05/04/2009 10:17 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Mary Stuart: Interview with Director Phyllida Lloyd

One of the big differences for me between theatre and TV and film is the electricity. There is electricity in a theatre when everything and everyone is crackling. And it's even better when they know it. That's the kind of electricity I felt when I recently saw the revival of Mary Stuart which was imported from the Donmar Warehouse in London.

We've all seen the movies and TV series about Elizabeth I and her rivalry with cousin Mary Stuart most notably by Helen Mirren and Cate Blanchett. But most of those stories were told from Elizabeth's perspective and Mary was a side player.

In this updated revival of Friedrich Schiller's 1800 play directed by Phyllida Lloyd (Mamma Mia!) Mary Stuart is given equal weight. Janet McTeer takes on the role of Mary and Harriet Walter is Elizabeth. Many Americans may not know these women but you do so at your own peril. They are in my opinion typical British actresses- unafraid, engaging and spectacular. McTeer is more well known having had leads in several films (Tumbleweeds), but I remember her best for her Tony Award winning performance as Nora in A Doll's House. Walter has been on the English stage and if you see British films you will definitely recognize her. She also has a small part in the upcoming Cheri.

Both women are fantastic but McTeer has the more showy role. Her performance is big and desperate as Mary fights for her life and in contrast Walter is constrained by her role as monarch. These are two women leaders struggling for their lives and souls surrounded by calculating men who are jockeying for their own positions. (I loved that the women were in period dress and the men were in contemporary suits. Just highlighted how different the men and women were.)

I loved the production more than the play itself, not surprisingly, it is based on a play from 1800. Phyllida Lloyd uses all her expertise as a director of opera and gives us a production of an almost 3 hours play that is taut and visually interesting especially because it uses minimal sets and has very little color.

If you want to see a story about women, directed by a woman and amazing actresses at their finest, Mary Stuart is the show for you.

Phyllida Lloyd kindly took some time to answer questions about the production and being a female director:

Women & Hollywood: Why do you think there is the (false) impression that two women can't star together in a show as rivals and not be rivals off stage?

Phyllida Lloyd: Maybe men would prefer to imagine them in the chaos of a catfight than in a powerful union of friendship and creativity!

W&H: The play was written in 1800 yet reflects current ambivalence about women and power, especially how men deal with it. We here in the states are particularly attuned to it from out recent election. Why is the play still so relevant today?

PL: Aside from the gender issue, the play deals with the ethics of government - what price homeland security, how to take a potentially unpopular decision and still remain in favour with your electorate. It also portrays two women being 'managed' by a group of seemingly eternal bureaucrats. the women actually have massive amounts in common but are never allowed to get to a point of capitalizing on it peacefully. Mary Stuart like many powerful women is demonized for her sexual history, Elizabeth is forced to remain a virgin in order to hold on to the power she has. They are neither able to live their lives like the men around them without jeopardy or reproach.

W&H: You are one of the few women who has been successful in opera, film and theatre. Why aren't more women able to achieve success?

PL: In Europe it is not so unusual for directors to move between opera, theatre and film and I have at least three girlfriends I can think of who have directed in all three genres. In the theatre in the UK women are at the very top of the tree as freelance directors.

I have been very lucky and I think it all goes back to state subsidy for the arts. I gained my training and confidence and credentials in the not for profit world and in England that does not mean on the fringe of things. It means right at the centre. It is that experience of handling big projects , big groups of people if you like that led to a commercial musical and then to Hollywood. In the UK there are however - just as in the States - less women directing huge budget musicals, running big institutions and obviously directing anything but lower budget movies.- which says something about how when the economic stakes get high girls are seen as a greater risk.

In the not for profit world I never felt that being female was an impediment. I was however given my break into commercial theatre by a female producer Judy Craymer and women - in particular Donna Langley president of production at Universal - were crucial in giving Mamma Mia a home in Hollywood.

W&H: Mamma Mia was dismissed by many critics as "lite", yet the film struck a chord with women all over the world to a tune of half a billion dollars. Why do you think it was dismissed?

PL: Well I think it broke a few rules! I think the critics did not always appreciate that the apparent 'clunkiness' was intentional. Ironic. There was no attempt to homogenize the piece stylistically so the fact that the songs were each in themselves things that pre existed- as anthems if you like -was celebrated with all its jagged edges and absurdity. It was also about real people bursting into song and dancing through the 
street - with all their inexpert chaos - or singing to a friend in the bathroom - just as you or I might do if we had had enough beer!

A great deal of the success of Mamma Mia has been due to the audience recognizing themselves on stage or screen. It also seemed normal to us that you could be being thoroughly silly one moment and deadly serious the next but that did not seem to be the life experience of some pundits. It seems hard to credit but it is also possible that girls of a certain age behaving extravagantly was more of a provocation that one had imagined it might be.

W&H: Do you like directing film, theatre or opera better and why?

PL: It is not really a matter of liking one or the other more - in the end it comes down to the material, the group you are working with and how convinced you are that the project has the capacity to make a difference. Perhaps you have more freedom with a play as there are likely to be less obstacles between you and what you want. Once you have the play, the stage and the actors you are free to fly.

Movie making is an extreme sport on many levels - especially a studio picture. It requires stamina such as I had never imagined, to keep going right to the end for - in the case of Mamma Mia two years. Very good for weight loss! Opera comes somewhere in the middle of the two. There are elements of the same process in each medium. For example shooting a movie felt like opening a theatre show - but every day for four months. The 
edit felt much more like theatre rehearsals. the actors performances, the story is unfolding, emerging - you can't solve it all on day one, you have to let your subconscious do some work and be prepared to wait and listen. I am excited at the prospect of doing another movie.

W&H: What advice would you give to women who want to have a career in directing?

PL: You will get there if you are determined and you don't have to become a gorgon to do so. You do have to prepared to do absolutely EVERYTHING to get a production together at the beginning of your career, and for no money. And then do it again. You can't wait for someone to 'discover' you, you have to just get on and do it. Have confidence that directing is a very suitable job for a woman - with our gift for collaboration, listening and reading the nuance of things.