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Director Adele Thomas: ‘As soon as I stepped in to opera, I felt like I was home’

Adele Thomas in rehearsal for Berenice at the Royal Opera House. Photo: Clive Barda Adele Thomas in rehearsal for Berenice at the Royal Opera House. Photo: Clive Barda
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Director Adele Thomas tells Tim Bano about setting stagehands on fire at Shakespeare’s Globe, reviving Handel’s Berenice after its 300-year absence from the stage and giving voice to the women in Cosi Fan Tutte

When Adele Thomas staged The Knight of the Burning Pestle at the newly opened Sam Wanamaker Playhouse in 2014 she set a stagehand on fire.

To be fair, it was deliberate. The 17th-century play by Francis Beaumont was only the second production in the candlelit theatre. “Well, everyone was really panicking about the candles,” Thomas laughs, “and we thought it would be really hilarious if we set someone on fire, then everyone would calm down.” So one of the actors pretended to be a stagehand and during his mock attempt to light the candelabras, up he went in flames.

It’s this combination of sharp humour and a filmic eye – she managed to squeeze a Pulp Fiction reference into a Jacobean play – that has, in large part, been behind Thomas’ success as a director.

As well as premiering new work such as Matt Hartley’s Eyam at Shakespeare’s Globe and the huge promenade project The Passion in her hometown of Port Talbot, Thomas has form reinvigorating old pieces, particularly ones that haven’t traditionally been successful.

Pestle was a huge flop when it was first staged in 1607. So too was Handel’s obscure opera Berenice – which Thomas recently revived at the Royal Opera House for the first time since its premiere in 1737, when it had three performances and then bombed. But her revival earned a spree of adoring reviews.

Claire Booth and James Laing in the Royal Opera House’s production of Handel’s Berenice, which was sung in English, at Linbury Theatre in March 2019. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Claire Booth and James Laing in the Royal Opera House’s production of Handel’s Berenice, which was sung in English, at Linbury Theatre in March 2019. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Directing wasn’t something Thomas set out to do. Coming from an industrial, working-class background in Port Talbot, “it was not even in the stratosphere of where I was coming from”. Port Talbot is famous for cultural icons including Richard Burton and Anthony Hopkins but, she says, there are jobs that you are told you can do when you come from working-class backgrounds – and directing isn’t one of them.

So it took her a long time to find her way into it. She applied to the University of Cambridge “on a dare” and gained a place thanks to her ability to talk long and fascinatingly about films. “It was the biggest culture shock ever. “We used to sit in our buttery, and there was a picture of Henry VIII on the wall, and I used to go: ‘What the fuck is this?’”

She recognises that places such as Cambridge have an elitist reputation, but she also found the university to be a meritocratic place.

‘Opera is far less class-obsessed. So much theatre is set in a middle-class world, but opera is set in bonkers, extreme, crazy worlds’

“What I heard over and over again from the middle-class people there was: ‘You can do whatever you want’.” The message stuck with her, and she directed plays including The Importance of Being Earnest while at Cambridge.

Lots of new work followed, as well as those flops-turned-successes, but recent years have seen her move into a different world: opera. “As soon as I stepped in, I felt like I was home. I love the scale of it and working with music all day is an absolute dream.”

And it’s a world that – perhaps surprisingly – she’s found to be far less elitist and less male-focused than theatre. “I always take umbrage with theatre directors who say: ‘I only earn £10,000 a year’, because how can you only earn £10,000 a year? I wouldn’t be able to live off that. But that’s because they don’t tell you the other bit, which is: ‘Oh by the way, my dad bought me a flat.’”

That’s reflective of a serious lack of working-class people in the theatre industry. “For a very long time I realised I hadn’t met anyone working class,” Thomas says. “In the industry it seemed that everyone was very middle class.”

How does that square with opera, which still has a very elitist perception? “I adore opera,” she says. “It’s far less class obsessed. So much theatre is set in a middle-class world, but opera is set in bonkers, extreme, crazy worlds.” That’s to say, it’s so far removed from reality that it can be universal.

Adele Thomas Q&A

What was your first non-theatre job?
Working for a hippy shop in Swansea. Lots of perks: free clothes at a time when hemp hoodies were in vogue – the first time – free hair dye and free incense sticks.

What was your first professional theatre job?
I assisted on a new play by Gary Owen called Ghost City for Welsh new-writing company Sgript Cymru. I picked up my filthy mouth on that production.

What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
Stop trying to impress people who will never get you.

Who or what was your biggest influence?
Without doubt, being a complete 1960s throwback throughout my teens and 20s gave me access to a counterculture that made me rebellious, confident and obsessed with retro styling. I’d never have dared become any kind of artist without that scene.

What’s your best advice for auditions?
Have fun, work hard, come to have a meaningful time. I often have to pass on brilliant actors in auditions for tiny reasons (this person was slightly softer than that one, this person has better chemistry with their co-star and so on), but I never forget someone if I think there’s a spark and I always cast people from auditions for other shows.

If you hadn’t been a director, what would you have been?
I would have gone into politics. Coming from an industrial steel town, you can see very clearly the fight that needs to happen on behalf of the slowly dying unions and the people who are daily being squeezed out of society by this government.

Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
I phone my mum on press night in that horrible hour when, as a director, your actors and crew are all in prep mode and you have nothing to do. She always makes me more nervous, though…

Of course, opera is not without its problems. Given Berenice had not been staged in nearly three centuries since its premiere, it sold out within an hour. But lots of those tickets in the refurbished Linbury Theatre – not all of them cheap, even if they were much more reasonable than the main house – went to members. So Thomas finds herself in a “really difficult, hypocritical, problematic situation”.

She continues: “The conundrum I have is that while the medium is classless, the structure it inhabits is not. It breaks my heart a bit that it’s the only audience that will get to see the show. But we are having this conversation, and if the show is a success then I want to use the leverage to ask: ‘What can we do?’”

Thomas is serious about changing things. This year she is one of two directors, both women, in the Nevill Holt Opera season and she’s tackling Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte, often seen as a fundamentally misogynistic piece.

In the show, Don Alfonso bets two men that their girlfriends are unfaithful. They dupe the women and prove the Don right. The two women in it are – on the surface – completely manipulated by men, mocked by them, existing only to fulfil a point about women’s fickle natures.

Thomas is not going to let that interpretation stand. First off, she is adamant that the way Cosi has been done, by so many male directors, over so many years, is only one way of interpreting the story.

Kiandra Howarth and Heather Lowe in Cosi fan Tutte at Grand Opera House, Belfast
Kiandra Howarth and Heather Lowe in Cosi fan Tutte at Grand Opera House, Belfast

“When I spoke to people about it – all men by the way – they would all say: ‘It’s very problematic because the women characters have no personality.’ We would never say this of a male character even if they were the blandest character in the world. In the 18th century, it is true that there was a strand of enlightenment thinking that women and children weren’t fully human beings. But Mozart didn’t think that. Come on, he wrote loads of strong women.”

Maybe it’s seen as misogynistic, she adds, because centuries of directors have been happy to lean into that misogyny. The job of the director is to find the character. So Thomas’ Cosi is less about gender, and certainly not the inferiority of a particular gender. Instead, it’s about the interplay of young and old.

“The boys and the girls are both being tested by Don Alfonso. So in a sense it’s not about experience and naivety, it’s about age and youth. The youth are the conservative ones, and think nothing’s going to change, I’ll be with this person forever.” Don Alfonso proves them both wrong.

The problem has been male directors and the lens: “They might look at a female character in a scene and go: ‘She’s sad.’ But actually she isn’t sad there, she’s fucking angry, she’s raging.” Lucky for opera that Thomas is part of a generation that is determined to change it.

CV Adele Thomas

Born: Port Talbot, year undisclosed
Training: BA in English, University of Cambridge
Landmark productions:
• The Knight of the Burning Pestle, Shakespeare’s Globe (2015)

• Cosi Fan Tutte, Northern Ireland Opera (2017)
• Berenice, Royal Opera House (2019)
• Regional Theatre Young Directors’ Scheme

Agent: Clare Vidal Hall

Cosi Fan Tutte runs at Nevill Holt Opera from June 26 until July 2. Go to: nevillholtopera.co.uk for more information

A brilliant Berenice at the World Theatre Season, Aldwych Theatre, 50 years ago in The Stage

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