How did this collaborative production come about between your theatre company, Metta Theatre, and Oxford Philomusica?
Through one of the cast, Danae Eleni, who is playing Despina – we were all at Oxford together as students about ten years ago. Over the years we’ve kept in touch and she basically facilitated the introduction between us and Marios Papadopoulos [founder of Oxford Philomusica].
We founded the company, Metta Theatre, whilst at Oxford and we’ve toured back there with several productions. We’ve been back in Oxford a lot since we left – its always a really lovely opportunity as you always get very literate audiences who, if you create (which we do) richly layered, symbolic work, you get lots of people who interpret that and read meanings into it that you intend – or even more readings than you intend!
Mostly we do contemporary opera so this is a slight change for us to do a classic on a really large scale, with a full orchestra, in a massive theatre!
What attracted you to Mozart’s Cosí Fan Tutte?
Quite a few people were very surprised when they heard I was directing it because it is kind of famously misogynistic and I am kind of famously feminist! But actually, on reflection, it’s not very misogynistic at all, and I think the gender politics in it are really complex and its fairly ahead of its time really. While some of its characters express misogynistic views, there is some really interesting stuff in there about Despina as a very strong, independent woman, who calls the shots. And also in our production, the two sisters, Fiordiligi and Dorabella, because we have transposed it to World War II, are not passively sitting around ‘ladies who lunch’, but very active and strong. It’s really about two young women exploring their identity and sexuality; it is much more about following their trajectory as protagonists, rather than perhaps the more conventional route of these two soldiers who set up a bet and then are betrayed. And also, the music is just gorgeous!
How did you form the idea of transforming the traditionally Italian setting of this opera into wartime Britain?
There’s something really interesting about transposing it to a very English location because there is something about the British sense of honour and decorum and the social structures of that time that make complete sense of the way the girls behave, especially in the way they rather quickly throw their old lovers over, because during a war if your guy has gone off and you think he may potentially be dead and you may any moment die because of a bomb, you are much more justified in thinking ‘lets grab our fun where we can’. And also there are so many iconic stylised images of women and men at that time, femininity and masculinity – it’s ripe for an exploration of gender politics.
With the wartime period in mind, how has this setting influenced the design of the set and staging?
My designer is also my co-director, co-director of the company, and also my husband! Which means that, in all of our productions, the visual design element is there from the word go. He has a specific aesthetic, which is always quite minimalist and quite abstract, so we have this simultaneously with a very real World War II setting, and the costumes are gorgeous and historical. The whole action plays out on a ten metre long propaganda poster and then everything happens within that: things fly in and fly off, moving between different settings. Our style is to use whatever is absolutely necessary to tell the story, but beyond that, it is a very open space, very much leaving the audience to fill in the imaginative detail. There are big visual scenes running throughout it – we use a lot of balloons, partly because they’re fun, but as a recurring symbol throughout the different wooing scenes, representing the British and American lovers. By having so little on stage, the things that are there become much more imbued with layers of meaning.
How did you find the transition from being a university theatre company to a professional one – do you have any advice for current students here with that plan in mind?
If you said to us ten years ago ‘you’ll be still running the company, it’ll be a charity, a registered company, touring all over the country’, we probably wouldn’t have believed that! So I think it’s been a very organic process for us. At Oxford, the meaning of a company is two people and a website and a logo and a name. And actually the reality of that, when you first set out in London on the fringe scene, it’s the same. So in some ways that actually wasn’t such a big leap. And the great thing about starting in Oxford is that, as you don’t have to pay people, you can make really big scale work […]in a way, it takes some of us about ten years to work back up to that scale because when you have to pay people the budget is in the hundreds of thousands. I think the thing I’d say is,
if you’ve got something that you do, or a way of doing things, that you feel no one else is doing, keep it going
. We’re also the producers of the company, so we do the fundraising and everything, so its just been a slow process of getting better at fundraising, getting better relationships with venues, making a show that someone useful comes to, and then that leads to the next show. Your reviews get bigger and better, your shows get bigger and better: it’s a gradual process. I’m so glad now that we did start it and decide to keep it going because when you’re a freelance director, you’re at the mercy of other venues and other producers. When you’re the artistic director of your own company, you call the shots and are completely the masters of your own fate. Anyone can do it, just keep plugging away!