Martha O’Brien talks to theatre director Adele Thomas, back in Wales to direct National Theatre Wales’s hotly anticipated Hail Cremation!
[This interview was conducted on Saturday March 14th, before much of the unfolding events relating to the Covid-19 coronavirus, and before Hail Cremation!, like so many other productions across the UK and further afield, was postponed indefinitely.]
I catch Adele on the phone between busy rehearsal schedules, meetings and traffic. Her enthusiastic, easygoing and chatty nature means that we immediately get sidetracked into talking about the only thing that anyone seems to be talking about right now: the coronavirus.
“It’s very strange!” Adele says, curiously. “I mean, we’ve been kind of locked in the rehearsal rooms for the last five weeks. When you’re in rehearsals for a show you kind of lose track of the world anyway, you just lose track of the normal world, but the fact that this is happening feels so dislocated. I don’t know, it doesn’t feel real.”
The surrealism of it all feels oddly fitting when discussing a project like Hail Cremation!, Adele’s latest work as a director, what National Theatre Wales calls ‘a psychedelic fusion of live music, dance and video, will take you on a riotous journey to celebrate the life of one of Wales’ most visionary radicals – Dr William Price’.
We put the panic-buying hysteria to one side and assume a semblance of normality to chat about Adele’s work as a theatre director. So what was it, I ask, that drew her to directing theatre while she was studying at Cambridge University?
“Well, I grew up in Port Talbot, and in a very working class upbringing; I would never have thought of directing,” she explains. “It wasn’t even that I thought I couldn’t do it, it just wasn’t a thing that I even knew existed, you know. But because I’m from Port Talbot, there’s a big legacy of acting, so you know that you can become an actor, and you know that that’s a thing. So I went to a lot of youth theatre when I was very young but I remember,” she laughs. “I was very disillusioned when I was young with acting, particularly because all the girls parts in shows used to be pretty boring. So you’d end up being the, you know, fainting kind of heroine in the shows and I got really bored of it.”
It wasn’t the theatre which necessarily led Adele’s passion towards directing, though.
“I’d always loved music videos; they were a huge influence on me. If I listened to albums, I used to dream and sketch and design and draw music videos to things, and for every album, I used to be choreographing it in my house in my head – but I didn’t know I was doing this at the time, do you know what I mean? And the other thing that I used to do when I was really little, was that I’d constantly make models – now I’d go, of course, that’s a model box for a set! But I always used to do loads of that stuff. So I think these raw materials were there, but I didn’t have a focus to say what it was, and I didn’t really know what a theatre director was until I got to university. And then there were lots of people there that had been very interested in it. Rebecca Hall was there, Peter Hall’s daughter.
“Suddenly you go, ‘Okay, so there’s this job which maybe actually brings together all the things that I love’ – which was acting – although I knew I didn’t want to be an actor – live performance, choreography, music, visuals, that kind of thing.
“There’s a big theatre directing tradition in Cambridge,” Adele explains. “It’s a total cliche to go and study English at Cambridge and then become a theatre director. And I guess I am part of that cliche – but it really hadn’t occurred to me that that was something that could happen.”
Would Adele say that growing up in Port Talbot has affected her work – the way that she works, perhaps, or the types of things that she is drawn to as a director?
“Yeah, massively. Even though I did go to Cambridge University, I’ve always felt like such an outsider in theatre because, I think, I don’t have that automatic love for the canon. I didn’t grow up watching Chekhov productions, or going to the RSC or all that stuff. So, I think when you slightly step outside that stuff, you can see some of the ridiculous pretentiousness of theatre – and also, you can see why people find theatre embarrassing.”
Adele is frank in her dislike for tradition, which she finds often acts as a barrier between audiences and actors, as well as preventing theatre and opera newcomers from engaging with the medium.
“I’ve moved recently into opera, which is now what I do, really – I don’t really direct that much theatre anymore. And opera, you know, is kind of the ultimate version of that, like people often go to opera – I’m going to call them ordinary people, people aren’t automatically born into loving opera – they’ll go, and they’ll look at people standing still, standing weirdly, singing in a weird way, and they’ll go, what the hell is this? – and I get it.
“So when I work in opera, I work really really hard to push back at that culture, and to go, ‘You can’t just stand there looking like a bit of a twit’. You’ve got to act, you’ve got to believe what you’re saying. It’s really thrilling, because opera singers, I think, are some of the most amazing creatures on the planet, I’m just in awe of them.”
It’s not to say that there’s a total lack of commonality between opera performers and working-class theatregoers, though:
“Weirdly, in many ways, I think my working class work ethic that I get from my parents, which is really really strong, is much better reflected in opera singers than it has been in a lot of actors in the past. I think opera singers take their craft much more seriously. It’s so interesting – they work so hard, their work ethic is really really really unbelievable, and the amount of prep and work and stuff they do by the time they get there, the amount of craft that they put into their performances is really mind blowing.
“But also, I’ve been really super lucky that every opera singer I’ve worked with so far has also wanted to push themselves – as actors, as total performers. So I think that definitely comes from growing up in a working class place. I always say my big influence when I was growing up was the Taibach Rugby Club panto, which was the only piece of theatre, really, I’d seen until I was an adult, apart from youth theatre shows!”
Adele laughs, but her passion for the Taibach Rugby Club panto is as enthusiastic as her enthusiasm for Berenice or Wozzeck.
“It was amazing – you could watch this three-hour panto, performed by local blokes, in ridiculous costumes. It would be three hours long, everyone would get absolutely hammered, it would cost six quid for a ticket, and it would be the most entertaining thing. And I just think if a lot of theatre aimed to engage and entertain its audiences in the way that the Taibach Rugby Club Panto did, it would be a much more popular medium!
“And we’re very lucky, the cast of Hail Cremation! are just brilliant, and I think because a lot of us come from similar working class backgrounds, and we’re all Welsh, none of us are taken for granted – and I think sometimes the problem in theatre is when everyone’s like, ‘oh this is a great play, so we’ll just take it for granted that you’re going to come to it’. And actually, I love that these performers are just working so hard, and you want to give the audience that warmth, something like you get from the Taibach Rugby Club Panto. That’s the same if you’re doing a mainstage opera – you can’t sit back, you’ve got to work really hard to tell the story, and to give your audience a maximum experience, basically.”
Apart from the Taibach Rugby Club panto, then, who are Adele’s main influences, particularly directorially?
“My biggest influences have always been opera,” Adele says, definitively. “I didn’t really know what theatre was or could be until I saw a production of Wozzeck at the Welsh National Opera in 2005. It was the Berg opera of Wozzeck, and it was directed by Richard Jones, who is still my absolute hero as a director. He is just extraordinary.
“I think up until that point – I’d done the National Theatre Studio Young Directors’ Course earlier that year and so I’d seen Katie Mitchell’s work, I’d seen amazing directors’ work, but somehow, it still felt quite remote, and middle-class, I guess. It didn’t feel like it was my world. But then when I saw Richard Jones’s stuff, it was like everything just made sense. Not only is he the most amazing storyteller and a one hundred per cent pure artist, but the wallpapers (of Wozzeck) were gaudy 1970s wallpaper and the costume was like, mid-twentieth century retro futurist, and I was like, ‘oh my God, this is everything I love’. Because I loved that in music, I loved it in film, and photography and art, but I’d never seen it on stage before, so it was amazing to go, ‘this guy is making the highest quality art but he’s also making it out of the same tacky shit that I love!’
“And then my other big influence is Barrie Kosky who is just amazing. He runs my favourite opera house in the whole world – he runs the Komische Oper in Berlin. And I’d never compare myself to him in a million years, but I love his ethos, which is that we’re here to have a sublime experience, but we’re also here to be entertained, and we’re here to laugh, and be collectively together.
“And again, there’s that same thing: he totally isn’t afraid of embracing high camp and low art in his work and that’s absolutely what I love. Barrie Kosky said my favourite thing which is definitely my kind of mantra, which is, ‘taste is death’.”
Adele laughs as she quotes Kosky, but her passion for accessibility and experimentalism in the opera makes clear that when disregarding taste, there’s room for innovation. What is Adele’s main vision, when creating opera, or theatre?
“I’ve become known for work that’s full on, I guess. And this show is definitely that. And certainly, I love high concept design, and I like really energetic and very physical performance. So it’s almost like pure slapstick, to a certain degree. That’s the stuff that I really love, and I think I really thrive in. My favourite thing, really, is to make stuff that’s very very funny. My absolute favourite stuff is really high comedy, very funny, that becomes, suddenly, without you even realising it, very very moving.
“That’s where I think a lot of my best work’s made. I made a show called The Knight of the Burning Pestle at The Globe, which is very much like that; and Così fan tutte, I made, which was my first opera was very much like that, and Berenice, which is the opera we’ve made, which is currently nominated for Best New Opera Production in the Olivier Awards at the moment, so that’s coming up very very soon, and that’s very similar again.
“Very high energy performances, unbelievable costume, and that production (Berenice) on the surface seems to be quite traditional, but actually, it really wasn’t. It’s subtly kind of radical, I guess. So that’s my kind of thing, really.”
When it comes to being full-on and experimental, Hail Cremation! doesn’t seem all that different from Adele’s opera work, I suggest.
“Yeah, I think in many ways it’s really similar. It’s very very highly physical, completely sung through pretty much from beginning to end, there’s some acting scenes in it but really it’s just mostly music. And the actors have been amazing because they’ve taken on not just singing and spoken stuff, but also the sprechstimme of the piece, which is basically like, texts being spoken in a rhythmical way. So it’s somewhere between Dr Seuss and rap, basically,” she laughs. “Or like, contemporary opera. It’s really strange, it’s an amazing hybrid. It’s really bonkers. And that has been really fun but I think it’s been completely eye opening for the performers, because it’s like, if you miss that, the music is just keeping going – if you’re doing a play, you can pause whenever you want, or you can add whatever you want. But the discipline of adhering to the music; if you miss a beat, it’s like a tank is going to roll over you, because the music’s just going to keep going!
“It’s kind of relentless, and I kind of love that about it. I mean, one of the things that I love about opera is that, I feel like in rehearsing a play, what you’re doing 90% of the time is rehearsing pace and the music of the piece, really. What you’re trying to do is make people’s intentions accord with the music of the text that the playwright’s written, so your job really is to kind of conduct that.
“But in opera, you have a conductor who sets all that stuff for you, so actually, your job as a director then is much more about the art, and much more about the depth and the storytelling and whatever. And I love that, and this has very much been like that – you’re not working with the actor on pace and putting together music, the music’s all there for them. So in that way, it’s been very similar to opera, and then in other ways, it has been kind of different.”
So what about those new things – what’s been different?
“I’ve been working very closely with my choreographer Emma [Woods], who works on me with pretty much everything that I do, we have a very long relationship. She’s a brilliant collaborator and she’s amazing. But we’ve always worked in the past with opera singers, and we’ve got them to move like dancers, or to move like physical theatre performers, but now we’ve got actual dancers! Which is great!
“We’ve got a group of four actors who are amazing and couldn’t ask for better, really, in terms of everything – skill, and attitude, just flexibility and bravery of performance, they are amazing. And these amazing four dancers who are playing, literally, hundreds and hundreds of people between them, and dealing with, I mean literally over one hundred costume changes in the course of the show. And then a band of four people who are amazing musical performers, but also acting their socks off and doing some physical performance as well!”
Adele laughs, aware of the chaos and demands of the show.
“It’s kind of insane. I think everyone is doing at least two jobs in the show which they’ve probably never done before,” she laughs.
And all of this chaos came from Jon Treganna’s brain. Has Adele worked closely with him on this project?
“Yes, certainly. What Jon initially made were a bunch of songs, so it was kind of like inheriting a concept album, if that makes sense, about the life of this guy, so a lot of time was spent trying to turn that then into a show. Because it wasn’t necessarily theatrically conceived at all initially. It’s been very intense and has taken a very long time to try to get it to where it is. What would be amazing is to put it on stage and take it back again, and kind of re-configure it, because I think that’s what happens a lot with musical theatre. So that was fun.”
Adele by no means sees this collaboration as strictly between herself and Jon, though: she is passionate about her colleagues that have made it all happen.
“The amount of creativity that’s gone into the show is really enormous, like there’s Jac [Ifan Moore], who’s my associate director who’s been phenomenal, and who’s really keeping the heart of the show beating, he’s amazing. And Emma, who’s choreographing it.
“It’s interesting, like Jon has created one level of a show that has these, like, twenty-six different levels of things going on! Emma’s choreography is so important, and Rhiannon [Matthews], who’s designed the costumes,”
Adele tells me a little more about William Price, whom Hail Cremation! is about.
“He’s a neo-druidic figure, and a known as an eccentric. And a large part of that is because he dressed so bizzarely and so brilliantly. He had these amazing high concept clothes, so we knew we needed a designer who could basically create extremely high concept, high fashion kind of wearable art, basically, for the show. So every costume is absolutely exquisite, catwalk ready, and Rhiannon’s been doing that. That’s a massive part of this.”
I tell Adele that I loved the trailer for the show.
“There’s no set at all, really, it’s just the costumes, and then there’s a massive amount of video design, which has been made by Nic Finch – the trailer is actually his work, so all the video in the show is in that style. Again, quite retro futurist, it’s very psychedelic, basically. So that’s a massive part of it, and then obviously the band have been a force in turning music that was written on Garageband into kind of live music. Which is completely insane! It’s bonkers.”
What was it about the show that drew Adele to want to work on something so, ‘bonkers’?
“There’s an art movement which I was very interested in, which revolves around shonkiness, and 1990s early computer technology and that kind of thing,” she explains. And I’ve been really interested in that for a bit. Artists like Shana Moulton – she is amazing, this California artist who makes all this kind of extremely strange vaporwave stuff, which is kind of made through early editing Microsoft editing tools from like 90s – totally bonkers, and brilliant, and maybe there’s a bit of nostalgia there for my youth, growing up in the 90s. So when this came through, there were a couple of songs that Jon had sent through and I was just like, it really makes me think of that, there’s something kind of brilliantly shonky about it!”
“It was the weird shonkiness of it that made me go, this is really interesting. And in a weird way, maybe even accidentally, that’s a good way to present William Price, because he’s kind of fifty per cent noble and amazing and intelligent, and pioneering and brilliant, and fifty per cent totally illegitimate, crazy, totally eccentric, foolish, self-defeating. And there’s something about the wonkiness of the whole thing which does him a kind of strange justice, if that makes sense.”
It does feel, I say, of the craziness and psychedelic methods used to express this bizarre man’s life, that it doesn’t feel like it could have been done in any other way.
“That’s right!” says Adele. “But I think initially when Jon had written it, it was a bit more like Les Mis, in his head. Do you know what I mean? You know, it was a period drama, and it was like actually, no, we need to get away from that, we need to kind of embrace the kind of, the shonkiness of the man, and the brilliance of him, and kind of somehow that’s weirdly very Welsh, you know. It’s like, it’s very Welsh, it’s not entirely serious, it’s kind of a bit eccentric, a bit lo-fi, a bit hand-made, but also amazing and triumphant and heroic.”
What’s been the biggest obstacle in this whole process?
“I think Welsh theatre isn’t set up to deal with shows on this scale. It’s brilliant that NTW is doing it, but at the same time there’s definitely an ethos that I’m much more used to working with at places like the Royal Opera House, where there’s a structure in place to deal with big-scale work, so that has been a massive obstacle – things like rehearsal spaces, long term crew; that sort of thing.
“But I think we’re finally getting through that and getting on top of it. It’s more about mindset than anything else. We’ve got people going, ‘oh, we won’t decide on this yet’, and I’m going, ‘no, we will decide on this now!’ It is almost like making opera in that respect, and opera often has to sign off on things way in advance because the scale of making costumes for a hundred people in a chorus, or the size of sets – all that stuff means everything’s pre-prepped, if that makes sense.
“And we definitely kind of came in with that mindset at the start of this production. But the cast and creative teams and production and stage management have absolutely risen to it, because on all fronts it’s been very ambitious, if that makes sense. It weirdly doesn’t feel that ambitious to me, it doesn’t feel that big-scale really, but for theatre in Wales, it’s ambitious, and this team have really worked miracles.”
And what’s been the biggest reward?
“The cast are amazing,” Adele says, instantly. “The cast are so fun and have just been great. It’s very silly so every day in rehearsals is really fun. It’s brilliant to bring Emma here and this whole new thing of working with dancers has been really good fun, and to explore some aesthetics in costume and video which are not necessarily natural theatrical aesthetics, that’s been really fun. So I think it will be great fun, ultimately, hopefully.”
And what about any future projects?
“I’ve got three shows coming up at the Royal Opera House. I’ve got more and more opera, lots of international opera coming up, I’m going to make my Glyndebourne debut, which is very exciting, as an opera director. There’s lots of very exciting stuff about all of those things which I can’t say yet, unfortunately! Opera books a long time in advance, so that’s it now for the next four or five years, just opera back to back.”
We wind up our phone call and I tell Adele I can’t wait to see Hail Cremation! – of course, we laugh incredulously, back to our earlier conversation, if and when it goes ahead.
For more info on Hail Creamtion! keep up to date on the NTW website.