THEATRE: Director / Tour de Force, Adam Spreadbury-Maher

Written by: Sophie Taylor

This story of La bohème is very much a personal story.

I had the pleasure of chatting with dynamic Artistic Director, Producer and all round man of intrigue, Adam Spreadbury-Maher. In between rehearsals, moving house and having lunch with his Dad, we spoke about his new production of La bohème currently running at The Kings Head Theatre in Islington.

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Having won the Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Opera Production in 2011, Adam seems an obvious candidate to take on Puccini’s La bohème. But his production is far from obvious.

This is a truthful, more concentrated adaptation personal to it’s director with a dog who’s threatened to take centre stage.

I take it you’ve just come out of rehearsals, how are they going?

“Good thanks, we’re just on lunch now. It’s going really well. We’re looking at Act IV where Lily dies.” *spoiler alert*

Oh no! 

“Oh yes. I’m just sitting out the back of the theatre now, enjoying a bit of sunshine.”

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By the way I love what you’ve done with the postcode at the end of La bohème. Very nifty. Did you choose the Dalston setting for this adaptation?

“Oh yes, that’s the very clever marketing team. I did yes, it’s part of my story, in terms of these guys getting through their twenties and how tough it is: living in London and dodging all the pitfalls of being a millennial with things like apps, Facebook and co-dependency. Not to mention all the substances that are becoming cheaper and cheaper and more readily available. The parenting models, the baby boomers – it’s like taking a picture of that world and realising we’re part of a big cycle.

It’s not too dissimilar from Puccini’s world, it’s just that it happened before Freud. Puccini had instincts about what the characters were doing with each other, in terms of unhealthy relationships and this picture of love that was unsustainable and destined for failure from the start. It’s interesting to look at it now from a 2016 paradigm, we can give them all these pop psychology terms now.”

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Do you think it’s gained more significance today as opposed to when it was staged previously?

“Well yes, even just looking at epidemics. Needle use is up for example. You find people progressing from soft drugs, naturally progressing to needles. The stigma attached to needle use is dropping.”

Originally you trained as an opera singer, is that right?

“In Australia yes, originally. I started my own Training Director course at The Kings Head which is a really great contribution to the theatre industry. It costs nothing and people get really practical experience. It’s currently in its first year and it’s been a wonderful experience.”

There are no excuses on the Kings Head stage
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So tell me about the cast

“Oh they’re great, it’s really nice to be working on an opera with only four singers because I can work really closely with them. We can look at the drama more intensely and create something together as a team. It’s very fitting for this form of opera where audiences are excited to get really close to the work. There’s nowhere to hide or escape.

There are no excuses on the Kings Head stage, so you’ve got to be there all the time. Everything’s got to work. If you drop it for a second you notice and it’s really hard to pick it back up again.

This cast are working so hard because it’s a new thing for them and they’re loving it. They’re really talented singers.”

it’s a joy for the theatre makers
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I heard a tiny preview before and it’s sounding incredible. Is there an interactive element to your audience?

“So rather than looking at the traditional staging of an opera, this is more 2016. They go to the Cat and Mutton in Dalston on Christmas Eve – it’s quiet, not like the original.

Everything’s contained within the Theatre, but we’re using a cello this time with the piano which is creating a new sound world. And we’re just having the two couples, rather than with traditional productions that use a lot of binary characters that you need to set up a large stage.

There’s a play called God of Carnage that Roman Polansky turned into a film called Carnage with Jodie Foster and Kate Winslet. It was when I watched that I thought, I can do this. It’s radical, but reveals so much truth in the work.

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I don’t want to spend my life making the Diet Coke version of opera.

When you’re working in opera in these smaller studio spaces there’s a joy for the audience to get up close to it, but there’s also a joy for the theatre makers to be able to assess the work and find it’s true essence, it’s true quality. I think it’s pedestrian and lazy to just say we’re ‘stripping it back’ or ‘condensing it’. It’s not that.”

It sounds like you’re doing the opposite actually

“Well exactly. It’s a process of distillation. And distilling is a good thing, when it’s done with respect and understanding and sensitivity. Which is what I hope we’re doing.

I wouldn’t be interested otherwise, I don’t want to spend my life making the Diet Coke version of opera.”

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Hey, I couldn’t help but spy a dog in rehearsals. Who’s that!

“We’re still playing with that concept. She’s threatened to be in La bohème for a long time. We’re still looking at the practicalities of it, but it’s been a useful tool in rehearsals for Musette to have crutches and having a lap dog was one of those for an afternoon. That’s my dog, Tickets. She comes with me pretty much everywhere.”

So where do you like to take your lunch breaks?

“I’m currently snatching some lunch at La Divina right now. They’re fantastic and do £5 takeaway pasta. If you work at The Kings Head it’s in your DNA: you’d do a blood test and see La Divina in it. But there’s also Piacha, which is a really great tea shop on Upper Street.

I’m just having a pasta with broccoli and tomato sauce. My dad, who’s visiting from Australia and sitting next to me right now, is having a Niçoise salad.”

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Oh, say hello from me!

Adam’s Dad: “Hi Sophie!”

How is he? Is he enjoying it in London?

“He’s good, he’s here because he’s chasing the Summer. He’s 70 this year and I’m turning 35 so it’s a special year for us. It’s nice, he’s helping me move into a new flat with my new boyfriend. I’ve been living off grid for the last two and a half years. I was living in an RV for a while and after I sold it a month ago I’ve been living in a tent for the last few weeks.”


“I know, it’s quite funny. I love the lifestyle but I love this new boyfriend more. We’re moving into a flat in Holloway, nice and local, still a bit edgy. This story of La bohème is very much a personal story. I spent some years living in East London and they were quite tough years, I probably left it all a bit late to let go of my youth and my twenties.

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It’s very bold and dangerous what we’re doing.

I rung it out completely, took a little while to grow up and these pictures of using substances and using people like a drug – I’ve found it very interesting to assess the opera and investigate the opera in that way. It’s been a joy and it’s coming together so well.

It’s very bold and dangerous what we’re doing. It’s great to have the smaller cast as well because we can stay close knit together and stay on track because it is a departure. It makes so much sense. I’m so happy with how it’s going, which is quite bizarre for me to say in rehearsals! I’m usually a mess, but it’s going well.”

You can tell that you’re really invested in it and that it is something very personal to you

“I’ve had a great joy writing it with Becca who plays Mimi, the one with a heroin problem.

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We have worked together on previous operas and it was nice to create a partnership because she has the sensitivity of being a singer. Which is really important to get that right in terms of, can this be sung? Does that sound good? Then I’m coming at it from more of a dramaturgical point of view, making sure we can get from A to B and using the appropriate language for where we are. If we ever depart from the original significantly, it’s really nice to have someone to talk to and make sure you’re getting it right. It’s a huge responsibility that we’re all taking very seriously, which is exciting and nerve wracking at the same time.”

I can imagine! I can’t wait to see it soon. Break legs with it all

“Thank you. We say chookas in Australia. Or snap an eyelash.”

And with that, Adam was off to finish his pasta and get back to rehearsals while I went off to google La Divina, Carnage and chookas.

La Bohème is at The Kings Head Theatre, Islington 115 Upper Street, N1 1QN until 8th October. Tickets available here.

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