Interviewing Blanche McIntyre – one Saturday evening in late August – feels like a first date. We’ve known each other for 12 years, since university, where she directed me in Hamlet and Tom Stoppard’s The Invention of Love. We’ve faced enraged harpists storming an Edinburgh stage when we exceeded our allotted slot during the Fringe Festival, in 2000; and, as Hamlet, my over-enthusiastic whirling of an antique sword during the Arras scene necessitated some emergency plastering of the theatre walls by her parents on opening night. Like most friendships, ours has evolved in fragments, stretched out over time and through change. So, rewinding McIntyre’s professional life as a director, boxing it into a set of questions and turning on the dictaphone that lies between us is new and strangely exhilarating.
This is, of course, an excellent point at which to talk to McIntyre about her career, which has gone from strength to strength since she won the inaugural Leverhulme Bursary for Emerging Theatre Directors in 2009. Following an attachment at the National Theatre Studio, where she was director in residence, she staged a well-received production of Bulgakov’s Moliere or The League of Hypocrites at the Finborough. In 2010, she took another step up when theatrical heavyweight Max Stafford-Clark chose her to be associate director on Richard Bean’s dark new comedy about the IRA in America, The Big Fellah; first at the Lyric Hammersmith and then on tour.
But arguably McIntyre’s biggest breakthrough came this February, with a revival of Emlyn Williams’s Accolade at the Finborough. Her production of this engrossing tale of celebrity double-life, unseen for five decades, had critics falling over themselves to praise it as career-making. With characteristic modesty, McIntyre insists that this hasn’t had any lasting effect. However, her hope that “it’ll stand as a calling card for the next few years” is already being borne out by laudatory references to it in listings for her next London-based production – a revival of Christopher Hampton’s first play, When Did You Last See My Mother?, about a bisexual love triangle, which opens at Trafalgar Studios tonight. For McIntyre, the continued acclaim is “exciting but also terrifying, because I have to live up to it with this one.”
McIntyre comes from a literary background that goes back several generations. Her grandfather was a poet who hung out with Empson and Larkin and her parents worked in publishing (her mother, Helen Fraser, was managing director of Penguin UK until 2009). Given this heritage, why did she opt for the stage rather than the page? “That’s an interesting question”, she replies thoughtfully. “I was an avid reader until I was 11 or 12, but then I completely dropped it. Probably because I began to associate it with English lessons and essay writing: analysing why Jane Austen is funny, and all that rubbish. The books I’d read when I was 6 or 7 were an Alice in Wonderland-style door into a completely immersive world. So I suppose what I was trying to create when I got into theatre was a real-life version of this – emotion in the moment.”
After a “fingers-in-the-socket electric” experience watching Katie Mitchell’s 3 Henry VI – “she created a world I wanted to be in” – the energised 15-year-old McIntyre decided she’d also put on a play, her first, set in the fifteenth century. Everyman, which she staged at school, not only opened up the theatrical landscape for her, but showed her that directing could be as creatively fulfilling as acting. However, as she recalls with a chuckle, it took some coercion from the cast to get her to that point. “I got into the first rehearsal and they asked, ‘Who’s directing this?’ And I replied, ‘Well, I thought we all could.’ They said no; that there had to be a director and that because I’d arranged it all, it should be me.
“That was how I discovered how much fun directing was, because it was the fifteenth century and I didn’t have a fucking clue! It was all, ‘Ooh, hide under there, jump out of there, I’ll give you a microphone and a two-man coffin.’ I was such a self-conscious and wooden actor that it was impossible to get an interesting connection that way. I realised that the process of putting on a play could be as immersive as the world that you create.”
I can picture this adrenalin-filled rehearsal room because I saw it at university. Whether constructing a papier-mâché Ocean for a production of Prometheus Bound or cannibalising her own things to dress an Edwardian set, McIntyre drew people in with the gravitational pull of her enthusiasm. And the itch to transform spaces has carried through into her personal life: until a recent renovation made it impractical, she would copy paintings direct on to the walls of her home.
What hooks McIntyre on a play are the “knucklebones” (a phrase she’s borrowed from Jonathan Miller’s Subsequent Performances) that stick out of the text; “the details that trip you up, that are different to what you’d normally expect,” she explains. It was an abundance of these moments that attracted her to When Did You Last See My Mother?, which she picked up in a second-hand bookshop four years ago, loved, and has wanted to stage ever since. “It’s very humane, but at the same time it’s incredibly unsentimental. And it’s very good on the games that people play with each other: the shifts, the evasions that we all make.”
Like Accolade (the success of which undoubtedly helped to make this production possible), the wit of Hampton’s script won her over. “It’s so funny,” McIntyre says, breaking out into a grin. “A lot of what it’s about is love – and love is both utterly absurd and often incredibly sad. In a way, I think that fear of earnestness is quite a British thing. It says, ‘I recognise that situation.’ Humour makes the darkness bearable.”
The vivid way in which McIntyre sketched out characters during rehearsals used to epitomise, for me, the combination of intellectual curiosity and almost childlike imaginative intensity she brought to bear as director. I’m reminded of this when she describes the fractious flatmates at the heart of Hampton’s play.
“The main character, who’s only 18, is very articulate, can be an utter fucker but also so selfless that you can barely believe it; he can be entirely self-involved but also absorbed in someone else to the total expense of himself. I suppose that’s what it is about the details: they say something more interesting about how people work, because no one person is ever one stripe.”
Beginning hesitantly, almost cautiously, she speeds up as she hits her stride; exploring ideas as they occur to her in a blur of gestures, ruminations and explanations. She’s less interested in rigidly defining a role than making you consider its possibilities. In light of this, it’s no surprise that she dislikes line-reading. “You’re giving an effect to an actor, not a process,” she says, firmly. “You’re saying, ‘Aim for this’, but not how they get there; you’re not allowing them to be flexible in a scene. If you’ve been given a line-reading you can’t respond differently if someone gives you something different, because you’ve only been given one ‘shape’. It seems to me to be lazy. I don’t like it!”
McIntyre’s view of things such as line-readings has been consistent from the beginning. However, she feels that her career has evolved in three major ways since she graduated from Drama Studio London in 2005. “The first was being picked up by Rob Forknall in 2006 as assistant director for the Changeling Theatre Company. He showed me how to work in a structure that was company-based and not just about whoever you could pull to you,” she tells me.
“Basically, he said, ‘You’re very talented, but you can’t look people in the eye and every time you walk across the room you kick over a chair or trip over a mug. This will never do, so you’d better come with me. I’ll ask a lot of you, and I’ll trust you to come up with it.’ To have someone put their faith in me like that was brilliant. I learnt shed-loads. And now I can look an actor in the eye – just!”
If working with Forknall improved her social skills in the rehearsal room, winning the Leverhulme and National Theatre Studio award gave her “enough cachet to stage plays that were going to make a noise and to attract brilliant people, who stretched me.” One of these would turn out to be Max Stafford-Clark, who took her on as associate director of his company, Out of Joint, in 2010. This was a “brilliant and testing” time for McIntyre, who explains: “Max is a genius who always asked me for a lot, regularly didn’t agree with it, but always wanted to hear it. And if you have somebody who is excellent at what they do, it really makes you try to match that.”
For McIntyre, what unifies these experiences is that they introduced her to a wider network of industry people. “I suppose the trajectory that I’ve had – which is unlike the trajectory of a lot of my contemporaries – is that I’ve tended to start outside the loop, doing my own thing,” she reflects. “And so the big turning points have been when somebody inside the loop has trusted me, or taken a gamble on me, and brought me in. There are pros and cons to that approach, but I prefer it to assisting and being less hands-on.”
When I note that McIntyre has done very little assistant directing during her career, she agrees. “Even with Max, that was an associate directorship,” she points out. “He said very openly from the start that he wanted me to take as much responsibility as him, which was terrifying but completely great. In any case,” she says, “I’m a terrible assistant director.”
I’m curious to know why she thinks this. “Because I’ve done too much directing!” she laughs. “I tend to get fidgety. I’ll talk in the room – do all the things you shouldn’t – while the poor man or woman is probably sitting there thinking, ‘I wish she’d just shut up.’ Assistant directing is a really hard job and I’m sorry for anyone who’s had to assist me. You go into directing because you want to drive the bus. And then you have to tune into and support someone else’s idea, even if you think it’s bollocks.”
It’s clear that having the freedom to pursue her vision is important to McIntyre. But she hesitates to accept my suggestion that Accolade’s success was at all due to her directing. “This will seem strange but I’ve never thought of it in terms of my qualities as a director,” she says, slowly. “Obviously, it was an amazing script, we had a fabulous cast and I felt that we were doing good work. But I don’t tend to bend a play to fit me; I only want to bring out what’s best and most interesting about it. I don’t want an audience to see me on stage.”
This fits with her approach to directing actors. “I don’t have a method that I regularly use and I don’t ask people to adapt themselves to me,” she explains. “In a complex, unusual or difficult play you have to imaginatively go to the actors in the same way that you’d go to the characters. In Accolade, for example, you have a relationship between a man and a couple that requires a lot of trust. It’s very exposing in terms of the acting it needs. So I wanted to make the environment as friendly as possible so that the actors in these roles would be able to open up and take risks. I don’t buy into the idea that you have to push people or make their lives difficult to get good work.”
It may not be a formal method, but, I ask, isn’t this attention to detail – both in terms of script and an actor’s psychology – as much a signature style as anything else? McIntyre laughs and concedes: “It could be in the details. I’m pretending that I’m not incredibly arrogant because I am. I just work very hard to conceal it.”
Funny, thoughtful and forthright, yet reluctant to accept the glare of the spotlight: these are traits that make it difficult, even after 12 years, to pin McIntyre down. But, I suspect, they are also what make her such a good director, able to create fully-realised worlds populated by complex characters. And while she’s happy to step out of her own way to get the best results from her cast and crew, she’s no push-over. She invests a huge amount of energy into a production and expects it in return – as the bored stage manager she once caught masturbating in the lighting box during a performance learned when she fired him at the interval.
I wrap up our conversation by asking McIntyre why she keeps a scrapbook of all her reviews, good and bad. Surely not every director does? “I do it to remind me that everything I’ve achieved is as much luck as anything else,” she reveals; “and to remember. Each show becomes your world: it’s incredibly immersive and intense. It’s like living under water for four weeks and then coming up again. So it’s lovely to go back to something from the time that reminds you of what each one felt like at that moment.” As she finishes this explanation, it occurs to me that during this interview I’ve managed to get her to do something she hated at university – to talk about herself. And it’s about time, too.
When Did You Last See My Mother? is at Trafalgar Studios from 14 September to 8 October. For more information and to buy tickets, see the theatre site.
First published by Exeunt Magazine.