Mon 3 Apr 2023

Romeo or Ronaldo? That is the question for Director, Hal!

Hal Chambers is the director of 'Around the World in 80 Days', currently on stage here at Theatre by the Lake. Our first big production for 2023 and we couldn't be happier to have Hal back.

Hal has been here before, he brought his fabulous production of ‘The Ballad of Maria Martin’ here in 2022. It was so good that we knew we wanted him back, and so when it came to choosing a director for our big Easter extravaganza of ‘Around the World in 80 Days’ in 2023, we thought he’d be a great fit. And he said YES!

We caught up with him during rehearsals and found out a bit about Hal, what it means to be a director and what this production is about for him.

Tell us about your journey to the rehearsal room here in Keswick…

‘The Ballad of Maria Marten’ was an ensemble piece that had a shared breath at the centre of it, people played different roles and it has a similar spirit to 80 Days. Liz saw BOMM and loved it and said we should do something together and invited me to make a pitch for 80 Days. We had a chat, and then had another chat with Mark Babych from Hull Truck Theatre and they both liked my ideas.

My early ideas were about declaring a style and not pretending we were anywhere else other than a theatre and that we were going to represent the World in a dynamic and quite modern way and re-examine some of the themes of Empire. It was going to be an incredibly joyful, music filled, brash and quite theatrical production.

What next…

That set off many months of finding the right creative team that could fill the brief and then really digging into what the play is as a piece of nostalgia. People remember it as something that’s been around in the dramatic ether for many years, it’s a well-loved story but it has some quite tricky themes in it. One of the first things I said to Liz and Mark was that I don’t want two white men paying their way around the empire, that doesn’t feel like a story that urgently needs to be told so we cast Stefan Adegbola as Phileas Fogg and we’re playing him as a black man in a white world of privilege and I think that’s a really interesting journey, it adds stakes and lots of interesting textures to the story.

Passepartout is being played by Miriam O’Brien, who is playing it as a woman and this adds some fascinating dynamics. We have an alternative Fogg and Passpertout for our times, it allows us to be a bit more satirical and question some of those structures that allow rich people to walk around the world and do what they want. For me when I was thinking about this story originally I was thinking about Jeff Bezoz and Elon Musk. In 1872 this was equivalent to going to the moon, going around the world in 80 days at such speed was frankly absurd. For the pioneers of extreme travel this was very much a rich man’s game, you couldn’t be lower class and do this, it just wasn’t possible, it was elitiste. A lot of the gentlemen in the club think it’s impossible when Phileas says he’s going to do it, but having a black man standing up against a room of white men and saying he’s going to do it adds stakes. But he also happens to have money and comes from a mysterious past!

Tell us a bit more about your Fogg… and Passepartout!

We have this rich man, with a mysterious background and no one knows how he got his money. He’s travelling with his French eccentric female valet. It’s an unlikely pair and visually they look great together, it’s the antithesis of what you normally get when see when you see production shots of this play.

When we come to the character of Mrs Aouda by Saba Shiraz, that character is the mouth piece of questioning in this play; why does the empire exist, why do the British need to go and make everything in their own image? Countries obsessing over owning other countries and other people is still very current. They’re trying to put their western values on other cultures and some people don’t want them.

The India stuff is the most uncomfortable so we have worked with an Indian academic, called Manasi Pophale, who came in and did this incredible work with us. The first thing she said was ‘Why are you doing this play? This play is a racist play’ she was very direct.  It was a great place to start from!

I replied that for me it was more about a love story between Passepertout and Fogg, not in a conventional sense, more like a platonic sense, the odd couple traveling the world. An unlikely pair who are at the other end of the spectrum, a man with privilege and money who’s able to do these things with a white woman who’s from some sort of artistic background, who’s eccentric and very theatrical and bizarre. These two people put together on this journey are like underdogs rather than overdogs in the previous versions, so it makes their journey more daring and impossible.

There’s a sense of 80 Days being an impossible thing to stage anyway and this becomes more interesting because we have an even more unlikely pairing. So with the rest of the casting, I wanted to make sure that half the cast weren’t white, half the cast were female or non-binary and half male. If you read the play it’s a very male dominated white world and I just wanted to make sure the world was represented a bit more when you look at the stage, like Britain right now. Of course we then needed to find actors with tremendous spirit and daring.

What does your 80 Days look like…

I left a voice note to the actors on auditions explaining what I was trying to do and specifics for each character and how I saw them initially. I’m a very collaborative director and always take feedback.  You need to really read the play and take it at its artifice, so not just read it with the reputation in mind. For example, there’s a balloon at the front of the playtext and on the front of the book… there is no balloon in the book. There may or may not be a balloon in the play but if we do, it will be in a way that is something quite classy. The play has nothing to do with a balloon. The ultimate reputation of the play is that there is a balloon, there is no balloon.

Any research I did on the play was indicating it was a farce, that there were zero stakes and it’s slapstick and it was quite funny. So I decided to take the script seriously; it’s got dramatic shifts, character and emotion. So let’s play it straight, it will still be funny, because the characters will be having an awful time or their heartbroken or lost or they are all playing it for real and not playing it overtly for laughs. That’s where great art comes from, it’s the truth of it and in comedy you work even harder.  So that’s kind of the style I suppose. In terms of the research, I like to drink in as much as I can, and I’m looking for things that can inspire as I like to get immersed in it and then share it with the company. Some of the cast have listened to the music and suggestions I made, some haven’t and that’s fine. It’s completely up to them.

The music is amazing, tell us about that!

I am working with Anna Wheatley, Co-composer, and Ben Hudson, Co-composer and Sound Designer. I’ve worked with Ben for over 10 years, he’s a music producer and DJ as well as doing more traditional composing. He comes from a world of dance music. I’ve worked with Anna as an actor and as a playwright and she is also a phenomenal song writer as well and they have their own pop thing that they do which is really amazing. So they both bring something quite exciting from a pop electronic world; they have songs and tunes that are great but also it’s very collaborative. They’ve worked with the company to create sounds, so a lot of the music will contain their breath or the crazy sounds that they’ve made.

I work aurally, so music, sound and rhythm is my way in. I shared some of this with Ben and Anna. They would then make their own playlists and then they talked about the world and what we want to make musically that helps me to understand the visuals. Then Louie, the designer, and I read the play very slowly and discussed those ideas as we went. I also read the play with the composer, which I don’t normally do, all 3 of us read it over a whole day and talked about where the music might fit and what it might feel like. We wanted to steer away from slightly lazy cultural misappropriation.

Have you had that moment… when your vision starts to materialise?

Yes, there’s a sequence about 15-20 minutes in, it’s called ‘the journey begins’, in the script it just says they start on their journey, they ride in a train and then a boat and then a train. It’s 5 minutes of the play and it’s got all of Jess Williams brilliant creativity in it, she’s our movement director. It is just sumptuous and a lovely visual treat. For me, it’s worth the ticket alone, just for that scene. It’s so joyous and it tells the story of their traveling and the fledgling relationship between Fogg and Passepartout, as a pair, the rest of the company are working so hard to help facilitate this journey and build the excitement, using puppets and the revolve and that’s the moment it all comes together.

The music is absolutely thrilling and that’s the moment, it’s got so much finesse and joy in it and that’s what I always imagined it to be. Then there’s the very truthful, very raw and real moment before that where they are all making the bet; it would be very easy to play this scene up and do an impression of a gent and be all ‘guffaw guffaw’ but we’ve made that a very real scene so we earn 5 minutes of travelling and mad music and movement that comes out of a reality.

How DO you go around the world?

It’s one of the first questions I asked myself… I stared at the page and went ‘oh ok’, obviously the elephant comes in and then naming the travel is the main thing. If there’s one thing I want people to remember in 10 years’ time it’s the travel, all 8 actors and all the stage crew running around back stage hell-for-leather going ‘let’s do it’.

There’s a lot of ‘Around the World in 80 Days’ at the moment and our team know they are plugging into something that is of a moment and it’s not just a played up comedy, it’s got guts and heart and it’s more in the realm of director Sally Cookson and a Wes Anderson film. UK theatre can be a little bit academic and we’re not, our rehearsal room has been noisy and fun and for me the visuals have been such an enticing element.

What made Hal Chambers decide to be a Director…

I had done a little bit of acting at school but I liked playing football, I loved sport. That’s’ why our rehearsals are so noisy, I love ball games. In my first year at uni I tried out for the football teams (Sussex Uni) and put my name down for Romeo and Juliet which was going to be on at Garden Royal Centre, a 500 seat theatre. I auditioned for a laugh and had never played a lead role. I remembered strolling down to check the football and thinking I’ve surely made one of the teams but I didn’t so was really miffed. Then went to the drama board and saw that I was cast as Romeo, which was hilarious because I didn’t think of myself in anyway as being seriously involved in drama, it was always a bit of a side thing. It was such a brilliant production in which there were 4 ladders and 4 flags and everything was mimed and it was incredibly visual and full of movement and all this crazy French electronic music. I feel like I’m still directing that play and I found it incredibly inspiring.

My life was at a crossroads and I wouldn’t be here if I’d been picked for a team and would’ve been crushed with the defeat if I’d not got into the play.

Through that I then started doing more acting and eventually directing. The move to directing happened because I had so many ideas and decided I should put my money where my mouth was and decided to direct a play by Arthur Miller called After the Fall which is set in one man’s mind where the ensemble moved around him – so again very similar to this production. The first play I was in and the first play I directed at uni are basically the same plays that I direct over and over. I like plays that are visual and have that interaction, are playful and a bit weird. I’m not a fan of people sitting around chatting, I can do that but I’d rather do impossible plays and think how are we going to do that? That’s where I like to start…

I do a lot of my thinking beforehand, I record myself doing all the parts on my phone, I walk around listening to the play until I know it, I immersed myself in the book and watched the David Tennant TV series, I have lots of chats with the creative team and then I come in and I spend about 30 minutes each morning deciding what we’re going to do. A lot of it is about having the space. Distancing yourself and not getting too obsessed with it. I like to take the evening off, I’ve got a kid so that’s a good leveller. Cleanse the palate and then come back in.

This is the pitch, I’ve done my training and now I’m ready, although normally I’m a bit behind on my homework!

You can see ‘Around the World in 80 Days’ on our Main House stage until Sat 29 April. Find out more here: Around the World in 80 days – Theatre by the Lake