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Deborah Warner Portrait

Deborah Warner CBE is a British director working internationally in Theatre and Opera. 

The writer and critic Rupert Christiansen reflects on Deborah Warner’s work, drawing on his long and extensive experience of her productions: 


"Over four decades, Deborah Warner has constantly extended theatrical boundaries and redefined the vocabulary of performance through an oeuvre of rare consistency and integrity marked by its raw energy, sharp wit and moral complexity. 


Most notably, she has since the 1980s worked in close creative partnership with the actor Fiona Shaw, developing a wide range of projects that have been seen and praised throughout Europe and the USA. The Sunday Times critic John Peter wrote of their vision of Richard II that ‘Warner and Shaw are not being either fashionable or reactionary … They are making theatre that is an adventure, a journey of the mind, a discovery of other ages, other countries, other people, other minds.' Warner has also enjoyed long-term collaborations with the designers Jean Kalman, Hildegard Bechtler, Chloe Obolensky, Tom Pye, and Mel Mercier, and the choreographer Kim Brandstrup.


Although the majority of her work has focused on major classics of spoken drama and opera, she has also experimented with the performance of poetry (The Waste Land, Readings) and the staging of oratorio (St John Passion, Messiah), as well as installations (The St Pancras and Angel projects, Peace Camp).  She has made relatively few excursions into new work (The Powerbook, Between Worlds and Testament of Mary being exceptions) or comedy (The School for Scandal), and although she has made much creative use of video on stage, she has directed little for film and television. 


Her first creations for Kick – a company that she invented and managed herself – were deeply influenced by the example of Peter Brook and his belief that the performer must always be at the centre of the event.  (‘I’m not sure I would have been in any way conscious of the potency of theatre if I hadn’t seen his work,’ she said in an interview.with Vogue July 1994). Other figures important in her formative years include Peter Stein, who commissioned her production of Coriolanus at the Salzburg Festival, and Nicholas Payne and Anthony Whitworth-Jones who commissioned her first essays in opera, at Opera North and Glyndebourne respectively. 


Although she has refused to subscribe to a programmatic feminism or a political ideology, her work has often explored issues of gender, notably in her ground-breaking casting of Fiona Shaw as Shakespeare’s Richard II. She was also the first woman director to be given sole charge of a production in a main house of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre.


Warner’s process requires long, rigorous, and intensely exploratory rehearsal periods and she commits to a continual development of interpretation throughout a production’s lifespan of runs and revivals – principles that have often made her projects difficult to fund, especially in the UK. 


Her approach transcends national barriers and cultures – to a remarkable degree, her productions have travelled globally, their resonances subtly transformed by exposure to different environments and atmospheres. Sceptical of the conventional division between stage and auditorium, she has a keen interest in exploring ‘found’ spaces, both large and small. Although she avoids gratuitous spectacle and historical literalism, her work can accommodate grandeur of scale and ‘period’ sensitivity when the material requires it.   


Informed by her Quaker background, her wide reading and constant travel, she is an artist of exceptional honesty and seriousness who does not cut corners to compromise with commercial imperatives. “Deborah’s incredibly open,’ said the actor Brian Cox, who played Titus Andronicus and King Lear for her. ‘She works like a gardener: prepares the bed, plants the seed, waters it and watches it grow.’ " - Rupert Christiansen, 2018

Full Chronology of Deborah Warner Works - LIST
Chronology of collaborations
with Fiona Shaw - LIST
Chronology of Deborah Warner Opera works - LIST

Deborah Warner is currently the Cameron Mackintosh Visiting Professor of Contemporary Theatre at Oxford University. She received an Honorary Fellowship of The Central School of Speech and Drama in 2017 and is an Associate Artist of The Barbican Theatre. 

The Archive: Each of the productions listed here is covered by a box of related material, often including correspondence, production notes and records, previews and reviews from magazines and newspapers, as well as miscellaneous memorabilia. Bona fide research students with a formal academic reference wishing to consult the collection should contact Rupert Christiansen

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