Sitting in the home of the former chairman of Keells, a combination of singing birds and noisy traffic outside the garden walls soundtrack our conversation. Phyllida Lloyd, director of Mamma Mia! (both the stage musical and 2008 film) is here for the opening of its international production in Sri Lanka, the ten-day event presented by [...]


The Mamma Mia! factor: What’s it all about?


Mamma Mia’s first director Phyllida Lloyd

Sitting in the home of the former chairman of Keells, a combination of singing birds and noisy traffic outside the garden walls soundtrack our conversation. Phyllida Lloyd, director of Mamma Mia! (both the stage musical and 2008 film) is here for the opening of its international production in Sri Lanka, the ten-day event presented by Cinnamon Life.

But Lloyd has been blissfully unaware of the buzz surrounding the show, having spent a week travelling around the country. As an example of typical Sri Lankan hospitality, her hosts even took her for a wedding reception on her first night here. ‘I had the full experience of being dressed in saree which was totally surreal. I was striding into this wedding thinking, “What does everybody think of this? Is this completely culturally appropriate?!”’Having explored the southern coast of Sri Lanka (a keen surfer, she describes Weligama as “the perfect beginner’s beach”) she plans to travel up north (Sigiriya, Dambulla etc) in the next two weeks. “But the best bit of this is being in real people’s homes – that’s the most wonderful part- and being hosted by somebody who is from here.”

Phyllida Lloyd is major. It’s a hard task finding someone else whose CV is as varied as hers –classical theatre, musical theatre, Shakespeare, opera, film…and Meryl Streep. She’s put on productions like The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, The Duchess of Malfi, Gloriana and La Bohème and her work has been seen in prestigious institutions like the National Theatre, Royal Court Theatre and Donmar Warehouse.By 1999 she had piqued the interest of Mamma Mia’s producer, Judy Cramer. “It was something I’d never thought I’d do, I was working in government-subsidized theatre (meaning not commercial theatre) and you don’t think you’re ever going to properly get a job that pays the rent and then out of nowhere comes this and then the next thing, ‘Would I be interested in meeting Benny and Bjorn?’, and, well …I mean, obviously! It was like a dream.”

Since its opening, Mamma Mia! has spread to 50 countries across six continents and been translated into 26 languages. As of this year, 60 million people have seen the show, thanks in no small part to its direction. I’m surprised to learn that part of the choreography was born out of improvising with props but Lloyd’s rehearsal process has always welcomed collaboration. “I think there’s a danger that with musicals it’s about, ‘Stand there, learn these dance steps, learn these songs and don’t bump into the furniture,’ but this is a story that is partly about a community that live on an island so I wanted to build that sense of community. The show is meant to remind you of what it’s like when you’re in your bedroom with a few of your girlfriends and ABBA comes on the radio. You all grab hairbrushes and start dancing– it’s the free spirit factor! Well, we call it the Mamma Mia factor!”

Mamma Mia factor, ABBA factor. There’s no denying that the musical’s success partially stems from its stellar soundtrack. ‘I think every song is a hit and the songs are astonishingly infectious – they’re so catchy and the hooks are addictive. A lot of people have tried to do jukebox musicals and not always succeeded because not all bands are writing about their real lives. But ABBA were writing their own stories of them falling in love, getting married, maturing and then having their relationships go wrong.”

But what is it about Mamma Mia! that makes people go crazy for it, I ask.

“I think it’s an incredibly ingenious story. It is a really good plot about identity and what is it that we need to make us feel whole, so lurking under the surface of this apparently light throwaway evening is actually quite a serious story. Here you’ve also got people from the audience, onstage. Ordinary people of all shapes and sizes, women of a certain age, and fundamentally you’ve got two generations – it’s a mother and daughter story.”

The female-driven narrative showcasing women at their best or most complicated is a common theme that runs across Lloyd’s work whether it is her second film, Iron Lady, based on the life of Margaret Thatcher starring Meryl Streep (who won an Oscar for her role) or her most recent musical, Tina, based on the life of Tina Turner. “She (Tina) came from very, very, humble beginnings and had an almighty struggle to work towards freedom. So she saw it as a sort of mission statement to give hope to women all over the world who might be in difficult domestic circumstances.”

But for Lloyd it’s not just about portraying these stories onstage, but changing the idea about what roles women can pursue in the theatre and who gets access to them. Motivated by a report which stated that for every job that went to a woman in British theatre, there were two jobs for a man, she began to cultivate the idea of an all-female Shakespeare trilogy. Over the course of six years, the Donmar Warehouse played host to three all-female productions – Julius Caesar, Henry IV and The Tempest- which were critically acclaimed. The casts were ethnically and socially diverse and some featured ex-offenders. “It was an attempt to take a knock at the establishment and go, okay, this ‘stuff’(the so-called crown jewels of our English literature) has been the province of (frankly) privileged white men and I’m going to throw that up and say, “What if  a group of diverse woman performed this? What would it sound like?’ The idea was to blow the minds of the audience and make them think about who should have access to culture and who feels outside the castle as it were.”

Her current views seem to reflect what, as a young director, she was always striving for. “I don’t know whether in that time I felt politically driven. I just felt more spiritually driven that theatre was a global village. If you want theatre to be a plea for tolerance then you should put a reflection of the audience onstage as much as you can.” Born in Somerset, Lloyd initially had plans to be an actor but was persuaded by her mother to go to university (later on gaining a degree in Drama and English) before discovering she much preferred the production side of things. Though she held a job in the BBC drama department, she went into fringe theatre, eventually gaining an Arts Council grant to train as a director. It sounds groundbreaking considering the lack of female role models she would have had back then but she calls directing a perfect fit for women – “I don’t think women should believe that, ‘Oooh I have to break into male territory to be a director’. I think it suits our capacity for making community rather than competition and I think we’re very good listeners. We like detail.”

Her attitude towards inclusivity, gender equity, and raising the voices of people in the minority still remains so ahead of the curve because it’s something, that even in 2018, the arts industry struggles with. In 2017, the British Film Institute released a statistic that only 30% of actors cast in films were women – depressing considering in 1913 it was 31%. With a movement as big as #MeToo which should have triggered somewhat of a change, I can’t help but note that the effects on the British arts industry haven’t been as extensive as Hollywood. Lloyd believes it’s been more subtle. “I think it has had a profound impact by which I mean everyone is questioning their role. Those in positions of hiring are questioning our relationship to power and how we use it and those who are in the position of being hired are questioning their own lack of voice. Ground rules are being drawn up about how we behave in the rehearsal room. I wouldn’t call it People magazine headlines but it’s on a deeper level.”

In person, a calming presence surrounds Lloyd and she puts you at ease quite quickly, never more happier than when talking about her craft– “The pressure on a commercial show is that the economic stakes are very high and therefore people get nervous. As the director, your job is not to get swayed by people’s anxieties about whether the show is going to be a hit.”I ask if there was anything she wished she’d known as a young director. She pauses for a while and finally says, “Don’t worry if you can’t solve everything straight away when you’re making work. Sit back, listen, wait, and be patient. Let your subconscious speak, listen to your collaborators. The solution to whatever the problem is will come – but it may not come till the last inch.” It’s advice that can be applied to literally anything, but that’s fitting considering it comes from a woman who has challenged herself in so many areas and been very fearless about her work. What a super trouper.


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