 The­atre Mar­i­anne El­liott tells Rachel Cooke about tak­ing Sond­heim’s Com­pany to the West End

As War Horse di­rec­tor Mar­i­anne El­liott brings the Sond­heim mu­si­cal Com­pany to the West End, she ex­plains why rein­vent­ing his main char­ac­ter was nerve-rack­ing, and why – de­spite be­ing born a Lon­doner – her out­look will be for­ever north­ern

The Observer - The New Review - - Agenda - Words by Rachel Cooke Por­trait by Suki Dhanda

In Fin­ish­ing the Hat, the first vol­ume of his col­lected lyrics, Stephen Sond­heim sums up what he calls the “no­tion” of his 1970 mu­si­cal, Com­pany, in two sen­tences. “A man with no emo­tional com­mit­ments re­assesses his life on his 35th birth­day by re­view­ing his re­la­tion­ships with his mar­ried ac­quain­tances and girl­friends,” he writes. He then adds, some­what tartly: “That is the en­tire plot.”

Those who re­vere Sond­heim swoon be­fore Com­pany: we love the fact that it takes place not over a pe­riod of time, but dur­ing an ex­tended mo­ment in the mind of its lead­ing char­ac­ter; it in­cludes some of his great­est songs, among them Marry Me a Lit­tle and Be­ing Alive. But al­most half a cen­tury af­ter its first pro­duc­tion there is perhaps a prob­lem at its heart. In 2018, no one much cares if a man is sin­gle at 35, least of all the man him­self. In fact, think about it too hard, and Com­pany’s “no­tion” might seem a touch creepy.

“This man, sleep­ing around with all these women,” says Mar­i­anne El­liott, whose new pro­duc­tion of the mu­si­cal will open in London next month. “He’s not re­ally in­ter­ested in them. He’s try­ing to get them into bed. Af­ter #MeToo, it might feel a bit… odd.” If she sounds vague as she says this – she frowns a lit­tle as she talks – it’s only be­cause all this feels rather dis­tant now: a knot for oth­ers to un­pick, not her. In her pro­duc­tion, you see, commitment-shy Bobby has be­come commitment-shy Bob­bie – a switch of gen­der that, three weeks into re­hearsals, she al­ready feels to be so ab­so­lutely right it’s some­times hard to imag­ine it any other way.

El­liott would love to claim this bril­liant idea as her own, but the truth is that it came from her busi­ness part­ner, Chris Harper, with whom she runs the pro­duc­tion com­pany, El­liott and Harper.

“We were talk­ing about the things we’d al­ways wanted to do,” she says. “He was in Amer­ica – his sur­ro­gate twins had been born pre­ma­turely – and he was walk­ing to and from the hospi­tal lis­ten­ing to Com­pany, which he knew I’d al­ways loved, as he went along. One day, he rang and said: why don’t you make him a woman? Well, I am in­ter­ested in women pro­tag­o­nists, and in women who are get­ting older. We’re not re­ally rep­re­sented, and you feel of less and less value. Then again, I didn’t want to do it just for the sake of do­ing it. It had to mean some­thing – and of course some other char­ac­ters would have to switch gen­der, too, if it was go­ing to work prop­erly.”

The more she thought about it, though, the more ob­vi­ous it seemed. A woman who is 35 can’t help but feel un­der a cer­tain amount of pres­sure to set­tle down. She will be asked if she wants chil­dren. It will be sug­gested to her that she is just be­ing fussy. Even as she en­joys her ca­reer, her friend­ships, her sex life, she will be told that a com­pro­mise must be made, that time is run­ning out. El­liott, surely the most ac­claimed and tal­ented di­rec­tor of her gen­er­a­tion, al­ready knew Sond­heim a lit­tle. They met af­ter he saw her pro­duc­tion of Ge­orge Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan at the National The­atre in 2007; there hav­ing been some talk of her di­rect­ing West Side Story [Sond­heim wrote the lyrics], she went for din­ner at his house in New York, which was “ter­ri­fy­ing… though he told me bril­liant sto­ries about Katharine Hep­burn, who lived next door”. She knew, then, that he would prob­a­bly be open to lis­ten­ing to her ideas, but she also knew that he would take some per­suad­ing. “He’s so spe­cific. Ev­ery­thing he writes sup­ports the char­ac­ter’s psy­chol­ogy. And when we first talked, he wasn’t sure. He’d pre­vi­ously been in­volved in a work­shop in which all the char­ac­ters had be­come gay men, and he had said no, then. He didn’t think it worked.”

She asked if she might do a work­shop, too, which she would film and send to him. “So that’s what we did. We had a week, and Ros­alie [Craig, who will play Bob­bie in her new pro­duc­tion] was in it, and it was amaz­ing. Af­ter­wards, I rang him, and I said: will you please just watch it with some women in the room, and some younger peo­ple? He said that he would, and he did – and once he’d seen it, he told us that we should go on with it. Cer­tain things didn’t work, then, and he wanted to think about them. But in the end, it was re­ally just a case of him chang­ing some tiny things in the mu­sic, and the words ‘his’ and ‘hers’ and ‘he’ and ‘she’ be­ing swapped around. We haven’t changed much. The key was to re­spect Ge­orge Furth’s words [Furth, Sond­heim’s long­time col­lab­o­ra­tor, who died in 2008, wrote the book].” Her pro­duc­tion will, she says, be “quite Alice in Won­der­land… we’re re­ally push­ing the idea of what’s go­ing on in Bob­bie’s head. On stage, she walks through quite a lot of doors.”

When will Sond­heim get to see the pro­duc­tion? It is said that he can be se­ri­ously scary in re­hearsals.

“He’ll be there at the dress re­hearsal, and at the first preview. We’ve had some healthy de­bates al­ready, but to be fair, he has also said: ‘Mar­i­anne, I am a man, and I am 88, and you have to guide me. I don’t nec­es­sar­ily see the world in the way you do.’ Still, it is very nerve-rack­ing. A bit like work­ing with Tony Kush­ner [in 2017, El­liott staged Kush­ner’s epic An­gels in Amer­ica at the National The­atre and on Broad­way to huge ac­claim].” She makes a funny, ag­o­nised noise half­way be­tween a laugh and a low moan. “If he says any­thing I agree with, then bril­liant – and peo­ple say he gives very good notes. If there’s any­thing I don’t agree with… we’ll just have to have that con­ver­sa­tion.”

At the mo­ment, though, she is feel­ing con­fi­dent. “It’s a 3D art form. You never know what some­thing is go­ing to be like prop­erly un­til you get it fully up on its feet. But ev­ery­thing I’ve seen is so ex­cit­ing. The mu­sic is amaz­ing. The scenes are very funny. I’ve got the most fan­tas­tic cast [among its other mem­bers are Jonathan Bai­ley, Mel Giedroyc and – a huge coup, given that not so long ago she said she had sworn off mu­si­cal the­atre for ever – the Broad­way star Patti LuPone].”

El­liott and I talk in a re­hearsal space in South­wark, south London, dur­ing her lunch hour. I can see, on a makeshift stage, sev­eral of the afore­men­tioned doors; on one wall are pho­to­graphs of Bunny Christie’s sleek de­signs

for the show. She is the first fe­male di­rec­tor to win two Tony awards – for War Horse and The Cu­ri­ous In­ci­dent of the Dog in the Night-Time, both of which be­gan their stage lives in the National The­atre, where she was an as­so­ciate di­rec­tor un­til 2017 – and, at 51, a long way from her own sin­gle years (she mar­ried the ac­tor Nick Sidi in 2002; they have one daugh­ter). But di­rect­ing Com­pany has made her think again about that time – just as she hopes it will make her au­di­ence think about their lives.

“Men don’t have to worry about these things, do they? There is a struc­tural un­fair­ness. My 30s were ma­jor, work-wise, and all my life I’d said: I’m not go­ing to get mar­ried, and I’m def­i­nitely not hav­ing chil­dren ei­ther be­cause I want a ca­reer. I thought the two were mu­tu­ally ex­clu­sive. When I met Nick, of course, I felt dif­fer­ently. Even so, when some­one older than me in the the­atre said: ‘You’d bet­ter get on with it now if you want kids’, I re­mem­ber think­ing: oh, my God, right. I was ter­ri­fied my ca­reer would go down the drain. I still to this day think that I didn’t have a sec­ond child be­cause it would com­pro­mise my ca­reer. I don’t re­gret that I didn’t; we’re such a great tri­an­gle, I can’t imag­ine any­thing dif­fer­ent now. But I know that was the de­ci­sion in my head.”

Things are, she be­lieves, chang­ing for women in the the­atre, and fairly rapidly. There are so many more fe­male di­rec­tors than there used to be. “But I think it will be in­ter­est­ing when they start hav­ing ba­bies. We’re not well paid. There’s no child­care, and there are times when it’s an al­most round-the-clock job.” Still, this new gen­er­a­tion of women has al­ready helped to al­ter the at­mos­phere. “I re­mem­ber when I started. I as­sisted a di­rec­tor who had pre­vi­ously used to ring a bell to start or stop a scene in re­hearsals, and even to get the ac­tors to be quiet. That’s what they used to be like. Yes, im­pe­ri­ous. It’s less about ego or show­ing how clever you are now. It’s no longer sim­ply an in­tel­lec­tual ex­er­cise.”

What does she make of #MeToo? “I think it’s the be­gin­ning of a sea change. It is en­abling peo­ple to say: that is not ac­cept­able. I know some­one who not so long ago was in a com­pro­mised sit­u­a­tion through­out a whole day – and they didn’t leave, or say any­thing. But now we’ve cre­ated a lan­guage, and when peo­ple speak, ev­ery­one else will un­der­stand.”

She ac­cepts that for all that she has to say about the in­vis­i­bil­ity of the mid­dleaged woman, this is a bril­liant time for her; you would call it her zenith if you weren’t con­vinced that there’s vastly more to come. The prob­lem is that it doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily feel this way from her side. When she turned 50, all she wanted to do was “close the door and get un­der the ta­ble with a bot­tle of wine”. She takes noth­ing for granted. For one thing, it is so easy to fail in the the­atre. “I al­ways say to my cast: this [re­hearsal] room is gen­uinely safe. It’s all right to fail. In fact, you have to keep fail­ing. If you don’t, you might not find what you need in the end.” For an­other, she is al­ways in touch with the child she once was, and that girl could never have imag­ined how – or how well – her life would work out in the end. Even as a teenager, the­atre was the last thing she wanted to do.

El­liott grew up in Stock­port, the younger daugh­ter of Michael El­liott, the di­rec­tor and co-founder of the Royal Ex­change the­atre in Manch­ester, and Ros­alind Knight, the ac­tor. Her par­ents’ mar­riage was com­pli­cated and not al­ways happy, and she re­mem­bers her­self as a silent, watch­ful lit­tle girl who spent a lot of time sit­ting un­der the fam­ily din­ing ta­ble lis­ten­ing to what was go­ing on above her. “She’s with me all the time,” she says of this child. “But she’s quite in­struc­tive, too. It made me in­ter­ested in lan­guage – and I don’t mean spo­ken lan­guage. I mean in what was re­ally go­ing on. I was young; I didn’t un­der­stand a lot of the con­ver­sa­tions I could hear, but I started pick­ing up what was not in the spo­ken word. I’m still fas­ci­nated by peo­ple in that way. I watch them. I of­ten think: why did they do that? And that’s what you want an au­di­ence to feel, too. You want it to won­der: what’s re­ally go­ing on here?” She rel­ishes sub­text, what she calls “the ut­ter del­i­cacy” of the in­ter­play be­tween words and move­ment and si­lence; where the magic of the­atre hap­pens.

Her fa­ther left when she was 15, and for a year she re­fused to speak to him. They had not long been rec­on­ciled – she was by then 17 – when he died (he had kid­ney dis­ease). No one, she says, spoke to her about his death and, un­able to “metabolise” it her­self, it took her a decade to re­cover. “I can hon­estly say I was in a pretty bad state of mourn­ing for 10 years, though no one would have no­ticed. But then I went [af­ter Hull Univer­sity, where she read drama, and var­i­ous other jobs] to the Royal Ex­change as an as­sis­tant di­rec­tor, which was ex­tra­or­di­nary, re­ally, be­cause it was a the­atre I’d never re­ally been able to step in be­fore; it was just so po­tent.” Un­be­known to her, at least at first, the of­fice where she now worked had pre­vi­ously be­longed to her fa­ther. “And it was so weird. I just felt this weight lift­ing. Maybe I felt close to him, sud­denly. I don’t know. I had never known him as a di­rec­tor. I’d never been to his re­hearsals, or even to his shows. But now I was sit­ting in his of­fice.” Does she ever wish he could come to her re­hearsals and first nights? “God, no.” She shakes her head. “I don’t think I would have been a di­rec­tor at all if he hadn’t died. [His death] was ter­ri­ble, but it was pretty re­leas­ing. He was a gi­ant in my life, and I needed that gi­ant not to be there.”

She is proud of her north­ern roots; when her hus­band ac­cused her the other day of not be­ing a real north­erner (she was born in London), she was indig­nant. “Manch­ester made me,” she says. “I moved there when I was eight, and I un­der­stood the codes – or I un­der­stood them bet­ter than the ones at home. Manch­ester is very front foot, con­fi­dent, out there, bla­tant. That was the op­po­site to my fam­ily back­ground, but that was also hugely re­leas­ing. I got to love it, and I still do.” It is a love she has put into her work in var­i­ous ways, most no­tably when she staged Port, the Stock­port-set play of her friend and long­time col­lab­o­ra­tor, Si­mon Stephens, at the National The­atre in 2013.

Does she miss the National The­atre? (It hasn’t been long: Com­pany is only El­liott and Harper’s third pro­duc­tion.) “I miss the re­sources. But other­wise, no, it has been lib­er­at­ing. I don’t have to worry about the build­ing or board meet­ings, and the pos­si­bil­i­ties are ex­cit­ing. It is tough out there, but War Horse and Cu­ri­ous In­ci­dent taught Chris and me that there is a hunger for the­atre that is chal­leng­ing, and this the­atre can also be com­mer­cial.” How thrilling, though, that her fi­nal piece for the National The­atre was An­gels in Amer­ica, an epic pro­duc­tion that was by ev­ery mea­sure ex­tra­or­di­nary. “I feel re­ally proud of it,” she says. “I think: Oh my fuck­ing God, I did that. It’s so long and de­mand­ing and lay­ered. I mean, it’s al­most im­pos­si­ble to do. Some­thing re­ally hap­pened there. Peo­ple queued overnight for tick­ets. When one of the pre­views ran late, and the sec­ond in­ter­val ended up hap­pen­ing at about mid­night, ev­ery sin­gle per­son came back in af­ter­wards.” She throws me a con­fid­ing look. “But… we re­ally need three days to talk about it. And a lot of wine.”

MeToo is en­abling peo­ple... We’ve cre­ated a lan­guage, and when peo­ple speak, ev­ery­one else will un­der­stand

Com­pany is at the Giel­gud the­atre, London W1 from 26 Septem­ber to 22 De­cem­ber

Mar­i­anne El­liott pho­tographed at the Jer­wood Space, London, for the Ob­server.

LEFT El­liott’s 2007 pro­duc­tion of War Horse.Graeme Robert­son for the Ob­server LEFT Mar­i­anne El­liott, right, with Ros­alie Craig and Richard Fleesh­man in re­hearsals for Com­pany.He­len May­banks BE­LOW Andrew Garfield and Nathan Ste­wart-Jar­rett in An­gels in Amer­ica, 2017.

LEFT Ni­amh Cu­sack and Luke Tread­away in The Cu­ri­ous In­ci­dent of the Dog in the Night­Time, at the National in 2012.

Manuel Har­lan

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