Director Blanche McIntyre has had a whirlwind couple of years. From working with Max Stafford-Clark, to garnering rave reviews and awards on the London fringe, to making her West End directing debut at the Trafalgar Studios, there can be little doubt that she has made her mark. Asked how she first started directing, however, McIntyre laughs: “This is a bit hilarious and is going to sound quite childish,” she warns me with a grin. She explains that at the age of 15 she saw the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Henry VI Part Three, directed by Katie Mitchell, and immediately thought that it was “the best thing I’d ever seen”. Inspired by the experience, McIntyre decided to put on a medieval play with a group of school friends, a project that accidentally but quickly ended up with her in the director’s chair.
“The first thing I realised was that I’m an absolutely terrible actor and the second thing I realised is that directing is incredible fun… After that I never stopped,” McIntyre says, with palpable enthusiasm. “It’s addictive. You discover quickly that the only thing that can get you over the sadness of the last production being over is setting up for a new one to happen.”
While McIntyre’s directorial approach varies depending on what she is working on, one point she is adamant on is the importance of doing things herself. Although many directors find assisting a helpful learning experience in the early stages of their careers, McIntyre flatly admits, “I was awful at it, have always been awful at it”. She dislikes having to suppress her own instincts in favour of another director’s opinion and believes that the best way to learn to direct is to have the full responsibility of a production’s success or failure placed firmly on your own shoulders. “The responsibility is with you always, so if the audience doesn’t come that’s your fault and if the actors don’t like it that’s your fault,” McIntyre explains. She goes on to analogise assistant directing with learning to drive a car by watching someone else do it. “You can learn brilliantly, and many people then become great directors after doing it, but there’s always a moment when you get in the driving seat for the first time and realise it goes a lot faster than you thought it did. Learning how to not feel safe is a really important part of learning how to direct.”
The other quality that is essential to McIntyre’s understanding of directing – and a quality that she has no shortage of herself – is passion for the work. “If you are not excited by a script then you really ought not to do it,” she says firmly. “Partly because someone else could do it better than you, and partly because the quality of the production comes from the intensity of your affection for it.” Discussing the work that excites her, she singles out an awareness of how a piece might be staged and sensitivity to what is going on inside the characters’ heads. “Psychologically very acute plus dramatically quite daring – I’m a total sucker for that.”
This enthusiasm was clearly not lacking in McIntyre’s acclaimed productions of Accolade and Foxfinder last year, both staged at the tiny Finborough Theatre. The two plays were very different and captured McIntyre’s imagination for different reasons. Emlyn Williams’ controversial play Accolade, which had not been revived since its premiere in 1950, was traditional in structure but not in content. McInytre explains, “that tension between the old-fashioned way in which it had been put together and the extraordinary punch that the storyline carried was amazing”. Unsettling dystopian fable Foxfinder, meanwhile, was striking in its boldness and the economy of Dawn King’s writing. “It’s spare and that makes it all the more powerful,” says McIntyre.
The performance space was also particularly important for McIntyre’s visions of these two productions, each of which utilised the intimate but versatile Finborough in different ways. For McIntyre, the relationship between audience and play that is created by the use of the space is vital to its impact. “With Accolade, it had not to be a traditional proscenium arch play where you sit on this side and they act on that side and you do the judging,” she explains. Instead, the audience were made to feel like intimate guests in the home where the drama was taking place, immersing them in the play.
Contrastingly, the aim with Foxfinder was to separate audience and actors, evoking Greek tragedy. “Greek tragedy emerged as a way of articulating the troubles that the Athenians were experiencing in the context of myth, and I thought that Dawn was doing something very similar,” says McIntyre. In the strange world of Foxfinder, the belief that foxes are responsible for the country’s plight draws many implicit parallels with the ways in which we seek to place blame. McIntyre tells me that to achieve the intended effect, the stage was raised “like a temple”, making it a public space where the actors were very much on display to audience members. “It became a strong space,” McIntyre adds. “It became charged.”
Since mounting these productions, McIntyre now has both a Critics’ Circle gong and an Off West End Award to her name, achievements that she is clearly delighted by, but that have had little effect on her approach to her work. “I hope that it will make a difference in that I hope it will make it easier to get things I love on and have attention drawn to them,” McIntyre says. “Apart from that, it hasn’t made me feel that I’m a better director.” She has currently moved onto another challenge which is different again, directing The Seven Year Itch at the Salisbury Playhouse and trying to overcome the ghost of Marilyn Monroe.
McIntyre admits that she is up against it trying to produce a new version of something so iconic, but tells me that the play on which the Monroe film was based is very different to its big screen sister. “The girl in it is very independent, very smart, very sparky. She’s naive but she absolutely knows her own mind and she’s very confident. This is quite lucky for me, because it means that I can do something different with it but that still fits the text – I’m not distorting it.” McIntyre does still have her concerns that fans of the film might object to it, but concludes our discussion of the production on a note of cheerful, determined optimism: “What I hope is that it will be strong enough as a piece to stand on its own merit.”
As we wrap up our interview, McIntyre’s final piece of directing advice is to speak up – about what is good as well as what is bad. “If you like what someone’s doing, say it. It’s very usual to think that it makes you look weak by saying something is good and that it makes you more powerful to withhold that, but the strongest thing you can do is be the person who knows their judgement well enough to say ‘that was good, keep it’.”
The Seven Year Itch is at the Salisbury Playhouse until Saturday 7 April. For tickets and more information, visit the theatre’s website here.
Image credit: Dominic Parkes