After a gore soaked Duchess of Malfi at the RSC, Maria Aberg is bringing the ‘very silly’ Little Shop of Horrors to Regent’s Park. She tells Sam Marlowe about re-sharpening the teeth of the B-movie inspired musical
In Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s musical Little Shop of Horrors, bubble-headed blonde Audrey longs for a squeaky-clean, deodorised home of her own: “Somewhere that’s green”. This summer, she gets her wish as the show takes root in the verdant Open Air Theatre in London’s Regent’s Park.
The B-movie-inspired story of a boy, a girl, a sadistic dentist and a power-crazed carnivorous plant has won legions of devotees since it first appeared Off-Broadway in 1982, inspiring the kind of cult fandom only really rivalled by Richard O’Brien’s Rocky Horror Show.
There have been regular UK revivals. Sheridan Smith starred in a production at the Menier Chocolate Factory in 2006, which transferred to the West End and toured three years later with a new cast. Birmingham Rep and Manchester Royal Exchange have both mounted productions within the last four years.
Surprisingly, Maria Aberg, who directs this time around, has never seen it on stage – though she has seen the 1986 Frank Oz film version. Is she anxious about tackling a cult classic having no experience of it on stage? On the contrary, she says, coming to it fresh is freeing. “It means we can do it without worrying too much about either being different, or about conforming to what people are expecting.”
Aberg is not one for serving up the predictable. The Swedish-born, multilingual director has given us a pop culture King John complete with Dirty Dancing and Rihanna, an As You Like It set at a music festival, and a role-swapping Doctor Faustus, all for the Royal Shakespeare Company.
In a career that has taken her to Sweden and Germany as well as the UK, she’s directed new work by Dennis Kelly, Polly Stenham and Roy Williams. She comes to Little Shop seven months pregnant with her second child, and with the gory stench of the Duchess of Malfi at the RSC still in her nostrils. “That was 11 weeks of existing in this horrible, misogynistic, blood-soaked world of misery and hatred,” she recalls cheerfully. “This is just very silly.”
Menken and Ashman’s creation is based on the little-known, low-budget black comedy film of the same name, released in 1960. Seymour, played here by Marc Antolin, is a nerdy assistant at a struggling Skid Row florist who stumbles across an extraordinary plant that feeds on human flesh and blood. He dreams the discovery could transform his threadbare, lonely life. He is also besotted with ditsy shopgirl Audrey, here played by Jemima Rooper, who is abused by her nasty dentist boyfriend, played by Matt Willis, formerly of boyband Busted.
Aberg acknowledges that Little Shop is a departure for a theatremaker whose work is typically knotty, risk-taking and visceral – but it’s not a show without darkness. She thinks it may have lost some of its power to shock over the years and is determined to re-sharpen its teeth.
“One of the things we talked about right at the beginning was making the material feel as subversive as it did when the show first came out,” the director says. “It’s slightly fossilised into this quite familiar, friendly little chamber musical, where everyone knows what they’re gonna get. And that’s kind of the pleasure of it. But the edges, the things that were spiky and interesting and slightly outrageous about it, have been worn off by time and success.”
Audrey’s tortured relationship with Orin is one angle she’s addressing. “It’s so bleak, and we haven’t shied away from that. Matt is really relishing the grotesqueness of the character. So hopefully it’s still fun, but also a bit disturbing.”
Then there’s the question of the killer plant at the show’s schlocky heart. Named Audrey II by Seymour, in honour of his beloved, it is usually portrayed by a series of latex puppets, each bigger than the last as it grows to a monstrous size. Aberg’s production will adopt a quite different approach – although she’s tantalisingly tight-lipped about exactly what form it will take. We do know that Audrey II will be played by drag queen and former member of the LA pop band DWV, Vicky Vox. “There will be some puppets,” Aberg admits reluctantly. “But there will also be… some other things. I can’t give away too much.”
Directing a full-scale musical has been an ambition for Aberg since she worked with folk artist Laura Marling on As You Like It in 2013. Aberg loved the collaboration; the pair would develop the songs via the internet, with Marling, who was in LA, “doing little demos in her bedroom and emailing them over”.
She directed Fantastic Mr Fox, a Roald Dahl-based musical family show, for Southampton’s Nuffield two years ago, but says it was totally different. “The material wasn’t quite ready, and it was a new play, so it was constantly being reworked.”
What was your first non-theatre job?
Working for my dad’s business, which made shop fittings for stores such as H&M. My sister, my brother and I used to spend the summer welding bits of Perspex together in the factory. It was cool.
What was your first professional theatre job?
Literary assistant at the Royal Court.
What’s your next job?
A big project for the Royal Shakespeare Company that will culminate in 2020. I’m not allowed to talk about it yet because it hasn’t been announced.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
Dominic Cooke came in to talk to the directors on the course at the National Theatre, and he said: “Don’t worry about the career, worry about the work.” That is the best piece of advice ever – so I actually had the advice I really needed.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
Pina Bausch. I went to see The Rite of Spring and Cafe Muller when they came to Malmo when I was about 15, and I remember thinking: “This is just something else.” It’s stayed with me a long time. There’s something about the strength and vulnerability of the women in those pieces that’s quite astonishing.
What’s your best advice for auditions?
I figured out a while back that the people who nail it in the room are not necessarily the people you should cast. You need to see a glimpse of someone working in the same direction you want to move in. It doesn’t have to be finished that’s what rehearsals are for. So for an actor, I’d say, have some genuine thoughts about the work, and engage with the big ideas.
If you hadn’t been a director, what would you have been?
I would have been a florist – which is interesting, given the show I’m doing. I’ve always fancied that.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
In fact, there are few challenges she’s not up for. Born in Sweden just outside Malmo – “between The Bridge country and Wallander” – she came to London in 1999 to study directing at Mountview Academy. She found the course poorly conceived and frustrating, and says it was at the Royal Court, where she was a literary assistant and assistant director, that she got her real training.
No one was more surprised than Aberg when she formed such a strong, symbiotic relationship with the RSC. “It was never the place I thought I’d be working. But I feel so at home there, and I can experiment,” she says. “Of course the audience is in part extremely conservative, but there’s another part that is hungry for other things, and really willing to engage in debate and conversation.”
Pressed on her approach to theatremaking, she says: “I’m always interested in the metaphor. We get so bogged down in illustrating location and period. I want to see an interpretation – I’m not curious about the original intention of the writer, I can find that out myself at home, I don’t need to go to the theatre for that. And by extension I suppose that is what I try to do myself.” That feeds into her passionate belief in race- and gender-blind casting. “It’s important artistically for exactly those reasons. But also, I don’t know why you would leave your politics at the door when you go to make work.”
She also believes there is still a lot of snobbery and elitism around theatre in general, and Shakespeare in particular. “I haven’t been involved with the Globe, but I felt that the way Emma Rice was treated had a lot to do with the sort of fences that we’ve put up around who is allowed to do Shakespeare, and who is allowed to enjoy it, and how.”
Aberg herself has big ambitions. Above all, she says: “I really want to run an organisation.” She grins and pats her pregnant belly. “I just need to get some other things out of the way first.” In the meantime, she’s sanguine about how her work sometimes divides audiences – and critics. “As long as you have enough genuine personal conviction in what you do – it doesn’t make you immune, because you’re always vulnerable when you put work out there – but it matters less. Because you know you’re doing something that matters to someone. Even if that someone is just you.”
Born: Near Malmo, Sweden, 1979
Training: Mountview Academy
• Stallerhof, Southwark Playhouse (2006)
• Days of Significance, Royal Shakespeare Company Swan Theatre/US Tour (2007); Tricycle (2008)
• Alaska, Royal Court, London (2007)
• Crime and Punishment, National Theatre, London (2008)
• The Gods Weep, RSC at Hampstead (2010)
• The Chairs, Theatre Royal Bath (2010)
• Belongings, Hampstead/Trafalgar Studios (2011)
• King John, RSC Swan Theatre (2012)
• As You Like It, RSC (2013)
• Much Ado About Nothing, Manchester Royal Exchange (2014)
• Hotel, National Theatre, London (2014)
• The White Devil, RSC Swan Theatre (2014)
• Wildefire, Hampstead Theatre (2014)
• Doctor Faustus, RSC Swan Theatre and Barbican, London (2016)
• Fantastic Mr Fox, Nuffield/Lyric Hammersmith (2016)
• The Duchess of Malfi, RSC Swan Theatre (2018)
Agent: Rachel Taylor at Casarotto Ramsay
The Little Shop of Horrors is at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre until September 15