LONDON — The director Jamie Lloyd was giving me a tour of his tattoos. Not the Pegasus on his chest or the skeleton astronaut floating on his back, though he gamely described those, but the onyx-inked adornments that cover his arms and hands, that wreathe his neck, that wrap around his shaved head.
When I asked about the dragon at his throat, he told me it had been “one of the ones that hurt the least,” then pointed to the flame-licked skulls on either side of his neck: his “covert way,” he said, of representing drama’s traditional emblems for comedy and tragedy.
“I thought maybe it’d be a little bit tacky to have theater masks on my neck,” he added, a laugh bubbling up, and it’s true: His dragon would have eaten them for lunch.
It was early December, and we were in a lounge beneath the Playhouse Theater, where Lloyd’s West End production of “Cyrano de Bergerac,” starring James McAvoy in a skintight puffer jacket and his own regular-size nose, would soon open to packed houses and critical praise.
Running through Feb. 29, and arriving on cinema screens Feb. 20 in a National Theater Live broadcast, “Cyrano” — newly adapted by Martin Crimp, and positing its hero as a scrappy spoken-word wonder — capped a year that saw Lloyd celebrated on both sides of the Atlantic.
In London last summer, his outdoor hit “Evita” traded conventional glamour for sexy grit, while his radical reinterpretation of Harold Pinter’s “Betrayal,” starring Tom Hiddleston, was hailed first in the West End, then on Broadway. Ben Brantley, reviewing “Betrayal” in The New York Times, called it “one of those rare shows I seem destined to think about forever.”
When Time Out London ranked the best theater of 2019, it gave the top spot jointly to all three Lloyd productions, saying that he “has had a year that some of his peers might trade their entire careers for.”
Lloyd, who is 39, did not spring from the same mold as many of those peers. There was for him, he says, no youthful aha moment of watching Derek Jacobi onstage and divining that directing was his path. Epiphanies like that belonged to other kids, the ones who could afford the tickets.
If there is a standard background for a London theater director — and Lloyd would argue that certainly there used to be — that isn’t where he came from, growing up working class on the south coast of England, in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain.
The first time I laid eyes on him, chatting in the Playhouse lobby after a preview of “Cyrano,” he was the picture of working-class flair — the gold pirate hoops, the pink and black T-shirt, the belt cinching high-waisted pants.
He looks nothing like your typical West End director. Which of course is precisely the point.
“It’s quite often said of him,” McAvoy observed by phone, once the reviews were in, “that he strips things away or he tries to take classical works and turn them on their head. I think he’s always just trying to tell the story in the clearest and most exhilarating way possible.”
The “X-Men” star, who put the number of times he’s worked with Lloyd in the past decade at a “gazillion,” calls theirs “probably one of the most defining relationships that I’ve had in my career.”
Yet Lloyd himself is on board with the notion that his assertively contemporary stagings pare back stifling layers of performance history to lay bare what’s underneath.
Like the tiger and dragons that he had emblazoned on his head just last May, though, the unembellished nature of his shows — as minimalist in their way as his tattoos are the opposite — is a relatively recent development.
Lloyd’s first “Cyrano de Bergerac,” starring Douglas Hodge in 2012, was also his Broadway debut. It was, he said, “absolutely the ‘Cyrano’ that you would expect,” with the fake nose, the hat, the plume, the sword-fighting.
There is, granted, sword-fighting in the new one — but the audience has to imagine the swords.
Lloyd’s productions, including a lauded revival of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s “Passion” in 2010, long marked him as a hot young director on the rise. But he sees in some of his previous work a noisy tendency toward idea overload.
The pivot point came in 2018, with a season that the Jamie Lloyd Company — which he formed seven years ago with the commercial producing powerhouse Ambassador Theater Group — devoted to the short works of Harold Pinter. The playwright’s distillation of language forced Lloyd to match it with his staging.
That immersion led to what the director Michael Grandage — one of Lloyd’s early champions, who tapped him at 27 to be his associate director at the Donmar Warehouse — called Lloyd’s “absolute masterpiece.”
“I had quite a lot of ambition to do a production of ‘Betrayal’ in my life,” Grandage said. “And then when I saw Jamie’s, I thought, ‘Right, that’s it. I don’t ever, ever want to direct this play.’ Because that’s, for me, the perfect production.”
Charm is a ready currency in the theater, but Lloyd’s is disarming; he seems simply to be being himself, without veneer. Like when I fact-checked something I’d read by asking whether he was a vegan.
“Lapsed vegan,” he confessed immediately, with a tinge of guilt about eating eggs again.
Pay no attention to any tough-guy vibe in photos of him; do not be alarmed by the sharp-toothed cat on the back of his head. In conversation, Lloyd comes across as thoughtful and unassuming, with an animated humor that makes him fun company. If he speaks at the speed of someone with no time to waste, he balances that with focused attentiveness.
His father, Ray, was a truck driver. His mother, Joy (whose name is tattooed on his right forearm, near the elbow), cleaned houses, took in ironing and ran a costume-rental shop, where young Jamie would sneak in to dress up as the children’s cartoon character Rainbow Brite.
“It’s very embarrassing,” he said, squelching a laugh.
Seeing professional theater wasn’t an option then for Lloyd, whose grown-up passion for expanding audience access — one of the things he has made himself known for in the West End — grew out of that exclusion. His company has set aside 15,000 free and 15,000 £15 tickets for its current, characteristically starry three-show season, which will also include Emilia Clarke in “The Seagull” and Jessica Chastain in “A Doll’s House.” At the 786-seat Playhouse, that adds up to just over 38 full houses.
Lloyd, who was studying acting at the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts when he decided he wanted to direct, found his way to theater as a child by acting in school shows and local amateur productions. Twice he was cast as a monkey; in “The Wizard of Oz,” thrillingly, he got to fly.
The details of his early days have always been colorful — like having a clown as his first stepfather, who performed at children’s parties under the stage name Uncle Funny. But Lloyd is quick to acknowledge the darkness lurking there.
“It sounds a little bit like some dodgy film, because he was actually a really violent man,” he said. “And there were times where he was very physically abusive to my mum. There was a sort of atmosphere of violence in that house that was really uneasy. And yet masked with this literal makeup, but also this sense of trying to entertain people whilst enacting terrible brutality behind the scenes.”
This is where he locates his own connection to Pinter’s work.
“A lot of that is that the violence is beneath the surface,” he said. “And on the top there is this sort of, what I call a kind of topspin, a layer of cover-up.”
Lloyd was still at drama school when he staged a production of Lapine and William Finn’s “Falsettoland” that won a prize: assistant directing a show at the Bush Theater in London. Based on that, Trevor Nunn hired him, at 22, to be his assistant director on “Anything Goes” in the West End — a job he did so well that Grandage got word of it and hired him to assist on “Guys and Dolls.” While Lloyd was doing that, he also began directing in his own right.
The costume and set designer Soutra Gilmour, who has been a constant with Lloyd since he cold-called her for his first professional production, Pinter’s “The Caretaker,” said theirs is an easy relationship, with a “symbiotic transference of ideas.” Even their creative aesthetics have evolved in sync.
“We’ve actually never fallen out in 13 years,” she said over mint tea on a trip to New York last month, just before “Betrayal” closed. “Never! I don’t even know how we would fall out.”
Of course, the one time she tried to decline a Lloyd project five years ago, because its tech rehearsals coincided with the due date for her son’s birth, he told her there was no one else he wanted to work with. So she did the show, warning that at some point she would have to leave. Now, she says, he understands that she won’t sit through endless evening previews, because she needs to go home to her child.
Lloyd and his wife, the actress Suzie Toase (whose name is tattooed on one of his arms), home-school their own three boys (whose names are tattooed on the other). Their eldest, 13-year-old Lewin, is an actor who recently played one of the principal characters, the heroine’s irresistible best friend, on the HBO and BBC One series “His Dark Materials,” whose cast boasts McAvoy as well.
Lloyd’s interpretation of “Betrayal,” a 1978 play that recounts a seven-year affair, imbued it with a distinctly non-’70s awareness of the fragility of family — the notion that children are the bystanders harmed when a marriage is tossed away.
Its gasp-inducing moment came with the entrance of a character Pinter wrote to be mentioned but not seen: the small daughter of the couple whose relationship is imperiled. In putting her onstage, Lloyd didn’t touch the text; it was a simple, wordless role. With it, he altered the resonance of the play.
To me, it seemed logical that Lloyd’s production would have been informed by his experience as a husband and father — and maybe also as a child in a splintering family. How old had he been, anyway, when his parents split up?
“Five,” Lloyd said. “The same age as the character would be.” He paused. “Oh God, yeah, fascinating. I’d not thought about that. Exactly the same age.”
If that fact was of more than intellectual interest to him, he didn’t let on. He volunteered a memory, though — of being a little one “amongst these kind of big giants, and I guess what we can now see as the mess of their lives.”
Doing “Betrayal” in New York, Lloyd was struck by how eager Americans were to chat about his tattoos. Still, he told me after I texted him a follow-up question about them, he hadn’t expected his appearance to be such a talking point in this story.
It’s not just idle curiosity. It’s about what the tattoos signify in a field where, in Britain as in the United States, the top directors tend to have grown up very comfortably. It’s about who is welcome in a particular space, and who gets to be themselves there.
For a long time after Lloyd started working in the theater, he wore a blazer every day: a conscious attempt to conform in an industry where he felt a nagging sense of difference.
“Every other director at the time was from an Oxbridge background,” he said, “and looked and sounded a particular way. I spent a long time pretending to be like them.”
It was a performance of sorts, with a costume he donned for the role.
It was only about seven or eight years ago — around the time he left the Donmar and started putting together his own company — that he stopped worrying about what people might think if he looked the way he wanted.
“My dad had tattoos” was the first thing he said when I asked him about his own.
“I guess it’s partly getting older,” he mused, “but it’s just sort of going, ‘You can’t pretend to be someone. You’ve got to be who you really are, in every way.’”
The tattoos that have gradually transformed him are from a different aesthetic universe than his recent work onstage. Yet the impulse, somehow, is the same.
In shedding the blazer, in inking his skin, Lloyd has peeled back layers of imposed convention to show who’s underneath.
And should you spot him at the theater, where he is hard to miss, you’ll notice that he looks just like himself.