Theatrefolk, they're so promiscuous. Oh, really? A glance at the working lives of current major theatre talents confounds that old canard. Stephen Daldry's greatest hits have been with his partner, designer Ian MacNeil, lighting designer Rick Fisher and composer Stephen Warbeck; Deborah Warner has worked with Fiona Shaw and designer Hildegard Bechtler for years; while David Buckland's design input has been central to the development of the work of Siobhan Davies, the Queen of British dance.
Freelance director Phyllida Lloyd is always adding new talent to her list of collaborators - actress Kathryn Hunter is assisting on the movement direction on Lloyd's latest production - but whether she's at Opera North (Gloriana, La Boheme), the National Theatre (What the Butler Saw, The Way of the World), or the Royal Court (Six Degrees of Separation, Hysteria), key names crop up again and again. "It's Phyllida's extended family," says designer Anthony Ward, cheerfully, "a jigsaw puzzle of people all connecting at certain times in different ways." Ward is one of a team comprising designer Mark Thompson, choreographer Jonathan Lunn, composer Gary Yershon and lighting designer Rick Fisher. As we speak, not only are Lloyd, Ward, Lunn and Yershon working on the rarely staged first draft of Verdi's Macbeth for Covent Garden, they are also in the final stages of rehearsal for the first major London production of Federico Garcia Lorca's Dona Rosita, at Islington's Almeida Theatre, with a Rolls-Royce cast headed by Eleanor Bron, Celia Imrie and Phoebe Nicholls.
Yershon has every reason to be there, and not just because the play is described as "a poem in various gardens with scenes of song and dance". He began his career as an actor and musician and met Lloyd at Cheltenham's Everyman Theatre in 1986. Three years later, when she became the associate director at Bristol Old Vic, he joined her there. It was during that time that Lloyd wrote Yershon a letter which caused him to rethink his entire career and which illustrates her ability to bring out the best in her collaborators. "In it, she said if she were starting a theatre company I would be at the top of her list as a composer. As an actor, I wouldn't even be on her 'B' list. It was the best advice I've ever had."
Together with Ward, the three of them created a succession of hits they all look back on with enormous affection. "I find myself occasionally having to clamp down on bouts of nostalgia," sighs Lloyd. The season began with The Comedy Of Errors, a visually arresting and electrifyingly funny production in which design, score and performance complemented each other to a remarkable degree. They followed that up with A Streetcar Named Desire, Oliver Twist ("which almost brought the theatre to its knees... grown men wept during the nightmare technical rehearsals," she laughs) and Dona Rosita.
At the Almeida, with Ward and Yershon back on board, there's a suggestion that they have come full circle, but they're anxious to explain that this production bears absolutely no resemblance to their first. Eight years on, not only would it be foolish and fruitless to try to recapture the past, this production has taken its lead from the distinctive atmosphere of the Almeida's theatre space.
In fact, Dona Rosita was never due to happen. The original plan was to stage Alfred Jarry's notorious Ubu Roi, a play whose opening reference to shit caused a riot at its 1896 premiere. However, when Lloyd found herself unable to cast it - "like hurtling towards a production of King Lear without your Lear" - they switched horses midstream and opted instead for the Lorca, in a new version by translator of the moment Peter Oswald, who rose to prominence with the late James Menzies-Kitchin at BAC; and recently translated the Japanese Fair Ladies at a Game of Poem Cards for the National. But why do it again? "It's a beautiful play," replies Lloyd, "but it doesn't seem to have any significance to an English understanding of Lorca because they just associate Lorca with rural tragedy and this is so much not in that territory. It's drawn more from his personal life. He's supposed to have identified more closely with Dona Rosita than any of his other characters. We've been waiting for the last eight years for someone to do something with it. There were rumours that it was going to be done by the RSC, the National flirted with it, and for a while I felt quite superstitious about doing plays again. Then when I began doing revivals of opera productions, I became obsessed by the possibilities and realised that was when you began working for real."
Unlike the cumbersome machinery surrounding an opera house - budgeted, booked and advertised years in advance - last minute U-turns for a theatre on the scale of the Almeida are possible. Working simultaneously on Dona Rosita and Macbeth for theatres of such differing demands throws Lloyd's collaborative process into sharp relief. Macbeth has been in the planning stage since the late summer. Choreographer Lunn has been slipping in and out of design meetings from the word go and has watched Lloyd and Ward create and reject successive concepts, with entire scale models being produced and rejected. Dona Rosita, by necessity, has been much faster. The current working pattern consists of three sessions a day on the Lorca and then "midnight feasts to discuss Banquo's ghost... or, in our case, Banquo's ghosts".
The advantage of a long-standing collaborative team is always assumed to be the short-cuts. Ward is quick to explode that myth. "Definitely not the case. I feel the journeys we go on get longer and longer. It's getting more detailed and, I think, more uncomfortable because you're getting pushed further." The shared history and continuity is, however, peculiarly stimulating. "It has developed like crazy over the years. It's not comfortable, that's for sure. Familiar, it is. Rewarding, it is... but when I say that, there's a bit of love/ hate about it too. You go through even more brambles and prickles than ever before and you think 'surely it should be getting easier?'"
Shared trust allows them to make greater demands of each other than would be possible in new working relationships, starting each production much further down the line. Lloyd lists the psychological advantages. "Knowing all each others' weak spots, recognising the patterns, not succumbing to massive anxiety when certain quagmires or whirlpools are encountered because one may have fallen into them before and managed to scrabble one's way out." Lunn sums it up as "a kind of long-term relationship" but one determined by "having affairs outside. It acts as a balance to other work I do as a choreographer in my own right. Suddenly I'm in a world of shared responsibility." He also feels that were he only working with this team, the effect could be stifling. "It's a case of wanting it both ways."
Lloyd is careful to dispel suspicions of glutinous mutual admiration, pointing to huge tensions, frustrations, anxieties. "Mark Thompson claims he was once asked to list which directors he liked working with. He told me I was on both lists, those he loved and those he hated." The latter feeling may well have been aroused on their ill-fated National Theatre production of Pericles. The dynamic created over a long rehearsal process proved unworkable within a grand revolve-based design which had to be completed prior to rehearsals. Lloyd's rehearsals, like her entire production process, are highly collaborative, which unseats certain actors who are happier with a more authoritarian approach. She believes in creating an atmosphere in which nothing is sacrosanct, except possibly a text. "In the rehearsal room we can have ideas, change things, replace things, say to each other something isn't good so let's junk it, without having to go into a summit conference to do it." She does admit, though, that the pressure can become too much. "There are times when I have to go home to bed to clear my head when someone has come up with some radical suggestion which means completely turning the thing round."
As a director leaping from show to show, she sees her collaborators as her home. "The rootlessness of the freelance world is not a thing I particularly thrive on, actually. It can be quite a lonely life. Preparing for big new adventures like Covent Garden with a team one knows is a great privilege and makes me feel marginally more secure." Outside commitments permitting, her regular players will be back for more, although Lloyd can't quite define what makes them do it. "Perhaps we celebrate the same kind of theatre or we're aspiring to a common, indefinable something... it's very rare for one of us to recognise something and the others to go, 'I don't see it'. If a moment has a particular meaning, all our eyes light up." She stops and regards me, sphinx-like, but with the trace of a smile. "'Too many cooks spoil the broth' or 'Many hands make light work'? I don't know. Depends which way you look at it"n
'Dona Rosita' opens tonight at the Almeida, London N1 (0171-359 4404). 'Macbeth' opens at Covent Garden on 27 June (0171-304 4000)
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