Rehearsals are well under way at the Old Vic for the stage premiere of All About My Mother, a new play by Samuel Adamson based on the 1999 film by the brilliant, idiosyncratic Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar. I’m waiting to meet Adamson and his director Tom Cairns in the office of Old Vic boss Sally Greene: it could serve as a setting for the play. The room, several flights of stairs above the stage door, is part office, part boudoir, fitted out with soft leather furnishings, a pistachio green sofa, theatre posters, bottles of champagne, glass lights tinkling like a posh madame’s necklace and a flesh-coloured silk nightgown draped over a mannequin.
You could see Almodóvar’s star actress character in the film, Huma Rojo, played by Diana Rigg at the Old Vic, throwing herself down here for a cigarette between scenes in A Streetcar Named Desire. Dame Diana’s role is one of several great parts for women in a film that celebrates the theatre, actresses, transvestites, mothers and sons, as much as it evokes the great Bette Davis and Anne Baxter backstage movie All About Eve, Tennessee Williams and Lorca.
Adamson and Cairns arrive to shake me from my reverie and confirm that they are closely adhering to the spine of Almodóvar’s story: a mother (played by Lesley Manville) goes in search of her dead son’s father to tell him about the boy’s short life. In the middle of the film, the transvestite Agrado – played at the Old Vic by Mark Gatiss of The League of Gentlemen – who has led Manuela into the heart of Huma’s backstage life, covers the cancellation of a performance with an account of his own life and the need to “be yourself”. Is this theatrical setting the starting point of the adaptation?
“I’m not going to tell you,” says Adamson with a sly grin. But Cairns can’t stop himself: “That speech is one of the inspirations for the transfer to theatre. But adapting something like this is very different from most things Samuel has done (including Chekhov for the Oxford Stage Company and Ibsen’s Pillars of the Community and Shaw’s Saint Joan for the National) in that it does require him to join forces with Pedro.”
What’s Almodóvar like, then? “He’s bright and funny,” says Adamson, “and he has this loyal team around him. The script of the film hovered in the background of my early drafts but he encouraged me to make it my own and fly with it. He was suspicious, in fact, of anything that was too close to the film.”
All the theatre references are in place – the echoes of All About Eve, Geena Rowlands in Opening Night (in that film, as in Almodóvar’s, there is a fatal car accident witnessed by the actress), as well as the Streetcar and Blood Wedding quotations. But as Almodóvar is notoriously reluctant to allow stage versions of his films, how did this project get off the ground? Adamson explains that he was approached by Daniel Sparrow, a young producer with Andrew Treagus Associates (the company manages Mamma Mia!, Billy Elliot and Jersey Boys) who sent Almódovar a creative and financial proposal five years ago. Amazingly, he got the rights.
When the filmmaker read Adamson’s work, he loved it and has remained close to the project from the beginning. Remarkably, this is not only the first major stage adaptation of his work in 20 years, but the first time he’s ever consented to his work being produced in English. Explaining his decision, Almodóvar has said: “When Daniel offered to develop and produce All About My Mother for the stage, I thought it was just natural. There is lot of theatre in my film, a big part of the action takes place in theatrical spaces, the dressing rooms, the corridors, the stage, the stalls, the theatre façade and surroundings.
“After reading Samuel Adamson’s adaptation, I felt something very special. For the first time, I was able to contemplate my work as a writer and director from a distance. It happened in the Old Vic’s rehearsal room, while the workshop based on Adamson’s text was taking place. It was a very touching experience for me, not related at all to vanity. The characters I had created for the film did not yield an inch of their nature, yet fitted the stage perfectly, as if it was their natural environment. They were overflowing life in front of my eyes. I had never experienced such a thing.”
Caro Newling of Sam Mendes’ Neal Street production company brokered the idea of turning the film into a play. Newling later calls me from New York to confirm her enthusiasm for both Sparrow’s dedication and potential (“We need people like him around in the theatre”) and the collaborative skills of the Old Vic team. She has raised most of the money – £510,000 capitalisation is high for a “straight” play – and the Old Vic run will have to play to 60 percent capacity to recoup that investment and cover running costs.
Back in Sally Greene’s boudoir, Cairns says that even if we accept what the film/play is saying, “There are still a few shocks. It’s still quite something to accept that a young girl who is a trainee nun (played in the film by Penelope Cruz; at the Old Vic by Joanne Froggatt, who was Zoe Tattersall in Coronation Street) has slept with a transvestite, Agrado, and is pregnant with his/her child.”
Doesn’t this parallel plot, beautifully stitched into Manuela’s quest by Almodóvar, make the film slightly top-heavy in homosexual wish-fulfilment about the role, and indeed the biology, of women? “Not really,” replies Cairns. “We have to remember how close in time to the Franco regime the Spanish still are, and there is a corrective, and combative, element in Almodóvar’s films that expresses serious ideas about what a family might be and indeed what women are, too.”
Can it be successful as a non-Latin production, then, without that sense of historical Spanish-ness, not to mention Almodóvar’s specific evocation of Madrid and Barcelona at a certain time? “That’s the million dollar question,” admits Cairns. “It’s like asking, can Chekhov be non-Russian? But we do Chekhov as well as Lorca, and the universality of these writers transcends borders. Or should do.”
I suddenly realise that, in Irishman Cairns and Australian Adamson, Almodóvar may be fortunate in finding two appropriately “outsider-ist” collaborators. For All About My Mother is also all about the larger metaphorical chimera of a “mother” country in a sometimes oppressively maternal society. It is about a desire to belong, to create “family,” in unusual ways.
Adamson has no qualms about swelling the ranks of theatrical adaptations of much-loved films. “Sometimes I feel the process is not justified, but not in this case. I have no problem with traffic between genres, or indeed genders. The key thing, too, is that Pedro wants it to happen and feels it should be a play. So I think, well, if he wants it, I want it too.
We should not expect Diana Rigg, perhaps, to approximate to the husky Iberian cattiness of Marisa Paredes, or Charlotte Randle to ape the lesbian lechery of Candela Pena as Nina, Huma’s sidekick who openly accuses Manuela of coming on like Eve Harrington in All About Eve. But in re-inventing this extraordinary Almodóvar movie, we might feel a little short-changed if Adamson and Cairns do not encourage Rigg to confess that she started smoking “to be like Bette Davis”; or if they don’t convey the abiding humanity of the characters. Fasten your seat belts. This bumpy ride is a tale of two pregnancies, and a hymn to mother love.
All About My Mother opens on 4 September 2007 (previews from 25 August) at the Old Vic where its limited season continues until 24 November. A longer version of this article appears in the September issue of What’s on Stage magazine (formerly Theatregoer), out now in participating theatres. Click here to thumb through our online edition. And to guarantee your copy of future print editions - and also get all the benefits of our Theatregoers’ Club - click here to subscribe now!!