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Sunday 7 April 2019

theatrical genius

Riding high

  • Marianne Elliott is stage gold. Her latest production is up for nine Olivier awards this weekend, and she has a string of hit shows behind her
  • But it took her a long time to find her place in theatre, overshadowed by the legacy of her thespian parents
  • Her vision is to put women at the heart of everything she does, and to rethink classic works to give them a sharp, contemporary focus

By Arifa Akbar

On 17 October 2007, a play based on a children’s story about wartime equine heroism held its opening night at the National Theatre. The Olivier stage’s auditorium was packed out. Mike Leigh was there. So was Michael Morpurgo, on whose novel it was based, and the usual posse of critics. It had generated a stir around it, even before this performance, but some of the talk was led by scepticism over the giant puppets that were to be used for horses.

Almost instantly after that first night, War Horse began to be spoken about around water-coolers, especially for the extraordinary puppets that Morpurgo had secretly feared would end up looking like “pantomime horses”. Here was a show for the over-12s that adults couldn’t stop seeing. It transferred to the West End, Broadway and toured the world. The Queen saw it. So did Steven Spielberg, and was so inspired that he made a film version of his own.

It became the kind of “event theatre” that is hard to manufacture. It was also the moment that its co-director, Marianne Elliott, beeped onto the radar as a theatre-maker with serious scope and daring. Almost every show she has produced since has been an “event”.

Marianne Elliott on stage with the cast of ‘War Horse’ in the West End, 2012

Most recently, she coaxed Stephen Sondheim into letting her turn his revered 1970 musical Company upside down. In her hands, his male lead, Bobby, became Bobbie, a post-Bridget Jones commitment-phobe in a sparkly red dress. A gay couple was thrown in and the dialogue switched between the sexes for more twists and inversions.

Elliott’s fall would have been great if the gender-bending had felt clunky or contrived. Instead, Company became the West End’s must-see musical, blazing its way to critical and commercial glory and closing last month to rapturous praise. It is up for nine Olivier awards at the ceremony tonight, and it is now on its way to Broadway.

There had been other high-wire accomplishments before this one. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (2012) was a narratively tricksy novel about a boy with an Asperger’s-like condition that she shaped into psychological theatre with such spectacular results that it won seven Olivier Awards – more than any other play in Olivier history – and five Tonys.

‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time’ won seven Oliviers and five Tonys

Two years ago, she persuaded the Old Vic in London to let her stage a revival of Angels in America (2017), Tony Kushner’s “gay fantasia on national themes”, even though the theatre held its rights and its then artistic director, Kevin Spacey, had designs on playing the central role.

She is currently working on a revival of Arthur Miller’s 1949 drama Death of a Salesman, which will reimagine the Loman family as black Americans. It will grapple with themes of race, identity and toxic masculinity, alongside the issues of class and the dangers of capitalism, for which it is best known. “I wanted to shake it up a bit,” she said in a recent interview, and spoke about injecting “new life” into the classic.

Elliott’s works are exemplars of fearless theatre-making; she is unafraid to rework the canon, but while her work feels new for its upturned conceptual orthodoxies, its processes are, in fact, a return to an older tradition of directorial control. She leaves her fingerprints on every aspect of the production – rare at a time when the machinery of an expensive, large-scale production can quash the finer points of a director’s signature style.

Three months before rehearsals, Elliott locks herself away with the script, explains Chris Harper, her business partner at their production company Elliott & Harper. But once she is on set, she pays as much attention to the lighting, costume and sound as to the actors, and it is this precision that enables her to “do the large-scale so meticulously”.

If she were a film-maker, she would be called an auteur. “She thinks so much about every moment on her stage – if she were a film director, we’d describe it as a ‘frame-by-frame’ ownership of a narrative,” reflects Kwame Kwei-Armah, the artistic director of the Young Vic, where Elliott is staging Death of a Salesman.

Elliott has reimagined the Lomans as a black family for ‘Death of a Salesman’

This is what has enabled her to turn a classic inside out and earned her admiration from her peers: the Royal Court’s artistic director, Vicky Featherstone, hails her as a “goddess”. Rufus Norris, at the helm of the National Theatre, speaks of her important influence on a generation of female artists.

Muscular adjectives repeat themselves in praise of her talents: she is “fierce,” “bold,” “visionary”. Yet she is also unstarry and famously difficult to pin down. What drew her to the stage was the power of expression that drama gave her, she has said. Another set of adjectives are used to describe her by those who know her better: she is “rigorous,” “collaborative,” “meticulous,” “inclusive” and eminently “nice”.

Elliott comes from a dynasty of theatre-makers but reacted against the legacy in early life. Her father, Michael Elliott, was a star director and co-founder of the Manchester Royal Exchange Theatre, which became a regional powerhouse of creative energy. Her mother, Rosalind Knight, is a celebrated actress, her sister, Susannah Elliott-Knight, is an actor and director, and there is a line of performing aunts and uncles rooted far back in the family tree.

She was born in London but her family moved to Stockport when she eight. She attended independent schools there but has spoken of being targeted for her “posh” southern accent. On BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs last year, she described herself as a quiet child, barely speaking at all before the age of five and then hiding under a table in the house for much of the time.

Her parents had no money but led a bohemian lifestyle, and she has spoken of complicated undercurrents in her parents’ marriage. When she was 15, Michael Elliott left home for another woman. He died two years later and she found herself alone in Stockport, surrounded by what sounds like grief-drenched solitude, while her mother went to work in Sheffield and her sister left for university.

She went from being the shy child of formidably thespian parents to a half-hearted drama student: “I did do drama [at A level] but I thought it was incredibly boring,” she said on Desert Island Discs, and explained how she only went on to read drama at Hull University because “I didn’t have the grades for anything else”.

Elliott emanates steely sureness, according to a former boss

She carried on her quiet rebellion against theatre, taking jobs in television in her early twenties, assiduously avoiding the family trade, daunted by her father’s achievements and a feeling she couldn’t match them.

His death did not release her from that shadow immediately and it was ten years later that she made her directorial debut in a room above a North London pub at the age of 28. Greg Hersov had been a young director at the Royal Exchange when Michael Elliott was at its helm. By the time he heard that Elliott’s daughter was putting on her first play, he had become its artistic director. He turned up to see it in 1995 and was so dazzled that he offered her a job.

It was as though Elliott’s directorial style appeared on that pub stage already honed, he says. “It’s very rare that you see something by a young director with the voice so fully formed. It was a voice that immediately made an impression.”

They worked together for the next ten years, and Elliott cites Hersov as a major influence (“Greg thought I was talented long before I thought I was”). What was also clear to see, he says, was her effort to tear away from a male-led theatrical tradition. “She would say that she was frustrated by what she could do,” says Hersov. “What she really wanted was female-centred drama. She wanted to do Company 20 years ago. She’s always wanted to do that material, right from the beginning. Young Marianne wasn’t that different from Marianne now.”

Elliott accepts a Tony for ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time’ in New York, 2015

The heavy mantle of her family’s theatrical legacy appears to have bred a certain insecurity in her, all the same. A relentless perfectionism evidently held psychological purchase long after she had proven herself as a theatre-maker. A month after Curious Incident won its record seven Oliviers in 2013, Elliott spoke of her unceasing drive to do better. Her words seemed to banish any self-congratulation over her remarkable achievement: “Proving that I am good enough – that’s what motivates me. To prove, prove, prove, push, push, push.”

Yet, for all the insecurity and self-doubt, Elliott emanates steely sureness, says Hersov. “She might speak of insecurity but she has this serene strength and a concentrated way of working that is methodical, clear, unhurried. I used to watch her rehearsing and she didn’t jump up to gush or criticise the actors. She had a book in which she made notes. When they stopped, she wouldn’t be afraid to look at her book before she spoke to them.”

Hersov, who is now a trustee at Talawa Theatre Company, never saw Elliott in relation to her father or compared their talents, yet certain, uncanny family resemblances struck him in her style of work. “Michael Elliott created a charmed circle around him and this feeling that there was something special – magical – going on in the building. She did the same thing, even though she couldn’t have picked up his direct style so young.”

Like her parents, she married into the industry: her husband is the actor Nick Sidi. They have a teenage daughter, Eve Blue, and Elliott has said that she does not want her to follow them into the industry.

Harper met her at the National Theatre where they both worked for 12 years (he in the marketing department) under the leadership of Nicholas Hytner. “From the very first moment I saw her work, I was a total fan,” says Harper. When they left to form their company in 2017, she told him that “she wanted to commit to hearing female voices and seeing female protagonists”, he recalls.

For Sondheim’s musical ‘Company’ the male lead, Billy, became a female, Billie

Where she had spoken of wanting to do just this to Hersov, she now had the power to make it happen. Ironically, it was Harper’s idea to switch genders in Company: “I originally saw the musical in 1996 and it had a lasting effect on me. I suggested it to Marianne [then] but it was rejected on the basis that it was a man’s story.”

Years later, Harper was on the verge of being a single father to twins born prematurely through a surrogate in New York, which involved driving to the hospital twice daily. He would listen to the score of Company every time he made the trip and it struck him that the “Bobby” in Sondheim’s book could represent the modern woman.

Marianne didn’t think she could persuade Sondheim at the beginning, so she said ‘no’ to the idea. “She really interrogates an idea and she didn’t want this to appear like a gimmick. Twenty-four hours later, she came back to me to say, ‘Oh, maybe we can.’”

Elliott has gathered a female-only creative team for Death of a Salesman, which stars The Wire actor, Wendell Pierce, alongside the Olivier-nominated Sharon D Clarke and Arinzé Kene and she is co-directing it with Miranda Cromwell, who has previously worked with Elliott as associate director.

Are her traits – warmth, inclusivity, niceness – a woman’s way of working in theatre? No, says Cromwell: “Marianne is a generous, exacting director, meticulously prepared with in-depth research and lipstick! She empowers and encourages women, she employs them, champions them and puts them at the heart of her process on and off stage. But I don’t think that’s ‘female-centred.’ I just think that’s sensible.”

The Olivier Awards are announced on 7 April. ‘Death of a Salesman’ runs at the Young Vic in London from 1 May until 29 June 

Further Reading


Images by Getty, Brinkhoff/Mögenburg, and Kevin Cummins