Interview - Marianne Elliot
PUBLISHED: 00:00 10 November 2014
War Horse and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time have been huge successes for the National Theatre since they opened, both as a result of the talent of Cheshire-raised director Marianne Elliot.
When you look at Elliot’s background, it’s no surprise perhaps that she’s followed a career in theatre, though she insists she had absolutely no plans to do this.
Marianne Elliot is the daughter of actress Rosalind Knight, whose own father was an actor, and Michael Elliot, the television and theatre director who was also co-founder of Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre.
‘I was desperate never to go near theatre!’ she laughs. ‘I grew up thinking my parents were terribly boring; all they ever did was talk shop. I ended up studying drama at Hull University, but only because I had no idea what else to do.
‘Even after I graduated I had no intention of working in theatre and did all sorts of jobs instead. But when I was in my late twenties I was seeing a man who was writing for fringe shows and I got involved in those, as a director. I didn’t think I’d be able to make a career of it; I believed you had to be male and an Oxbridge graduate. I had no confidence in myself and was terribly insecure.
‘However Greg Hersov, who was artistic director at The Royal Exchange, saw something in me and took a punt. I spent seven years there; I saw some amazing work and wouldn’t leave! I eventually moved to the Royal Court in London, and from there to The National Theatre.
‘One of the first things I did for NT was War Horse. We spent two years in workshops getting it right; the horse puppets evolved so dramatically. Every time we met the puppeteers they would have another version, as every time we workshopped with the puppets we could see what more it needed to do. In a play where the main protagonist is a horse, which of course can’t speak, you need to be able to express its emotions in other ways, so the puppet has to articulate those through its breathing, ears, movement and sounds; the main thing is that the audience must always see he’s alive...’
Following the massive success of War Horse, which Marianne admits makes her very proud (maybe even more so as she admits to being rather scared of horses) she moved on to another high profile novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.
‘It’s a very well-loved book, so people warned us not to touch it as it could only fail! It’s quite a zany book; the main character, Christopher, feels emotions intensely, but struggles to identify or articulate these, so our main challenge was how we took this and put it into a visual medium.’
Having read the reviews that followed the London productions, Marianne’s solution to the challenge works brilliantly well. Winning seven Oliver Awards in 2013, her production has been described as “beautiful, eloquent and dazzingly inventive” and ‘ingenious and deeply felt’. Using lighting, special effects, space, sound and silence, Marianne shows both the inexplicable world as seen through Christopher’s eyes, and his translation of it.
‘Being a theatre director is a good life,’ Marianne concludes. “There’s absolutely no routine, it’s gruellingly hard work and there’s no money…but I love the roller coaster of it.’
Let’s hope that the woman who brings the nation’s favourite books to life in such unforgettable style keeps riding the roller coaster, as we’re all the much better off for it.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is playing at The Lowry Theatre from 18 December to 10 January