Marianne Elliott: The Curious Incident of the Shyness in the Spotlight

22nd May 2013

‘There’s still no sense that I’ve arrived. Sad, isn’t it?’

Marianne Elliott followed her hit War Horse with a record seven Oliviers for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time. Now it’s time for Tennessee Williams. First published in the Daily Telegraph, May 22, 2013.


Marianne Elliott could be forgiven for feeling a little smug. Last month, the director presided over a seven-trophy win at the Olivier Awards for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, her dazzling staging of Mark Haddon’s best-selling novel (transferred from the National to the Apollo) about a teenager with precocious mathematical abilities and endearing behavioural difficulties. That’s more than any other play in Olivier Awards history.

Elliott and her team were stunned. Along with her actor-husband Nick Sidi, who’s a member of the cast, she tells me she found the evening “nerve-racking”, expecting to come away empty-handed. Yet the show took five more Oliviers than War Horse – that other surprise NT blockbuster with which Elliott has been most identified until now (co-directed with Tom Morris).

Such phenomenal recognition has allowed her to step out of the shadow of War Horse’s thundering triumphs at home (where a UK tour looms, in addition to the West End run) and overseas (it’s soon to premiere in Berlin and is cantering round the USA, too).

“I wanted to be able to do something that could prove I wasn’t a one-trick pony – excuse the pun,” Elliott says, with a giggle, her soft Stockport-lilted accent warming the sterile box-room we’re meeting in along the way from the Old Vic theatre, where she’s busy rehearsing Tennessee Williams’s Sweet Bird of Youth, starring Kim Cattrall. “I didn’t want to just be remembered for War Horse.”

That night perhaps also saw her finally begin to step out of another shadow. When she went on stage at the Royal Opera House to accept the Best Director gong, she opened with some words she hadn’t planned to say at all: “This thing came out of my mouth…” she confesses, marvelling at it anew. “I said: ‘God, what would my dad think of this?’ ”

Until his death in 1984, Michael Elliott was one of the pre-eminent directors of his day – an artistic director of the Old Vic in the early Sixties and a co-founder of the Manchester Royal Exchange. The House of Elliott was an imposingly theatrical one – Marianne’s mother is the actress Rosalind Knight.

Three years ago, Elliott, now 46, told me she had thought “for a long time that I couldn’t be a director because I wasn’t a) male and b) a great intellectual like my father, which is why I was 28 before I even considered doing it”.

Despite her huge achievements, since then her confidence has only marginally increased. In conversation, she’s refreshingly down-to-earth. “I couldn’t afford a Rolls-Royce, I’ve got a Mini!” she says, laughing at the idea that War Horse made her super-rich. And yet she’s still “plagued” by self-doubt.

When I ask her why she has put herself out of the running to succeed Nicholas Hytner at the National (now’s not the time, she says, as her daughter is only eight), she finds the subject almost comical: “If someone had said “Would you like to run the National?” even three years ago, it would have seemed the most ridiculous idea in the world.”

“I still don’t think I could do it,” she admits. What’s more, she says, had her father stayed alive, she wouldn’t be where she is today. “It was his world – he was kingpin of it.” Did she ever confide an ambition to direct? “No! NO!” she exclaims, her eyes widening almost in horror. “He didn’t even think I would go to university [she went to Hull, studied drama]. The thought of me being a director would have been very far-fetched to him.”
What would he think about all her awards? She doesn’t know. “Maybe that needed to be said,” she observes, of her Olivier night – what to call it? – Freudian slip. Surely she must finally feel validated? “No, I don’t think any of it is resolved. There’s no sense that I’ve ‘arrived’. It’s sad, isn’t it?”

She foresees no change in her outlook either. “I don’t think an Olivier Award will make any difference. Proving that I am good enough – that’s what motivates me. To prove, prove, prove, push, push, push… Not very healthy, is it?” She smiles, shrugs. Her mother, at least, is “very proud” of her achievements. “She uses the term ‘surprising’ a lot,” she says. “I was a ‘surprising’ child.”

The fact that Elliott is the archetypal late starter makes Sweet Bird of Youth an apt choice. “I hadn’t thought of that but yes, maybe it’s there on a deeper level,” she admits. The play concerns a young man called Chance Wayne (played at the 1959 premiere and in the neutered 1962 film by Paul Newman), who’s entering the twilight of his twenties.

He hopes his gigolo relationship with a has-been film star, Princess Kosmonopolis (played originally by Geraldine Page), will provide a life-saving escape-route into the world of acting for him and his beloved Heavenly, damaged daughter of a noxious Deep South politician.

The offer to direct Sweet Bird appealed for multiple reasons: the fact that it’s by Williams – “He’s a genius, the way he channels these visceral emotions”; the fact that it’s an unusually political work – “a state-of-the-nation play, blowing the American Dream to pieces”; and the way it speaks to our obsession with youth. The Princess (a role taken by Kim Cattrall only on the understanding that Elliott directed) “feels she has lost her identity because she has lost her looks – that’s very recognisable”, she says. “It’s difficult to find an actress prepared to play a fading star. Kim is brave – you wouldn’t be able to get someone vain to do this.”

Above all, though, the fact that it’s a massive challenge is the primary spur. She excels at spotting potential in works that might get overlooked – no prizes for guessing how her own life informs that – and the messiness of Sweet Bird, dismissed by Kenneth Tynan as “of more interest to Mr Williams’s biographers than to lovers of theatre”, clearly appeals.

“It’s a problem play. I don’t think he knew what he was pouring on to the page.” She and playwright James Graham are forming their own account from the various versions that exist. “I’ve had nothing like it before – where you prep it on the page, then get it up on its feet and it’s very different to how you thought it would be. It’s really difficult.”

But if it wasn’t, she wouldn’t bother. “There’s a certain type of theatre that I haven’t got any time for at all – established, boring, same-old stuff without any reason or passion. There’s quite a lot of it about and it motivates me to try to do something different, something risky, raw, ugly and challenging.”

In the autumn, back at the National, no let-up, there’ll be the Tori Amos musical The Light Princess to set on its feet. Another smash hit in the making? Don’t hold your breath, she warns. “The princess has to float in the first half, and in the second she’s swimming.” She grins. “It could be a disaster!”

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Dominic Cavendish - Theatre Critic & Journalist

Dominic Cavendish is the lead theatre critic for The Daily Telegraph. He is the founding editor of the audio archive Theatrevoice

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