presentation of a piece of work from scratch. Britain funds buildings and institutions, not individuals (except in rare instances, as with Bite, Warner and Julius Caesar). Certainly, she is not holding her breath over the West End. "I have a reputation," she says. "I am too expensive for commercial theatres because I ask for conditions they don't want to pay for."

Warner has been commissioned to create an experience in the forecourt of Somerset House and is toying with the idea of letting the public make requests to have poems of their choice read to them personally through headphones by a rolling on-site cast of actors. The listeners will be the mutual spectacle - people listening, and watching others in the act of listening, while being treated to a private rendition of a favourite poem.

More conventionally, it has not passed unnoticed in the rehearsal room that Simon Russell Beale and Fiona Shaw, who have not worked together before, get on famously. They are born to play Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing. It would be a shame if Warner retired from full-scale Shakespeare before this could come to fruition.

The director did herself a favour in bypassing the conventional route of an Oxbridge English course. Her mind has never been detained by jargon. Instead, she trained in stage management at Central. Now, though, she is thinking of combining her professional life with reading for a degree, perhaps in theology. "I hope that I will be creative with this mid-life working crisis," Warner says. "And I hope that I come out of it as something I have never been before." It's a safe bet to say that, whichever direction this great director chooses to take, it will be quite an adventure - not just for her, but for the public and for the art form.

'Julius Caesar', Barbican Theatre, London EC2, to 14 May (020-7638 8891; www.barbican.org.uk)

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