Interview: Deborah Warner: Space: the final frontier

Deborah Warner is one of our leading theatre directors, but she doesn't like working in theatres. She'd rather stage 'The Waste Land' down a lift shaft than at the National any day. By Paul Taylor. Photographs by Neil Libbert
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If there's one thing Deborah Warner finds fatally limiting, it's people "who think they know the shape of theatre". Fixed ideas on either the sort of spaces theatre is permitted to inhabit or the forms it is allowed to take are abhorrent to her. This may account for why she is to be found at the moment travelling around the world - Paris, Montreal, Toronto, Milan - with her production of TS Eliot's The Waste Land, a text which was very much not written as a theatre piece and which is performed by Fiona Shaw in non-theatrical sites selected by Warner for their atmospheric reaction with this great modernist poem and its famous "heap of broken images".

The evocative power of buildings seems to have become an obsession with the multi-award-winning 36-year-old director. One of the strangest and most memorable successes of last year's LIFT festival, for example, was Warner's St Pancras Project, which treated the grand, wrecked, abandoned interior of Gilbert Scott's Victorian Gothic station hotel as a sort of "found poem" on the theme of suspension between two lives. Audience members, if so they could still be called, were sent individually through it on a mapped-out "fantastical walk". Inverting normal theatrical convention, where the building houses a communally shared experience, the building in this case constituted the experience, as vestigial ghosts of its former existence stirred, flitted, and half-materialised at the corner of your eye, making you feel like Alice alone in a serially haunting dream.

If Warner were to write a book about her adventures and misadventures searching out locations for The Waste Land, "Let's do the show right here!" would make a neatly ironic title. In Brussels, where the piece originated, she found an abandoned department store "which had a marvellous lift-well down the middle. We were going to put Fiona at the bottom of the well, with the audience looking down. It would have been a terrific spatial relationship." Permission fell through, though, as it did for putting Shaw in one of the booths in the mission-control-like new conference chambers of the European Parliament, with the audience in the green armchairs receiving the piece through translation headphones. The Parliament didn't much care for the title of the work, while Neil Kinnock's office, to which she appealed, said: "Now, if it had been a Welsh poem, there would have been no problem."

Boom towns - "where everything has just been turned into a new night- club" - are particularly tricky. When Warner finally found the perfect deserted, derelict spot in Toronto, it turned out that the ground on which the tin hut in question stood was poisoned ("I quite liked that"). But if, from the artistic perspective, this merely enhanced the setting's charm and relevance to a poem about spiritual sterility, it also, from the authorities' point of view, ruled it out. Each city, though, has, finally, come up with the goods. In Dublin, for example, The Waste Land was staged at an abandoned English fort atop a hill in Phoenix Park in the low, dome-ceilinged 18th-century bunkers where they kept the gunpowder. "The space was abstract," says Warner: "it was almost like walking into someone's brain."

I caught up with the production a fortnight ago in Paris, where Shaw performed the poem in the intimate Amphitheatre de Morphologie, where students take life-drawing classes at the Ecole nationale superieure des Beaux-Arts. Paris was a good spot on the itinerary at which to intersect with this show and not just because, by now, the actress has developed a deep, virtuosic inwardness with the material or because the French capital - where Warner and Shaw ("le tandem anglais") made the front page of Le Monde in January when the National's Richard II (with Shaw as king) hit town - houses a wildly appreciative audience for this English director's work (she's been made a Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres). More tellingly, Paris has also emerged as an alternative source of subsidy for her imagination.

Two years ago, Warner's staging of Samuel Beckett's Footfalls at the Garrick Theatre was the subject of scandal, when her reallocation of some of the lines and her deviation from the pedantic dead letter, if not the spirit, of the play's stage directions caused the Beckett Estate to issue a fatwa on the projected European tour and TV version. One little noticed irony of the affair is that this conscious attempt to break the pattern of West End theatre-going (the Garrick interior dislocatingly transformed; the show, lasting an intense 20 minutes, performed twice-nightly at pounds 4 a ticket) was produced by MC 93 Bobigny, a generously funded French theatre in a very big outer circle borough of Paris that happens to be run by the Communists. (The same outfit sponsored the French runs of Richard II, to the tune of pounds 260,000, and of The Waste Land.) Among Warner's plans for the coming year are a production of either Miss Julie or A Doll's House at the Odeon with Isabelle Huppert in the leading role. At an enigmatic point in English theatre's fortunes - with Trevor Nunn, the surprise artistic director designate of the National, yet to disclose his hand - Paris offers a revealing perspective from which to look at a key young English director's relationship with her native theatre and the challenges she faces in securing imaginative freedom.

There was a period recently of about two years when Warner, one of the National's associates, significantly produced no work on the South Bank. She has grown much fonder of the place of late - particularly since Richard Eyre, whom she describes as a "pretty glorious godfather", gave his consent to her dream of directing Fiona Shaw as Richard II. You can sense, though, her frustration at the English tradition of subsidising buildings rather than people, with the result that the buildings can end up running the people, who then don't end up running the art: "If I were French, I would be funded as an individual." The National Theatre is prepared to subsidise one's imagination, she points out, "as long as one's imagination is contained within the walls of the National Theatre".

The sticking point, for her, is that, unlike Bobigny (with its infinitely adaptable, 900-seater empty box of a main house) or the Berlin Schaubuhne (with its three flexibly interconnecting hangar-like expanses), the National has "no versatile space of scale", the Cottesloe, the South Bank bunker's only flexible house, being limited by its 400-seat capacity. She did once try to make a Beckett piece in the big and rather beautiful paint-frame there, but the Borough of Lambeth wouldn't grant a licence. The architectural limitations of the National are something she's been brooding on while pondering a possible production of As You Like It, a work which offers the opportunity for magical play with changing dimensions on the move from the court to the Forest of Arden.

Bobigny could certainly co-produce with, say, Frankfurt the kind of vision of the piece she aspires to achieve. The only equivalent space it could transfer to in London, she argues, is the Riverside Studios (where her celebrated, open-heart surgery RSC production of Electra was remounted). But the Riverside doesn't have the necessary producing money and the National can't afford to take on umbrella projects. The idea of having to go abroad to do a big Shakespeare play with a large group of English actors, and not being able to bring it home, she finds a dismaying prospect; and if she were to secure the foreign money to do so, "it would be a terribly, terribly unbalanced act. It means that the rest of Europe would be subsidising the National to put a show on outside itself."

It is known that the Royal Court's Stephen Daldry, regarded as one of the main contenders for the top job at the National, sounded Warner out by phone. All she will say of what passed between them is that she urged him to press ahead. It's mouth-watering to imagine what might have come from the combination of the daring and maverick producing skills of Daldry (to whom effecting major theatrical face-lifts and charming money from stone seem to come as easily as breathing) and Warner's pure, radical vision of what theatre might be. The hope is that Trevor Nunn, who has little to prove in the directing stakes, will throw his creative energies into the production side. Were he to offer Warner a permanent role at his National, she would consider it very carefully - but, she tells me, "the conversation would have to be the one we've just had".

Her staging of Waste Land demonstrates in abundance a strength detectable in Warner's work since the early Kick Theatre Shakespeares she directed in her twenties: an ability to illuminate the complex or the rhetorically puzzling by cutting straight to the heart of the human emotion behind it. This is evident here from the moment when Fiona Shaw steps through a tall, narrow door into the spookily lit chamber where the arms of two straining classical statues of naked men throw arches of black shadow on the back wall. Hesitating at the threshold, she delivers that famous first line, "April is the cruellest month", not as some lapidary, impersonal statement, but with the flouncing shrug and raised-eyes manner of some society preacher announcing that "Ascot is the biggest bore".

So surprising you almost laugh out loud, yet also so penetrating, in its affected weariness and hint of inverted commas. It thrusts you straight into the world of the poem which dramatises spiritual drought, a state in which it is perfectly possible to be Oh-so-knowing about cultural reference points, while desperately lacking a living connection with any culture.

The original intention, given the setting, had been to present Shaw as a model who suddenly voices, after hours, the thoughts that had run through her brain during the enforced silence of the working day. That idea is left implicit, though, in a performance that dazzlingly encompasses the multiple identities in Eliot's poem. Sometimes, she achieves these shifts in convulsive outbursts or lightning involuntary switches of attention, as though she were the medium through which these voices were roughly forcing their way out. Her cropped hair and bony androgynous look are perfect for the timeless, suffering and ambiguous presence of Tiresias, the blind prophet who has been both genders and through whose eyes we see the squalid, futile sex that emphasises the isolation in this wasteland. Warner had worried, at first, about whether you could take people so swiftly on such a cryptic journey through such difficult terrain. The inference she has drawn from the emotional impact it unfailingly makes is of "how slowly audiences are usually taken through things".

At some as yet unspecified date, the production will end its life in London, the city which the poem makes the paradigm of all cities and whose commuters ("The crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many / I had not thought death had undone so many") are likened to Dante's spiritual dead in the Inferno. The vast chambers of the new British Library, before the books are put in, is one of the sites, permission permitting, that Warner has earmarked as a possible space for the London staging. Were this to coincide with a projected revival of the St Pancras Project in July, it would mean that Warner was slowly colonising King's Cross. She jokes that she should set up a concurrent production in the Red Light district ("You could have the critics cruising by in cars. Do you know any cruisers . . ?") and I suggest that she would then have become to this patch of non-theatre land what Bill Kenwright, no less, is to Shaftesbury Avenue. A distinctly piquant but not untypical piece of frontier-shifting.

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