“Eventually you go, ‘You know what, I’m just going to be myself,’” the theater director Jamie Lloyd told me one February morning as he tucked in to a bowl of porridge at an unassuming South London hotel. He was reflecting on his distinctive style: the vintage clothes, the Stetson hat, and the abundance of tattoos that snake up his arms and to the top of his head. But he might as well have been describing his unorthodox approach to the classics, which in the past few years has caused the London public to anoint him the director of the moment and Hollywood stars to flock to his stage. After our breakfast, the Englishman would embark upon the third week of rehearsals for a new West End revival of Chekhov’s great tragicomedy The Seagull, starring Emilia Clarke. His following project will be Lloyd’s take on Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, with Jessica Chastain as Nora.
“It’s partly getting older and not caring what people think about you,” continued Lloyd, who turns 40 in November. Sure, he recalls “a blazer time where I felt I had to give an impression of conformity and conventionality.” That was back in the day (2012, to be exact), when he staged a straightforward Broadway revival of Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac, complete with period costumes and the lovesick warrior-poet’s trademark peninsular nose. But as Lloyd has evolved, so has his work: His 2019 production of the same play—which was nominated for five Olivier awards and is scheduled to run at the Brooklyn Academy of Music this year—represents a drastic reappraisal. Trading the traditional musketeer look for jeans and a black T-shirt, James McAvoy gives off a punkish, contemporary vibe that requires no prosthetics to transfix an audience.
McAvoy’s affect tallies with Lloyd’s own working-class upbringing as the son of a truck driver, far removed from any experience of the theater—except, that is, for the Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals that would play on cassette in the truck while father and son were on the road together. Neither could have dreamed that, a few decades later, Lloyd would direct a transformative re-imagining of Lloyd Webber’s Evita. Last year’s revival of the show at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre will return in 2020, this time indoors at the Barbican Centre.
Though his childhood was largely deprived of the arts, his own household is fully immersed in them. Lloyd met his wife, actress Suzie Toase, when she was a Hot Box Girl and understudied for Jane Krakowski in the 2005 Guys and Dolls, on which Lloyd assisted the director Michael Grandage. The couple have three sons, among whom Lewin, 13, is himself an actor with his own Twitter account and a burgeoning list of credits that includes the film Judy, Amazon’s The Aeronauts, and the HBO series His Dark Materials, in which he plays opposite McAvoy. The family lives not in London but a train ride away near the south coast in Hastings, Sussex, where they can walk down some steps and be on the beach. If Lloyd wants to forage in the world of period clothes, the Hawk & Dove vintage boutique in Hastings Old Town is a short walk away.
“I actually quite like the commute, during which a lot of thinking can happen and I’m not a director and not a dad... When I’m on the train I get a real sense of freedom and exploration, even more so the more I do and the older I get.”
It’s also on the train that he gets some of his best ideas. Lloyd says a crucial step in tackling a well-known play is “stripping away its performance history.” His fondness for ridding familiar work of its usual trappings has earned Lloyd membership in a small club of high-profile iconoclasts that includes Ivo van Hove (West Side Story, A View from the Bridge) and Daniel Fish (Broadway’s recent Oklahoma!). If anything, Lloyd’s paring down goes even further than those directors’. Consider his revelatory take on Harold Pinter’s 1978 play Betrayal, revived to hosannas on both sides of the Atlantic last year. Gone from Pinter’s largely autobiographical account of adultery among London’s chattering classes were all but the most rudimentary of props, allowing audiences to keep their eyes on the three members of the play’s tortured love triangle—a husband, his wife, and his best friend—pretty much from beginning to end. Having cleared the stage, Lloyd relied on sound to fill the mostly empty space, thanks to a rich aural landscape that folds in the Oscar-winning team of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, among others.
Pinter’s spare, elliptical language has been a mainstay of Lloyd’s career ever since the director’s first large-scale production, a revival of The Caretaker at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, in 2006. But only now can he truly articulate the wisdom Pinter imparted to him over time, regarding the importance of silence and, by extension, of emptiness. “What Harold taught me,” Lloyd said, “is that precision of language leads to a precision of space,” and to the force field of feeling that, with luck, can result. “It’s about putting the emphasis on the interactions within that space.”
Lloyd studied acting in Liverpool before deciding he was far happier offstage calling the shots as a director. He apprenticed in the world of West End musicals (Trevor Nunn’s Anything Goes, the Grandage Guys and Dolls) before going on to an associate directorship at London’s studio-sized Donmar Warehouse. He now has his own West End entity, the Jamie Lloyd Company, through which he can further explore his ever-developing style via a series of limited runs with star actors—McAvoy, Clarke, Chastain—while also freelancing elsewhere as called upon. (Regrettably, we won’t get to see how Lloyd might have approached the upcoming Back to the Future musical, since he and the American creatives behind the project parted company several years ago.)
Lloyd acknowledges a period when his productions were “about doing a lot for the audience out of a desire to offer an exciting, dynamic experience. But actually, maybe just pulling some of that away hands it over to the audience,” and lets them do the work. That accounts for a caption at the start of Cyrano indicating the year 1640, the sole acknowledgment of the period during which Rostand’s play is set. As in Betrayal, sound compensates for the spare aesthetic, McAvoy as often as not speaking in a stage whisper delivered to the audience with the aid of amplification. “You don’t have to go into period detail; the audience can do that in their heads,” Lloyd explained. “You can exist in that time and our time at the same time.”