A play about cross-dressing from a director who recently quit her own show amid accusations of sexual sensationalism? Will Manchester know what's hit it? Well, probably. The play is good old-fashioned Twelfth Night, and the director is Lucy Bailey, a National Theatre veteran already beloved of Manchester audiences after last year's Hell's Angels spin on A Midsummer Night's Dream. If Bailey's pedigree suggests a sexier Shakespeare than most, Disgusted of Chorlton-cum-Hardy needn't start sharpening his pencil quite yet.
There's nothing scandalous about Bailey in person, unless you're outraged by peroxide hair. This is a woman whose professional life began as a classical flautist, and half of whose subsequent career, as director of the music-theatre company The Gogmagogs, has been dedicated to popularising contemporary classical music. With the Gogmagogs, Bailey got string-playing up on its feet. "My starting point," she says, "was knowing that there's power in a musician - I've seen it in rock concerts - and wanting to capitalise on that power and bring out the theatre within the music and the performer."
Not that the crossover from music to mainstream theatre was straightforward. "It took me several years to convince the theatre that I could do straight plays," says Bailey, who's also a distinguished opera director. "Theatre managements distrust people who work purely with music." Nevertheless, Bailey made the leap. Directorial highlights since include a delightful As You Like It at Shakespeare's Globe in 1998. Her greatest success came with Tennessee Williams' Baby Doll; her smouldering National Theatre production ("it's erotic, and if you don't get that then you've had it") transferred to the West End in 2001.
Which brings us to the Manchester Royal Exchange, an in-the-round theatre which Bailey argues "is the closest we've got to Shakespeare's". With Twelfth Night, she's promising another vigorously contemporary production. "I want to cast it with characters that we see and know." She's planning to set the production in "an exotic hot country, as if all the characters have been displaced from their own land".
Her starting point, she says, "was the theme of loneliness and abandonment. Elvis Presley's 'Heartbreak Hotel' became the song that summed up the emotions within the piece: the yearning for love, the romance of unrequited love. It led me to look at people who are abandoned in hotels, indulging and massaging their feelings of desire and yearning." Which is something we all feel, she contends. "We've all got that sense of being separated in our lives. And we're looking for something that could make us whole."
Bailey talks excitedly about the (still secret) design of the piece, which should make Illyria feel more irresistibly coastal than any previous production. Close collaboration with designers - and indeed the whole creative team - is a source of strength, she says. "Collaboration is at the core of my work. If you can make collaboration work, with everybody, then you're on your way to making a really good show." But when collaborators pull in different directions, disaster will ensue. At Chichester last year, Bailey was forced to quit her own production of Kander and Ebb's musical Cabaret, because Chichester's then artistic director Andrew Welch objected to its sexual explicitness.
"He said the homosexual content that would offend his audience," Bailey recalls. "And I said, 'I don't believe that for a minute'. But he destroyed the show. He took away all the confidence in it. Actors walked out. I left the show. He trashed something that was possibly great. And that was through fear." Theatre has to be adventurous to survive, she says. "Safe programming can kill a theatre."
It's a far cry from the atmosphere of mutual support that Bailey favours. It's that, not sexiness per se, that she considers her specialism. "I do like sexy shows. I feel that everyone's sexuality is a huge part of their being. Part of my work with the violinists [in The Gogmagogs], for example, is to say: you're sexy. And not in a glib way; not like Bond girls. I mean by having soul, by having a genuine sense of your own body, by having spirit. And I think connections between people are sexy." If she's been able to generate erotic heat onstage in the past - and if she does so again with Twelfth Night - it's not by accident. "Chemistry is an all-round thing, it's not just about the actors. It's about how you support the whole company and the environment you let them inhabit. To me that's incredibly important."
'Twelfth Night': Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester (Box office: 0161 833 9833), Wednesday to 25 OctoberReuse content