Lucy Bailey does not do easy Shakespearean productions, certainly not at Shakespeare’s Globe. No well known texts for this director. Romeo And Juliet? Pah! King Lear? Ha! Following a bloody triumphant Titus Andronicus two years ago, which was so gore-soaked it had audience members fainting like flustered teenagers at a Take That concert, she returns this year with another lesser known play from the Bard, Timon Of Athens, writes Matthew Amer.
I ought to admit here, that I might not be painting an entirely accurate picture of Bailey as the gung-ho director who sneers at well known Shakespeares in favour of making historically tough texts more accessible. That is not entirely the case.
“I knew [Globe Artistic Director Dominic Dromgoole] was going to offer me another show,” Bailey explains over an early morning cup of tea in the Globe’s offices, “I was excited about that. I was going to have a year off [following Titus Andronicus] and then come back and do another one. That all felt fantastic. So I was sort of hoping for one of the majors – Macbeth, Hamlet – but no, it was Timon Of Athens. When I read it I thought it was absolutely impenetrable. I thought ‘this is justified as a very very underperformed, unperformable bad play by Shakespeare and I shouldn’t be doing it.’”
Obviously she has changed her mind about the tragedy now – it would be very worrying if she hadn’t – but Bailey is the first to admit that she found Timon a particularly hard piece with which to connect. That was until the turn of the year, when revelation struck her like a feathery bolt from the blue.
Bailey uses words like ‘key’ and ‘unlock’ to describe the way she works with plays, as though their secrets are safely stored away until she gains entry to them. In the case of Timon Of Athens, the key came in the shape of classic Hitchcock thriller, The Birds. The image of the normally docile, worm-loving garden inhabitants and eaters of stale bread transforming into flesh-hungry, vindictive, aggressive carrion struck a chord with the world in which Timon is staged. “I thought that was, in some ways, a metaphor for the society that Timon discusses,” she explains, “that becomes a society of carrion who will prey on all weak, vulnerable victims to the point that there’s nothing called generosity or humanity left.”
She paints a bleak picture of the none-to-cheery late piece by Shakespeare, which concerns the rich Timon who lavishes gifts and extravagances on his friends, only to find that when he falls into financial difficulty, those same acquaintances are less than willing to return the favour. Disgusted with society, he becomes a hermit, but, on discovering gold, begins to receive begging visits from the scum of society and his former friends.
"It becomes a society of carrion who will prey on all weak, vulnerable victims to the point that there’s nothing called generosity or humanity left"
“It’s horribly relevant to today,” Bailey says about the play, which is being staged at a time when every newspaper and television bulletin is packed with demoralising news of the credit crunch and increasing levels of poverty. The power of money and its effect on society is a timeless theme, its relevancy disturbingly obvious.
Amid all this gloom and doom, laughter is intrinsic to Bailey and her way of working. She is lively and talks intelligently, but with an abundance of warmth, humour and fun. When she staged the gore-packed version of Titus Andronicus in 2006, everyone was taken by surprise by the amount of laughter generated from Shakespeare’s bleak death-heavy plot. Hands being chopped off, tongues sliced out and children fed to their mother in pies are not normally the staple of riotous comedy.
She is hoping to work the same trick on the equally bleak story of Timon Of Athens, a character whose world view is ripped apart, leaving him with only bitterness. Again, it is not the most obvious source for laugh out loud humour. To be honest it sounds as funny as finding a wasp’s nest in your pants. Yet Bailey is convinced that “Often, when you think it’s at its darkest, it’s at its funniest,” before going on to make the very optimistic point that “if you’re going to feel very dark about the world, you might as well laugh than cry.”
Audiences who saw Bailey’s much-lauded production of Titus Andronicus will have been struck by the humour, the blood – hopefully not in a literal way – and by the boundary-pushing director’s use of the groundlings’ courtyard space, which saw warriors march through it and great scaffolding towers wheeled around, forcing audiences to move and interact with the production. The expanse of sky above the famous theatre was blocked for the first time in its history by a makeshift roofing system to create a more claustrophobic atmosphere.
There is more of the same in Timon Of Athens. The carrion theme, which can be seen on the show’s striking vulture-heavy poster, has been carried very literally into the production. A large net is being hung above the audience which will become, as Bailey describes it, “a sort of aviary” from which performers will plunge during the show. “They are there to attack, plunder, take, grab money, gold, in an increasingly vulture-like way through the play,” she explains, arms clutching around her for the invisible treasure. “At times I think it will be quite aggressive and you’ll feel the threat of it; at times it will be very still and at other times it will be impacting.”
This is one of the reasons Bailey was so very excited about returning to the Globe, the ability to use its unique space in an exciting, innovative fashion. “If you don’t get charged by the fact that it’s a very different space and the audience relationship is all, then you might as well stop and not bother, in my mind. The theatre’s rooted in street theatre; it’s really just one step off marketplace theatre. That seems to me the excitement of it.”
"If you’re going to feel very dark about the world, you might as well laugh than cry"
Excitement is definitely in the air. The quite sterile meeting room of the Shakespeare’s Globe offices sparkles into life on Bailey’s entrance. There is an energy about her that is eager, effusive and enraptured with her current project. Arms flail demonstratively as she talks and describes. Yet, there is just a hint that underneath all the excitement lies a touch of nerves.
When we meet, the week before Timon Of Athens is due to begin previews, the aviary net has not yet been tested out at the Globe. With matinees and evening performances, there will not be a lot of time to experiment with this very unique piece of staging to ensure that it works in practice rather than just theory. “That’s the reality of a great idea,” she laughs. “I have to stop having them.”
The comparisons between Titus Andronicus and Timon Of Athens are many, and continue with the complete trust she must have in her leading man to find the comedy in the bleakness without underplaying the tragedy; to be aware of that precarious balance. Formerly it was the “marvellous” Douglas Hodge achieving this as Titus. In Timon, Simon Paisley Day has the tough task. “He’s got great comic timing,” says Bailey. “He’s got both ends of the spectrum and that’s why I asked him to do it.” It helps, she says, that they have worked together before. They didn’t have to wade through the awkward getting to know you stage, and could instead stride confidently towards the task at hand.
Returning to work with previous colleagues is a feature of Bailey’s career. Musician Django Bates is a regular collaborator, playwright Nell Leyshon has worked with Bailey on three separate occasions, and Timon designer William Dudley is now on his second collaboration. His first was Titus.
Of course, the working relationship with Dudley is slightly different to the others as they are partners in life as well as theatre. Until Titus came along, the pair had deliberately separated their working and personal lives, refraining from taking jobs together. Though the experience of their first show was “quite stressful”, Bailey admits that “part of the reason we’re together is because we do share an aesthetic and very easy imaginative link, I think, so we can quickly get excited by a certain way of developing a piece.” It makes perfect sense, she says, that they collaborate, provided they set ground rules that don’t get broken.
It is not simply ease of reference and strong relationships that draw Bailey to regular collaborators, but also a sentiment regarded by too many people these days as old fashioned: “I do feel loyal to people who have really given their all to something. If I then get another opportunity, my sense of valuing somebody says ‘okay, that [success] was hugely because of you, let’s now come along and do the next thing if it’s exciting for us to do.’”
"If you don’t get charged by the fact that it’s a very different space and the audience relationship is all, then you might as well stop and not bother"
One performer she has not yet had the opportunity to work with a second time, but who she would be more than happy to direct again, is Hollywood star Val Kilmer, who made his West End debut in Bailey’s production of The Postman Always Rings Twice. “He’s a very interesting, dangerous actor,” Bailey says of the star with a reputation for temperamental behaviour. Though there were rumours at the time that the pair had had ‘discussions’ about the portrayal of Kilmer’s character, Bailey is adamant that “We only had a good time. It was an utter joy. He’s a real dear person.”
Yet there is a hint of regret attached to the episode; not regarding Kilmer’s work ethic, but more to do with the way he was received by the West End’s critics: “We’d done the show in Leeds and it had been absolutely raved about; it comes to London and an absolutely amazing actor comes in to play what is an American role, and yet he gets really attacked for it, which I found very disappointing, that our critics were very short-sighted really and so ungenerous to someone who I thought was truly interesting.”
Critics are, of course, just one of the regular obstacles that lay in the way of directors. To a greater or lesser degree their opinions impact on a director’s career. Another such challenge is the choice of which projects you wish to spend your time directing. Pick them willy nilly and you may end up attached to rather too many poorly received productions; then again, they might pay handsomely. Pick them in the fashion of Bailey, and you have a rather different problem altogether: “I’m often out of work; I’m often poor. It’s a very tough existence as a freelancer, I think, but I do try to keep my integrity about it. I think you do your best work if you connect with the piece. It’s obvious; it must be true for all of us. It’s fundamental, isn’t it? We have to be passionate about what we’re doing. If you don’t have that, you will do bad work, so there’s no point in doing it in my view.”
With my half an hour up, Bailey literally runs from the meeting room, leaving behind a cup of tea she didn’t have time to drink. With her meticulously messy, fly away hair and slightly avian features she is reminiscent of the bird/actor hybrid she is creating for Timon Of Athens, though her speed and drive may make her more roadrunner than vulture. It might be lucky she chooses her productions with such integrity; I have the feeling that, like her feathered counterpart, it would be difficult to keep going at this speed for too long.