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Phyllida Lloyd: ‘Mrs Waite took us to a prison to perform. It made an impression’

The director behind Mamma Mia! and The Iron Lady shares the stories of Mrs Waite and Miss Weston

Phyllida Lloyd_MBT

The director behind Mamma Mia! and The Iron Lady shares the stories of Mrs Waite and Miss Weston

When I was 11-years-old, I was sent to a very eccentric small school called Lawnside School in Malvern where academic success was not the most important thing.

I interrogated my parents as to why they made such an extraordinary choice for me given that they headmistress had said to them: “If you want Phyllida to succeed academically, don’t send her here. If you want her to come out of the place being able to make damn good speech and be a good ballroom dancer, then this is the place.”

And actually, I think I owe that school my obsession with theatre. We did a lot of drama at primary school, but this school was absolutely steeped in the arts.

The headmistress at the time had been best friends with George Bernard Shaw, and Edward Elgar. Both were meant to have played duets on our school piano and so we used to stare at it and conjure ghosts of them and imagine them there.

We used to get taken to see absolutely anything and everything at the theatre. We went to Stratford upon Avon to see Shakespeare, we used to go and see a lot of amateur theatre that were more like operatic societies. We used to go see Ballet Rambert. We would just be constantly frogmarched up to the festival theatre to see things or put on a bus to see stuff.

We were also expected to write and direct our own plays. Every year each class had to write a play and produce it and we had to perform it on midsummer night on Midsummer Hill of the Malvern Hills.

The school was full of rituals and strange practices and very eccentric teachers and I actually really loved my time there. Despite what we’d been warned about, I managed to scrape through and get into university. It was a very colourful and strange

Mrs Betty Waite was a very charismatic, attractive teacher of speech and drama. We’d kind of have private lessons, with myself and one of my school friends. Not all of the teaching staff appeared to be very worldly, but she really was. She seemed to bring the world to us and we used to speak about life after university more than we did any work at all. She did talk me into repeatedly performing at the Cheltenham festival which is a big annual thing we used to go to do every year.

We would speak lyric poetry and act out duologues and we competed against a lot of amazing state schools and Cheltenham ladies’ college and all those kind of much more scholastic academic schools than us.

She once took us to a prison to perform. My classmates and I were taken from really quite cosy backgrounds and this was a quite privileged school. And she made up get up on stage aged 16 in front of a huge hall of prisoners. I can still remember the moment when the prisoners, presumably from a paedophile ward or something, were ushered in and the whole hall started to kind of hiss and jeer and we didn’t really understand what was going on. It was explained you know just keep your eyes down and don’t get thrown by it. It made a big impression on me.

Phyllida Lloyd_MBT

It was compulsory to do Shakespeare reading once a fortnight. My English teacher was very formidable and we were really quite terrified of her. She was called Miss Dylan Weston and she wore mustard ankle socks. We used to go and have to have feedback from the tiny office she used to smoke in. Her fingers were quite yellow and she used to smoke the cigarette right down to the final bit, and she really was passionate about Shakespeare.

She took us to Stratford and I was lucky because each class used to go once a term but she would always say to me, look I know you’ve already been to see Richard II but there’s a spare place on the bus. I remember going to see it three times and my parents were like, what on Earth is going on? We're getting all of these bills for tickets and you seem to have been to the same production thrice.

My love of Shakespeare has always stayed with me. For the last five or six years, I’ve been working with the Donmar Warehouse putting on an all-female Shakespeare Trilogy of plays: Julius Caesar, Henry IV and The Tempest. We’ve now decided to make the plays available for free to teachers and pupils through screenings.

I wanted young people who hadn’t had access to London theatre to see these productions. When it came to putting the productions on screen we decide to create a really sophisticated, really enticing website, sort of juicy, bitesize interviews with actors who have the most fantastic understanding of the plays, and were able to be incredibly vivid on the camera so children were able to pick on links and go into scenes and click on a character and have Harriet [Dame Harriet Walter] talking about Brutus. And we designed exercises and games to help teachers enjoy and feel more confident about teaching Shakespeare, we wanted to create these sort of artefacts for both pupils and teachers to really, really engage and have fun. There are about at least 100 different exercises or clips that are attached to each of the plays which were devised by teachers and pupils at the Donmar.

Access to the Shakespeare Trilogy on Screen content is free to students and teachers at schools and colleges in the UK. Teachers can sign up here. 



Born: 1957, Somerset

Education: Lawnside School, Malvern

Career: Phyllida Lloyd CBE is an English film and theatre director best known for Mamma Mia! and The Iron Lady

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