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Zoé Ford Burnett: "The Lehman Trilogy is such a very human way to explore how we got to where we are”

Zoé Ford Burnett: "The Lehman Trilogy is such a very human way to explore how we got to where we are”

Zoé Ford Burnett: "The Lehman Trilogy is such a very human way to explore how we got to where we are” cover photo on Stagedoor
Lyn Gardner talks with the director about her journey with The Lehman Trilogy, from the National Theatre to the West End.

Zoé Ford Burnett didn’t think she could find out anything new about The Lehman Trilogy, having worked on it over the last five years. But she was wrong. Ford Burnett first came on board as an assistant director to Sam Mendes when the play premiered at the National. She was involved as an associate in the West End and Broadway transfers (the latter scooping five Tony Awards). She is currently director of the latest West End incarnation with Michael Balogun, Hadley Fraser and Nigel Lindsay, playing the fathers who founded the Lehman Brothers bank and the sons and grandsons who saw its decline and fall.

“It’s been utterly illuminating working with a new cast,” says Ford Burnett. “A real adventure. I thought I knew everything about this play, but having three new brilliant minds and actors working on it has been exciting, and I have found out so much about a text I thought I knew inside out.”

It can be hard for actors taking over from a starry cast (particularly one that had included Simon Russell Beale, who nabbed a Tony for the New York run) but Ford Burnett says that she and Mendes knew right from the start that the actors involved had to be “very special. They are not recreating performances, they are creating them afresh and bringing new insights, choices and brilliance with them.”

That’s necessary because five years and a pandemic have intervened since The Lehman Trilogy was first seen at the NT in 2018. A cunning play and production which uses theatrical smoke and mirrors to explain the mirage of money and tell the story of how capitalism and the banking industry got from the mid-19th century to the crash of 2008. Did Ford Burnett worry that the increasing distance from that financial crisis meant the play might not land with quite the same impact? Not at all. If anything, she reckons The Lehman Trilogy is even more urgent.

Hadley Fraser, Nigel Lindsay and Michael Balogun in The Lehman Trilogy, photo by Mark Douet.

“Right now, in the world, we are being confronted in a big way by the effects of rapacious capitalism. We are staring avarice in the face. To understand something, I think you have to understand how it was built. That’s the beauty of this play, it deconstructs how capitalism and financial models were built. You see what happened right from the beginning and how personal relationships affected the course of history. The Lehman Trilogy is such a very human way to explore how we got to where we are - a place where we all feel anxious.”

Assistant, associate and staff directors tend to be the Cinderellas of British theatre. They are crucial to getting the show on, ensuring it stays in top nick and guaranteeing that understudies are ready and waiting, but they get very little public affirmation. Who reads that far down the cast list or programme? But besides doing an essential job, working your way up in theatre as an assistant and associate can be the best possible apprenticeship for an ambitious director.

After all, most directors are protective of their rehearsal rooms, so, it’s hard to get inside one and see how other, already established people work and learn from them and from the fine actors and other creatives with whom they work. Most assistants get to rehearse understudy companies, which provides invaluable experience. Then there’s the huge advantage that assistants and associates get paid for their work, whereas producing their own shows on the fringe in the hopes of getting noticed often goes unpaid and can lead to significant debt.

That’s been the experience of Ford Burnett, who began her career working in London fringe venues but who, over the last decade, has gained invaluable experience assisting an impressive array of directors including Mendes, Josie Rourke, Iqbal Khan and Dominic Cooke. Along the way, she has gained a good insight into the workings of theatre organisations, from a small boutique theatre like the Donmar to the vast RSC.

“Being an assistant and an associate is a way of earning money without being divorced from the thing you love, but you also learn so much which you carry with you. Because of Josie, I am never going to be one of those directors who doesn’t finish their tech rehearsal on time. From Iqbal, I learned to be more fluid and to allow actors to go as far as they can and play with their own identities.” From Cooke, she learned that a director’s career is, “a marathon; not a sprint.”

Michael Balogun, Hadley Fraser and Nigel Lindsay in The Lehman Trilogy, photo by Mark Douet.

That’s important because being an assistant or an associate can often feel like being a bridesmaid and never the bride. Ford Burnett says that, “there is a version of being an assistant or an associate where you feel your own creativity is being sublimated, but I think I’ve been lucky with whom I’ve worked and what they have allowed me to do.”

The chemistry and trust between her and Mendes clearly work for both of them: she’ll be working alongside him in the Spring at the National on Jack Thorne’s The Motive and the Cue, about the making of Richard Burton's and John Gielgud's Hamlet.

But Ford Burnett is also developing her own work and pitching ideas. After being stilled by the pandemic, she is branching out on her own again. She is workshopping a significant project and has been able to draw for it on some of the many actors she has met over the years of assisting.

“Maybe it is taking me longer than some other directors to get where I want to go because of the route I have taken,” she says. “But because of everything I have done, I have knowledge and confidence. The younger me would have wanted everything sooner. The older me knows because of everything I have done assisting that I can handle the pressure, even if something has gone wrong technically and you have 1000 people turning up in an hour’s time. I used to be absolutely obsessed with the fact that Josie Rourke was the youngest woman to run a central London theatre. I wanted to be able to say something like that. There is a fetishization of youth in theatre culture which can be crippling. But I needed to have lived a bit to make the work I want to make. I am ready.” Watch her fly.

Cover image of Michael Balogun and Zoé Ford Burnett in rehearsal, photo by Mark Douet. The Lehman Trilogy is playing now through the 20th May 2023 at the Gillian Lynne Theatre. Tickets available here.

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Lyn Gardner

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