Brief Encounter with... Thrill of Love director James Dacre
Dacre was also last week appointed as artistic director of the Royal & Derngate theatres in Northampton, a post which he will take up in the summer. His directing credits include the Olivier Award-winning The Mountaintop (Theatre503 & Trafalgar Studios), As You Like It (Shakespeare’s Globe & on tour), King James Bible (National) and The Accrington Pals (Royal Exchange, Manchester).
Tell us about The Thrill of Love, in a nutshell
The Thrill of Love is the story of Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in Britain, told from the perspective of the women who knew her best: the hostesses of London’s 1950s nightclub scene. The play is set in the Little and Court Clubs - two gentlemen’s clubs which entertained celebrities, high earners, aristocrats. The girls believed these men might help them realise their dreams of celebrity. But instead of discovering stardom, they found themselves treated as sexual objects, no more. It’s a play about the social perception of such women in 1950s Britain and how this affected the justice meted out to them.
Why did the play appeal to you?
The Thrill of Love is a detective thriller but one in which we already know who is responsible for the crime. Instead, the riddle which needs answering is what drove this enigmatic young woman to kill her lover. "It's obvious when I shot him, I intended to kill him" Ruth told the jury during her trial. But nothing about her case - or Ruth herself - was obvious, and that's why her legacy continues to haunt people today. A Welsh born mother-of-two with a factory background and no money to her name, Ruth quickly became one of the most fashionable hostesses in London: an irrepressible Blonde Bombshell as quick to talk to royalty as she was to the char. I was fascinated by how these contradictions sat with the criminal justice system of 1950s Britain. History suggests that after killing Blakely, Ruth was quickly stereotyped by the public, the press and the courts as a peroxide blonde vengeful lover. The Thrill of Love challenges that definition, instead trying to explore what drove her to commit her crime. I love working on plays which look to history in order to throw light on the present.
What was is that made you cast Faye Castelow?
I’ve wanted to work with Faye for a long time: she’s a remarkably sensitive, intelligent and versatile actress who is really passionate about this story and Amanda’s play.
I’ve heard it said that correct casting is 90% of the director’s job. Do you agree?
It's an incredibly important part of what a director does. But casting isn't just about finding the right person for a given role. It is also about bringing together a company to form an ensemble. Working to cultivate a healthy rehearsal room climate, to find the right chemistry between characters and to gather a group that will work well together - that's the challenge. I hope that our production is the sum of it’s parts: a close knit ensemble conjure up every setting of the play using little more than three tables and nine chairs..
Have you had to adapt the production for the St James, considering it was in-the-round at New Vic?
The essential production hasn’t changed but has been carefully re-staged for the new space.
What made you want to become a director?
Taking productions to the Edinburgh Festival as a student and seeing some extraordinary work there.
Was The Mountaintop a breakthrough moment?
It was a play that I really believed in. But raising the funds, bringing together a team, developing the piece and cultivating an audience took enormous effort. To think that we were posting flyers through people’s letterboxes in an attempt to fill the house during preview week and that it is now one of the most produced new plays in America. That has been very satisfying. It really showed me that with enterprise and conviction you can get a play on with a message you really believe in.
Tell us about your work at the New Vic Theatre
I was an Associate at the New Vic under artistic director Theresa Heskins for a couple of years which was an incredibly happy and inspiring time. It convinced me of the value of making work with your audience in mind and the importance of the many other activities and events - outreach, education, platforms, - that a theatre can offer. Returning to the New Vic for The Thrill of Love and being able to work again within such a close knit and collaborative organisation has been fantastic.
Who are your directing heroes?
When I was starting out, I was fortunate enough to win Fulbright and Shubert Fellowships to travel and work as an assistant director in America and Europe. I worked with and observed some really inspiring directors such as Anne Bogart, Robert Woodruff, Gregory Mosher, Silviu Purcarete and Andrei Serban, all whose work has had a big influence on me. I particular admire directors who make brave, progressive work without losing sight of the importance of that work having the broadest possible appeal.
What are you most looking forward to about your new job at the Royal and Derngate? What's your vision for the theatre?
I'm thrilled to be joining the exceptional team at the Royal and Derngate. Few theatres enjoy such a close relationship with their audience. And as the new artistic director, I want the Royal and Derngate to continue living at the heart of its community while inspiring the country’s most brilliant writers, actors and directors to create original theatre that will address the major concerns of our time. Northampton with its rich mix of old and new, urban and rural, liberal and conservative is the perfect place to do that.
Finally, why should people come and see The Thrill of Love?
Because it’s a gripping, evocative and moving new play about a woman whose execution still haunts us today and became a defining step towards the end of the death penalty in the UK. A timeless story about obsession, crimes of passion and the myth of romantic love.
-The Thrill of Love runs at the St James Theatre until 4 May