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Profile: Disturbing the picnic: Deborah Warner: The director who shocked Glyndebourne is bold, emotional but no iconoclast, says Geraldine Bedell

THE AUDIENCE booed at Glyndebourne on Sunday night. They hadn't got dressed up in black tie to see Mozart massacred by some young woman director on only her second opera, who thought it clever to put the singers in modern dress on a brutalist grey set, then have them jive and fondle a plaster madonna. Don Giovanni is supposed to feature tricorn hats, wigs, big dresses and rococo decor, especially at Glyndebourne. Deborah Warner, they grumbled, had no respect for tradition. She had overlaid her bleak, minimalist vision on Mozart, and very uncomfortable it was, too.

Warner is fast becoming a controversial figure. Earlier this year she reassigned a number of lines from one character to another in a production of Samuel Beckett's Footfalls, at the Garrick Theatre. After the playwright's heir, Edward Beckett, saw the production in preview, his agent threatened to slap an injunction on the play if the lines were not restored to their rightful owner. Warner complied, but failed to pacify the Beckett estate, whose trustees objected that certain stage directions had also been ignored. A European tour and a projected television version of the play were cancelled.

These incidents suggest that Warner is a woman of iconoclastic ideas, which she is determined to impose on works of art and audiences. Almost certainly, this could hardly be further from the truth.

The booing at Glyndebourne, as the theatre's general director admitted, would not have happened at the English National Opera or on the South Bank. The noise came principally from the most expensive seats, inclining music buffs to sniff that those who could afford to pay most knew least. The champagne- swilling Glyndebourne audience, it was said, wants a certain kind of comfortable opera (Mozart, Rossini, Tchaikovsky), not too challengingly presented. The reviews, by contrast (with the odd exception), were very favourable. Rupert Christiansen in the Spectator thought Warner's the best Don Giovanni of the 19 he has seen; Andrew Clements in the Guardian said she dissected the characters 'and their emotional switchbacks with surgical accuracy'.

David Freeman, artistic director of Opera Factory, felt Sunday's reaction shed light not merely on the Glyndebourne audience, but on opera-goers generally. 'Sometimes at Glyndebourne you do feel the opera is a bit of an interruption to the picnic. But opera audiences aren't like theatre audiences, who regard a certain amount of intellectual debate as de rigueur. Most complaints about opera are complaints about the costumes.'

As far as Footfalls is concerned, Warner insisted that changes were made simply to convey the spirit of the piece - an argument that would seem to be supported by her history. She made her reputation by sticking up for the complete text of Titus Andronicus, a notoriously difficult play which is almost never performed without radical cutting. And a previous defiance of an author's stage directions, in Hedda Gabler, was widely heralded as a revelation of character.

Warner's method is not to impose a notion, but to discover the emotional truth of a work; she likes to be seen as a cipher, someone who facilitates exploration by her actors. But, of course, it's not quite this simple and, ultimately, it is Deborah Warner's idea of emotional truth we are getting. Her directing has been described as both feminine and unacademic, and both labels are partially accurate. But both also over-complicate what she does, which is to throw herself at a very complicated piece of drama and see how she feels. Fortunately, she is very intelligent, and intuitive, and it works.

SHE WAS born in 1959, to Quaker parents, and grew up in Burford, Oxfordshire, where her father was an antiques dealer. She went first to Sidcot, a Quaker boarding school, then to St Clare's School in Oxford, where, though still a sixth- former, she got involved in undergraduate productions, doing props and costumes. She enjoyed it so much that she signed up for a three-year course in stage management at the Central School of Speech and Drama, London.

This, she fondly imagined, would turn her into a director. It didn't, but she went to the theatre as often as six nights a week and saw everything. This did turn her into a director, principally because she so disliked what she saw.

At the age of 21, she graduated, and founded her own theatre company, Kick, for a few performances of The Good Person Of Sichuan in Oxford. The production was a success, so Kick reconvened the following year to take Buchner's Woyzeck to the Edinburgh Festival. 'We were about the actor and the text, nothing else,' Warner said. 'We didn't have any money, any sets, or any breakfast.'

Kick returned to Edinburgh for the next five years and Warner's bold, unfussy productions impressed the critics. In 1985, her King Lear won a Time Out Theatre Award, and a Drama magazine Special Achievement Award.

The following year, the RSC invited her to direct Brian Cox in Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare's equivalent of a video nasty. She kept all the butchery, which can so easily seem melodramatic, and it seemed full of anguish. In 1988 she was appointed resident director at the RSC, and directed King John and Electra, for which she won both the Olivier Award and the Evening Standard Award for best director.

With Electra, Warner embarked on two relationships that were to prove vital to her - with the actress Fiona Shaw and the designer Hildegarde Bechtler. She has described her relationship with Shaw as 'like a marriage, and the best of marriages because we expect more and more of each other'. They worked together again on The Good Person of Sichuan at the National, and Footfalls. Shaw describes their relationship as based on 'mutual entertainment'.

Warner worked again with Bechtler on King Lear (with Brian Cox), on a German-language production of Coriolanus at Salzburg, and on both the operas she has directed. 'My work attracted her because she didn't see it as stage design. She is very anti-stage design,' says Bechtler. 'The design of Don Giovanni, as of all our other work, emerged. We didn't start off with the idea that it must be in modern dress. It would have interested us very much doing it in 18th- century costumes. That was just how it had to be to give the singers certain other freedoms we needed them to have. Deborah never starts with an idea, she starts with very strong emotions, and so do I'

The works Warner has chosen to direct all offer the emotions room to move; they are pieces to which she can apply what Terry Hands has called her 'blow torch' approach. Often, they demand virtuoso performances from central characters. She likes an operatic range of emotions, but resisted opera itself for a long time: Nicholas Payne, artistic director of Opera North, began pursuing her in 1987, when he saw Kick Theatre's production of King Lear. 'There was nothing faddy or design-dominated about what was on stage,' he recalls. 'I knew that if I could pair her with the right piece, she could winkle the truth out of it.' She eventually directed Wozzeck for Opera North last year, to rave reviews. Tom Sutcliffe, in the Guardian, commented that it took a woman director to 'adjust the moral focus of Berg's Wozzeck'. She interpreted the opera not as a class parable, but naturalistically, giving it a new level of feeling.

Richard Eyre, artistic director of the Royal National Theatre, describes Warner's method as 'a dogged, almost blinkered determination to get to the heart of a play. She would probably describe it herself as organic'. She also works very hard: 12 hours a day, seven days a week sometimes; and she doesn't give up once the audience arrives. Unlike most directors (whose attitude she finds odd) she sits through performances, making notes, watching for boring bits, tending the production through its run.

She can sound earnest, but the word 'fun' crops up whenever her friends talk about her. She is ironic, easily amused and takes long periods off work. She is probably more upset by the booing than those who think she is out to shock imagine (she was declining interviews last week). But the offers will keep coming in.

(Photograph omitted)

Michael White's review: page 25