Something of a departure for me, my first ever interview, originally written for The Public Reviews. McIntyre is a director I’ve admired for a couple of years now and so I was quite keen to take us this opportunity when it presented itself.
Waiting for Blanche McIntyre to emerge from the Whitechapel rehearsal room where The Only True History of Lizzie Finn is having its first run-through, I glance over my notes and a little incongruity makes me smile. Her presence as a director to watch was firmly announced when she won the 2011 Critics’ Circle Most Promising Newcomer award for her work at the Finborough, yet she’s been directing since 2000. When we meet, she agrees that recognition was perhaps a long time coming but that she was extremely well served by a long, long apprenticeship which was the best possible preparation for her career.
A further examination of her CV demonstrates a tendency for working in more intimate theatres – the Finborough, the Union, Southwark Playhouse, the Cock Tavern; even her West End debut was in the intimate Studio 2 at Trafalgar Studios. I ask what draws her to these dark, intimate places. “There’s a grubby reason and a soulful reason,” she says. “The reality is that it costs a lot less, and when I was starting out, I was doing it all myself so it made it that much more affordable. But I also love the idea of the audience sitting right in there, in the action – it’s a great artistic challenge for the actors and there’s a real reward in how much more connected the audience feel.”
She tells a great story of how, as a wide-eyed four or five year old, she saw a company that toured operas in the drawing rooms of stately homes, performing Lucia di Lammermoor right in front her face – “I could touch her dress!” she recalls – and it is clear that this sense of immediacy is something that has continued to inform her productions.
We turn to McIntyre’s forthcoming production, The Only True History of Lizzie Finn, a 1995 play by Sebastian Barry, which she is currently deep in rehearsal with. Barry is a writer perhaps better known for novels like the achingly poetic WWI drama A Long Long Way and The Secret Scripture and this marks the UK premiere for this play. The eponymous heroine of the story is a dancer who is swept off her feet by a dashing soldier returning from the Boer War. But when they return to Ireland in the heat of a passionate affair, the differences between them are thrown into stark relief. “His writing here is very novelistic, but there’s something very extraordinary, mysterious, challenging, and most rewarding, about it,” says McIntyre. “It looks at what people do when things are too big to talk about, deal with, or process.”
Much of Barry’s writing is focused on Ireland and Lizzie Finn is no exception, but McIntyre believes that he shines a light on a period of history that has been previously neglected: “The play is set at a crucial time in Ireland’s journey towards independence and self-determination. It is a very particular moment of growing unrest and tension, a time when land laws are changing. What Barry does it to take ordinary lives and small-scale events and sets them against this backdrop, to accord them with a greater, almost Chekhovian, significance.”
I ask if we can have a sneak peek of what to expect from the look of Lizzie Finn in the flexible space of the Southwark Playhouse. “Our inspiration came from an old Early Christian or Viking story, about a bunch of warriors in a cold, dark hall who look up and see a swallow suddenly appear, briefly illuminated by the light of the fire and then instantly fly away. The Ireland of this play is a massive cold world with few maps and no roads with the sea ever-present, so the design seeks to give a sense of this but also allowing for a beautiful image, like the swallow, to fleetingly emerge from each scene,” explains McIntyre.
She is clearly keen for the audience to take as much as they can from her productions; the relationship between the audience and the space in which they are sitting is almost as important as the play itself, something which marks McIntyre out from someone like say, Katie Mitchell. Mitchell crops up a couple of times in conversation; it was a visit to her 3 Henry VI that first inspired the young McIntyre into the world of theatre, but there has been little subsequent crossover. ”Katie Mitchell is undoubtedly an auteur, but for me theatre is about connecting with people, engaging with them,” she suggests.
Speaking with a refreshing honesty about a workshop she attended at the Lyric Hammersmith around their recent Three Kingdoms, where the focus was on theatre as art and consequently the director as artist, McIntyre insists: “I don’t like the word artist; I don’t know what it means. I’d rather talk about what is happening at this particular moment”. I ask her what she would like people to take away as the McIntyre mark, in the same way that Mitchell and Rupert Goold establish their imprint on their work, but she demurs and describes herself as “an invisible director. I just want audiences to be hooked, and drawn in, and made to feel more alive.”
She eventually hits upon what she sees as the common thread across her diverse body of work and it is the realisation that human life is never quite what you think it is going to be. “People are very strange and don’t always respond the way you think they will to cataclysmic events: each play I have done has explored some aspect of that. Life is complicated and people mess up – that doesn’t have to be the end of it.”
So post-Lizzie Finn, what’s next for McIntyre? Surprisingly given her work-rate, there’s nothing in the schedule for a good while. “I’m really looking forward to a month off!”
Photo: Dominic Parkes
The Only True History of Lizzie Finn plays at the Southwark Playhouse from 27 June to 21 July. For more information, visit southwarkplayhouse.co.uk.