A Conversation with Director: Jamie Lloyd

Posted on: September 11th, 2012 by Roundabout

Ted Sod, Education Dramaturg, spoke to director Jamie Lloyd about his thoughts on Cyrano de Bergerac.

Ted Sod: Could you tell us where you were born and how you decided to become a theatre director?

Jamie Lloyd: I was born in Poole in Dorset, which is on the south coast of England. We moved further along the coast when my mother remarried, to Hastings. But we always lived in quaint towns by the sea. My father is a truck driver. My mum was once a cleaner. We were a very working class family. I’ve got two brothers and two sisters, and they have vastly different occupations. I’ve been trying to figure out how I got into all of this theatre madness.

TS: Are you in the middle?

JL: I’m the youngest. Even though I didn’t grow up in a theatre family per se, there was a kind of bizarre theatricality. My mum went on to run a fancy dress shop. I used to dress up with my cousins as Michael Jackson and perform shows. We used to stage “Thriller” and make graveyards out of polystyrene blocks. My dad was a talented drummer in a local band and ended up managing a Cliff Richard and the Shadows tribute band. You probably don’t know who Cliff Richard is here in the States, but in London, you would be saying, “That’s hilarious!” There were entertainers in my family. My granddad used to play the spoons and did it incredibly well and intricately. We had all sorts of characters stay with us. One of our lodgers was a snake charmer. I used to play with the snakes in the paddling pool at the back. When my mum remarried, my stepfather did children’s entertainment. He used to dress up as a clown called Uncle Funny who was the most unfunny clown. He was also a kiss-a-gram, which is like a stripper. But instead of being Mr. Universe- a big muscle man- he was “Mr. Puny-verse.” He was this unpleasant tiny, skinny man in his fifties and he would take his clothes off! He used to keep the dwarf rabbits that he used in magic tricks in the living room, and they would poo all over the floor. My mother married yet again (unsurprisingly), and my new stepfather was a guitarist in local bands. It was the most extraordinary childhood you could have conceived!

TS: It sounds like a terrific plot for a movie. When did you get bitten by the bug?

JL: I ended up being in local shows, Pantomimes and things like that. They would always take kids from the local dance and drama school, and I was doing that. I got into a school on a drama scholarship. It was then that I started to act a lot and started going to the theatre on school trips. My parents were very supportive.

TS: Were you very familiar with the play Cyrano de Bergerac when you agreed to direct it?

JL: I’d never read it before and I’ve never seen it. Of course, I knew the story. Everybody forgets that it’s a classic French play because it has become so much a part of everyone’s culture. Some people about the Steve Martin movie, Roxanne, others about the swashbuckling hero played by Jose Ferrer. The play has often been dismissed as a two-dimensional action-rom-com. The work that I have been doing with Soutra Gilmour, who is designing sets and costumes, is as detailed as possible. These are based on real people. Cyrano actually walked the streets of 17th Century Paris. If you consider that, you can’t dress him with a kind of flamboyant, phony theatricality. He’s got to wear real clothes. You’ve got to give him a costume that is worn in. You have to populate the society around him with real people, with thorough back stories. There’s a real texture and grime to their lives. There is a sweaty underbelly to the world that we’re creating.

TS: Evidently the real Cyrano also had a big nose.

JL: Yes, apparently. Although he was probably less appalled and embarrassed by it than Rostand makes the character in the play, if at all. If you’re going to do a play based on a real person, even if that play veers away from the truth and fact, your impulse is not to make him an unknowable icon. Make him a flawed human being like the rest of us. Make him a man with a deformity who is struggling to come to terms with something as prominent as that nose. Plus, what is interesting to me is seeing Cyrano- the play- as a piece for our times. All over the world at the moment is a sense of the underdog finding a voice. It reminds me of the people on the streets with the Occupy movement and in the Middle East with the Arab Spring, or the women of Pussy Riot in Russia. There’s a sense of finding your voice and not bowing down to a morally corrupt elitism or any kind of dictatorship. What’s interesting about Cyrano’s society is there’s an extreme power at the top, led by the Catholic Church and Cardinal Richelieu. He was this incredibly powerful figure because he took the power of the Church and combined it, as a political figure, with the power of the state. This extraordinary power resided in one man. The corruption that goes with that kind of power, and the fear that it instills in the people below you, is incredible. So for someone like Cyrano, who is a free thinker, to say, “I will not bow down. I will not bend backwards to appease these people. I will not rely on having a patron to fund my art, to change my words to suit them. No, thank you!” is incredibly brave. It really meant something to say something political in that era. It was dangerous. It reminds me of what’s going on in many countries in the world at the moment, and it gives the production a purpose.

TS: Cyrano is a soldier as well.

JL: What’s great about it is that you’re matching political thought with a beautiful lyricism, because he is a creative soul, plus an audacious military spirit that gives him a kind of physical aggression. I find that amazing combination very intriguing. To belittle that by just making him an Errol Flynn cartoon character, a stereotype, would be a real shame.

TS: I’m curious why you think Cyrano doesn’t tell Roxane that he loves her. You’ve described a man who is self-possessed, who understands who he is, and yet, when it comes to this woman that he adores, he can’t tell her the truth.

JL: I do think it genuinely has a lot to do with his nose, this terrible disfigurement that comes with a level of shame. I think we can all understand that as human beings. We either feel too short, too ugly, too whatever it might be to live confidently in the world at all times -- especially nowadays where we’ve become so obsessed with appearance and image. And people are rewarded for their beauty. Doug Hodge and I think that Cyrano is, ultimately, the shyest man in the world. To combat that, there’s this incredible aggression, but at the heart of it he is deeply wounded by this deformity. Because it is all hanging out, as it were, it means he can speak his mind, too. No wonder he's become a political animal, a revolutionary, a voice for the underdog. There's nowhere to hide! Everything is motored by that nose.

TS: Talk to me about collaborating with Douglas Hodge. You both recently worked on a well-regarded revival of  John Osborne’s Inadmissible Evidence.  What is the magic there?

JL: I think that he is a gifted actor. There's something very exciting about being in a rehearsal room with an actor who literally offers you a hundred thousand choices. He’s so dexterous and he thinks so quickly that he’s able to spin on a dime and literally say, “What about if I did this? Or what about if I jump on the table here? Or I could come over here? What if I think like this?" And that’s really exciting because, as a director, you can take the best of those ideas and pursue particular choices and distill those and push him in a particular direction and encourage him to take one option or discard another. The great thing about working with a collaborator like Doug is that we’ll get together and read the script and we haven’t even designed the play. I was able to work with Soutra on the design based upon the ideas that were being generated in my head as Doug was reading the lines.

TS: When you held auditions for the rest of the cast, what did you need besides actors who are well-spoken?

JL: The good thing about Ranjit Bolt’s translation is that he writes at the speed of thought. People in this play speak as they think and think as they speak. It’s all on the line. A pause is an exception rather than a rule. A pause has to be earned. As actors, you have to be incredibly nimble. It has to be played at a terrific, furious speed, which is exciting for an audience. All of the actors have to match the speed of the play, particularly because the tone is set by Doug. If he leads in that mode and everyone else is too considered, it will be this languorous, steady, safe company and this daring, tour-de-force at the front, which makes it completely uneven. Cyrano isn’t just about Cyrano and his journey. That is the central narrative, but it is populated by a true ensemble. If you don’t have that, then you might as well do a one-man show. That would be a wasted opportunity, especially with this exceptionally talented cast.

TS: As a director, is one of your goals to create an ensemble that looks as if they have been working together forever?

JL: Yes. It’s trying to create an environment in rehearsal that is as safe and as enjoyable as possible. I always say that there is no such thing as a stupid question or a stupid suggestion. If you are playing Cadet #5 and you have three lines, what a real shame to spend all your time in the rehearsal room feeling that you are a spare part and there just to decorate the set. If each and every person is telling the story then, sitting in the audience, your eye can wander from the main thrust of the action, from whoever has a particular line at a particular moment, and look over at someone else on the stage and see a real thought in that person’s head. They’re not just drifting away and thinking about what they’re going to eat at McDonald’s after the matinee. It makes for a very detailed on-stage tapestry.

TS: How would you define the genre of Cyrano de Bergerac?

JL: It’s a very hard play to define. It’s not melodrama, it’s not a boulevard comedy, it’s not a heartbreaking tragedy, and it’s not a naturalistic drama in the mode of Ibsen, who was Rostand’s contemporary. And yet it’s all of those things. He puts absolutely every aspect of all of those genres into one play. It is a bit like directing five plays in one. One minute you're rehearsing a love story, the next a visceral battle scene. I think it’s often called heroic comedy, which belittles its great humanity and its insight into the behaviour of a flawed human being. It’s very witty too. Ranjit Bolt’s translation has a kind of English vaudevillian wit to it. The combination of Ranjit’s words and Doug’s genius is very exciting in terms of the comedy in the play. Doug is also able to go into these very, very dark recesses. He draws you in, and it’s incredibly moving. It’s extraordinary to have someone who has a great lightness of touch and really make you laugh, who can then plunge into something very dark and break your heart. He also has a masterful control of the language and the verse. He adds that panache, that kind of excitement and dynamism and sheer energy. How many actors can really do all of that?

TS: How do you define panache?

JL: Historically, the literal translation is the great plume that you would wear on your hat, an extra decoration. In a way, that sums it up for me. Panache is that extra bit -- that added little measure -- that little sparkle on the top of something that might be brilliant already. It’s something that makes you stand out even more.

TS: What is it about the play that audiences have responded to for centuries?

JL: It is incredibly entertaining. There is a bit of everything: love, comedy, tragedy, conflict, song. Just like that old cliché, “There’s something for everyone!” But I do think it comes back to this idea of Cyrano being someone that we can all understand. Even if you are the most beautiful man or woman in the world, you are going to feel like there is something missing at some point in your life. That's the curse of being human. It is something profound that we can tap into, whoever we are. There is a deep connection with the character's insecurities, an empathy. I hope our audience will draw their own parallels with our own time, especially in terms of the play's political resonance.

TS: Language is a huge part of the play’s machinery, but it seems as if language is taken for granted these days.

JL: We don’t even spell correctly anymore. We write in shorthand in text messages and tweets. We write “great” with two letters and a number: "GR8". There’s no relish, no passion. Something that Doug and I share is a great fondness for wordplay, for rhythms, for poetry. I think that’s what Roxane is trying to do in the play. She wants to define something that is so intangible, this thing called love with a capital L, with literature and art. Love is so indefinable, so unreachable. How can you truly define that experience, that mode of being, that situation you find yourself in with somebody else? To try and use language to describe that is thrilling, I think. And that’s what she’s after. That's what excites her, and I hope it will excite our audience, too.

Related Categories:
2008-2009 Season, 2012-2013 Season, A Conversation with, Cyrano de Bergerac

1 Comment
  1. Puck

    November 27, 2012

    Thank you so much for this! It’s always great to get insight into how such a beloved play was built.



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