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ENCORE: Blanche McIntyre

Waiting for Blanche McIntyre to emerge from the Whitechapel rehearsal room where The Only True History of Lizzie Finn is having its first run-through, I glance over my notes and a little incongruity makes me smile. Her presence as a director to watch was firmly announced when she won the 2011 Critics’ Circle Most Promising Newcomer award for her work at the Finborough, yet she’s been directing since 2000. When we meet, she agrees that recognition was perhaps a long time coming but that she wasextremely well served by a long, long apprenticeship which was the best possible preparation for hercareer.

A further examination of her CV demonstrates a tendency for working in more intimate theatres -the Finborough, the Union, Southwark Playhouse, the Cock Tavern; even her West End debutwas in the intimate Studio 2 at Trafalgar Studios. I ask what draws her to these dark, intimateplaces.

“There’s a grubby reason and a soulful reason,” she says. “The reality is that it costs a lot less, and when Iwas starting out, I was doing it all myself so it made it that much more affordable. But I also love theidea of the audience sitting right in there, in the action – it’s a great artistic challenge for the actorsand there’s a real reward in how much more connected the audience feel.”

She tells a great story of how, as a wide-eyed four or five year old, she saw a company that touredoperas in the drawing rooms of stately homes, performing Lucia di Lammermoor right in front herface – “I could touch her dress!” she recalls – and it is clear that this sense of immediacy is somethingthat has continued to inform her productions.

We turn to McIntyre’s forthcoming production, The Only True History of Lizzie Finn, a 1995 playby Sebastian Barry, which she is currently deep in rehearsal with. Barry is a writer perhaps betterknown for novels like the achingly poetic WWI drama A Long Long Way and The Secret Scriptureand this marks the UK premiere for this play. The eponymous heroine of the story is a dancer who isswept off her feet by a dashing soldier returning from the Boer War. But when they return to Irelandin the heat of a passionate affair, the differences between them are thrown into stark relief.

“His writing here is very novelistic, but there’s something very extraordinary, mysterious,challenging, and most rewarding, about it,” says McIntyre. “It looks at what people do when things are too big totalk about, deal with, or process.”

Much of Barry’s writing is focused on Ireland and Lizzie Finnis no exception, but McIntyre believes that he shines a light on a period of history that has beenpreviously neglected: “The play is set at a crucial time in Ireland’s journey towards independenceand self-determination. It is a very particular moment of growing unrest and tension, a time whenland laws are changing. What Barry does it to take ordinary lives and small-scale events and setsthem against this backdrop, to accord them with a greater, almost Chekhovian, significance.”

I ask if we can have a sneak peek of what to expect from the look of Lizzie Finn in the flexible spaceof the Southwark Playhouse. “Our inspiration came from an old Early Christian or Viking story, abouta bunch of warriors in a cold, dark hall who look up and see a swallow suddenly appear, brieflyilluminated by the light of the fire and then instantly fly away. The Ireland of this play is a massivecold world with few maps and no roads with the sea ever-present, so the design seeks to give asense of this but also allowing for a beautiful image, like the swallow, to fleetingly emerge from eachscene,” explains McIntyre.

She is clearly keen for the audience to take as much as they can from her productions; therelationship between the audience and the space in which they are sitting is almost as important asthe play itself, something which marks McIntyre out from someone like say, Katie Mitchell.

Mitchell cropsup a couple of times in conversation; it was a visit to her 3Henry VI that first inspired the youngMcIntyre into the world of theatre, but there has been little subsequent crossover.”Katie Mitchell isundoubtedly an auteur, but for me theatre is about connecting with people, engaging with them,” she suggests.

Speaking with a refreshing honesty about a workshop she attended at the Lyric Hammersmitharound their recent Three Kingdoms, where the focus was on theatre as art and consequently thedirector as artist, McIntyre insists: “I don’t like the word artist; I don’t know what it means. I’d rather talk about whatis happening at this particular moment”.

I ask her what she would like people to take away as the McIntyre mark, in the same way thatMitchell and Rupert Goold establish their imprint on their work, but she demurs and describesherself as “an invisible director. I just want audiences to be hooked, and drawn in, and made to feelmore alive.”

She eventually hits upon what she sees as the common thread across her diverse body of work andit is the realisation that human life is never quite what you think it is going to be. “People are verystrange and don’t always respond the way you think they will to cataclysmic events: each play I havedone has explored some aspect of that. Life is complicated and people mess up – that doesn’t haveto be the end of it.”

So post-Lizzie Finn, what’s next for McIntyre? Surprisingly given her work-rate, there’s nothing in theschedule for a good while. “I’m really looking forward to a month off!”

The Only True History of Lizzie Finn plays at the Southwark Playhouse from 27 June to 21 July. For more information, visitsouthwarkplayhouse.co.uk.

Interview: Ian Foster

Photo: Dominic Parkes

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The Reviews Hub - Features
Our Features team is under the editorship of Nicole Craft. The team is responsible for sourcing interviews, articles, competitions from across the country. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.