‘Life is never what you expect!’ Deborah Warner on theatre, nature and new parenthood

UN flicker on the screen and a shadow resembling Deborah Warner is there. Then she’s gone. “Sorry, I’m not really set up!" she bellows. “I’m putting you on some books!” The camera judders and Warner reappears, bathed in light. A director to the last.

We were meant to be having lunch but we’ve ended up on Zoom. It transpires that there is an excellent reason. Four weeks ago, Warner’s partner, the singer Claire Egan, gave birth to a baby girl, who is sleeping soundly in the next room. As she talks about becoming a parent for the first time at 62, Warner looks thrilled and shellshocked. “I’m a little all over the place," lei dice. “I thought I’d better tell you, because why not? It beats a birth announcement in the Times.”

As well as bringing a new person into the world, Warner has been hard at work on a project for Manchester international festival. Arcadia is best described as a cross between poetry and architectural installation. This weekend, a flock of illuminated tents will occupy the echoing spaces of the Factory in Water Street, offering visitors a glimpse inside what will be the festival’s new HQ.

They’ll be enveloped in a susurrating soundscape by composer Mel Mercier – a mixture of music, light and nature writing by Matthew Arnold, Elizabeth Bishop, Omar Khayyam and Sappho. Leading actors including Jane Horrocks and Jonathan Pryce have recorded extracts, along with locals. Warner has selected the texts and is making it an immersive experience.

Arcadia offers audiences refuge and respite, Warner explains – not just from the clattering jackhammers of Manchester, but during a time when many of us have rediscovered the solace of the natural world. “It’s a contemplative artwork, fundamentally. There’s a spell in it, there’s quiet in it.” She pauses. “Who knows what it’ll be like in the middle of the night on a building site in the middle of Manchester, listening to all this nature poetry.”

While it might seem surprising that a director of theatre and opera is dabbling in installation art, Warner has form. Peace Camp, another flock of tents that emitted recorded poetry, took up residence at eight coastal locations across the UK to mark the 2012 Olimpiadi. While her reputation as a director rests on landmark productions of classics by the Greek tragedians, Shakespeare and Beckett – many with her longtime collaborator and former partner Fiona Shaw – Warner has long been fascinated by making drama in unexpected locations.

The first installation she mounted was in 1995, in what were then the ruins of the Victorian Midland Grand hotel in St Pancras, Londra. The St Pancras Project invited participants on a hallucinatory journey along dusty corridors and abandoned staircases, artfully dressed to make it seem as if guests and staff were somehow still resident (every so often, the ghostly wraith of a chambermaid flitted past). Years before Punchdrunk and their ilk put immersive and site-specific theatre centre stage, Warner was trying to redraw the boundaries of the dramatic encounter.

Other experiments in found space followed. Nel her itinerant version of The Waste Land (1995-2010) Shaw performed TS Eliot’s poem in locations as varied as an abandoned fort in Dublin and a former distillery in Toronto. The Angel Project (1999-2003) guided audiences through normally inaccessible parts of London, Perth and New York. For a time, Warner says with a laugh, she fretted that she wasn’t so much a theatre director as a “tour operator. I remember thinking, ‘I don’t know who I am. This isn’t theatre.’”

Even her more conventional productions have raised that issue. Nel 1994, for Beckett’s Footfalls, she sent Shaw on walkabout around a largely deserted Garrick theatre in London (to the displeasure of the Beckett estate, which withdrew the rights). The following year, for Shakespeare’s Richard II, she put the audience in traverse seating as if they were watching Wimbledon or a joust.

“Finding new spaces in which to perform or create is an old hunt for so many of us," lei dice. “It’s as fundamental to the renewal of theatre as the writing of new texts or the discovery of new performers.”

Though Warner talks admiringly about the influence of Peter Brook and Peter Stein, from her first days in theatre she was reluctant to follow the crowd. Unlike nearly every British director of her generation – the majority of them male – she didn’t attend university, instead studying stage management at the Central School of Speech and Drama in London. Nel 1980, a 21, she founded her own troupe, Kick. Within a few years, they were touring internationally. The punchiness of the name was the point, she grins: “I sort of pushed my way in.”

Nel 1987, she hopped to the RSC, making a name for herself with a brutally unadorned version of Shakespeare’s early tragedy Titus Andronicus, starring a brooding Brian Cox. The story is that no other director wanted to do it. “I was trying to stir something up," lei dice. “I was excited by that idea – to a degree still am.”

Casting a woman as Richard II a few years later certainly created a stir. The show produced vituperative headlines in the UK (along with some positive ones), e, when it reached France, made it to the front page of le Monde. Did it feel as if they were breaking new ground? She shrugs. "[The idea] was brave, but isn’t it crazy we thought that? Now you say, ‘Why was it brave?’ I mean, what was so extraordinary?” How does she feel about the fuss a quarter-century on, when gender is far more fluid, both on and off stage? “Boy, things happen slowly.”

From staged oratorios to grand opera, installations to devised work, so varied has Warner’s output been over the past 40-plus years that it’s hard to see the throughline: does she see it connecting? She says that one thread is the influence of her collaborators – Shaw, set designers Tom Pye, Chloé Obolensky and Michael Levine, lighting designer Jean Kalman, choreographer Kim Brandstrup, composer Mel Mercier. But she’s doesn’t always know what drives her: “At root there’s the constant search for the essential, as well as an exploration of the idea of performance.”

She has sometimes seemed impatient with the state of theatre: in a lecture at Oxford in 2019, Warner commented that she has often been far more excited by the energy of opera, particularly during the past decade. She now says she doesn’t sense a division between the forms: “I’m not sure I see it as different. I think opera is really good theatre.” But she admits that many theatre people think she’s gone awol. “They go: ‘When are you coming back?’”

The answer is: pretty soon. This autumn, Warner will attempt something she has long resisted: running a theatre, the tiny Ustinov Studio in Bath. The programme announcement has been delayed because of the pandemic, and the most she’ll say at the moment is that sung theatre as well as the spoken variety will feature. “I thought that would be a good way of looking at theatre for a time. Maybe that’s back to my roots.”

The pandemic has given her the chance to reflect on what she wants to do next. “I loved the slowdown. I was enormously lucky, lo so. A lot of my life has been jumping on planes.”

She has anxieties about the future, certainly: she worries that theatre is experiencing its own form of long Covid, especially among younger artists, many of whom have already left the business. For someone who often works on mainland Europe, Brexit is another bombshell whose impact is only just becoming clear. Given the expense and hassle of work visas, she argues, ancora, it’s people just starting out who are likely to suffer. “I’m so sad for them," lei dice. But she also feels positive: “Theatre is resilient, in its way. I like upheaval, sai. I like everything being thrown in the air.”

We drift back to the subject of her daughter, who has been sleeping all this time (“cowed into submission”, she laughs). The experience of becoming a parent has made her reflect again on her previous creative journeys, lei dice: bringing a piece of work into the world, putting it on its feet, encouraging it to talk and sending it out into the world, isn’t altogether dissimilar from having a child. She laughs again, aware of how ludicrous the comparison sounds: “… she says with the authority of someone who’s been a parent for all of four weeks”.

The whole thing has been a kind of miracle, lei aggiunge. “But life is never what you expect,” she says sweetly. “It’s about change, don’t you think?"

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