Director Stephen Nicolazzo spoke to Sarah Corridon as part of our MTC Talks podcast series.
Below is a transcript of their conversation
SC: We’re here to talk about Abigail’s Party, which was a smash hit when it opened in 1977. It has gained almost a cult status since then, would you agree with that?
SN: Yes, absolutely.
SC: And there have been thousands of productions all around the world. We are lucky to have the show playing with your direction in the 2018 season.
SN: It’s the first time the Company’s ever done it, which is exciting.
SC: Very exciting. What do you think makes this play so universally appealing?
SN: I think that the most appealing thing about Abigail’s Party is its dissection of class, and also the sick and twisted things that lie beneath the surface. And also kind of the comedic way the play does that.
SC: That’s a great description. It is a comedy of bad manners so we have two party hosts, Beverly and Laurence and they invite their neighbours over for a booze-soaked evening.
SN: Booze and cigarettes. It’s quite disgusting.
SC: There is a lot of alcohol in this play. And things go awfully wrong. Can you tell us a little bit about each character?
SN: Beverly is the kind of toxic nouveau riche housewife who loves Donna Summer and tacky erotic art. She’s a real manipulative character, but also incredibly sad because she is trapped in a life that is kind of dull, so she tries to create something exciting and thrilling for herself by having people over, like she needs something to occupy her mind.
SC: And what about Laurence?
SN: Laurence is kind of the polar opposite. He is a workaholic, a real snob. He doesn’t like disco, he’s a Beethoven fan, obsessed with classical art. I guess he is the biggest example of someone from the working class who aspires to be wealthy and secure, and has achieved that, but in the end that almost kills him.
SC: Well yes, this play comments a lot on class and status, as you’ve said, and also on the notion of fitting in or ‘keeping up with the Joneses, which is an expression that was tossed around a lot in that era.
SN: Mike Leigh talks about it a lot.
SC: You may have heard this quote. When the play opened, television playwright and theatre critic Dennis Potter wrote for the Sunday Times that the play was ‘based on nothing more edifying than rancid disdain.’ He described it as ‘a prolonged jeer, twitching with genuine hatred, about the dreadful suburban tastes of the dreadful lower middle classes.’ A scathing review! What do you make of this assessment of the play?
SN: I think if you look back on it now, it’s a brilliant assessment of the play and not super critical because it’s actually understanding and drawing on the centre of it. Now in hindsight we look back on this play and see how rich and brilliant it is to create a world that is so distasteful but also lovable and I think Mike Leigh retorted to that comment and said ‘Yes there are archetypes, yes they’re disgusting, but at the centre of it all is truth and a lot of pain because that’s what happens when you come from nothing.’ I think it’s a compliment, weirdly.
SC: They are individually unlikable characters, but you do develop this kind of sympathy and definite empathy for them. The play unfolds like a slow-moving car crash.
SN: You can actually feel the car moving closer and closer to the body that it’s about to hit. It’s quite painful, but I think it’s a slow burn back then. In this particular version I think we are going to go headfirst into a fast grotesque, farcical style with it, but I think the whole thing about it that’s successful is that it maintains such tensions and you get to really experience the awkwardness of the dinner party, particularly from the guests who are just watching Beverly’s toxicity explode. It’s a painful experience but joyful to watch.
SC: When did you first fall in love with this script?
SN: Ash Flanders, who was in Buyer & Cellar and Lilith: the Jungle Girl for MTC, is a great friend of mine, and about eight years ago we were sitting drinking wine at his apartment and he was like, ‘You have to do this play’. So we watched it on YouTube and I fell in love with it, and it’s always been in the back of my mind as a work that deals with things I’m interested in, which is kind of the delusion and fantasy of security and sexuality, which is sort of peppered into this work. I guess that’s where it started, and I thought it would be the perfect piece to work on at MTC.
SC: You’re the founder of Little Ones Theatre which is a queer theatre collective. Fans of your theatre company are used to you telling stories through a camp or queer lens. Can we expect something similar with Abigail’s Party?
SN: Absolutely. What’s great about this play is it has the kind of Susan Sontag-style inherent camp. It’s not a kind of spoof work, it’s not stylistically silly, but it has this kind of heightened theatricality to it that I think we will definitely be applying to the production. Particularly the grotesque.
SC: This will be your mainstage directorial debut with MTC, but you’re not a stranger to the Company. You have participated in MTC’s NEON festival with Dangerous Liaisons, and you’re currently Assistant Directing with Marion Potts on Di and Viv and Rose. What are you looking forward to about taking the reins of your own show at this Company?
SN: I think what I’m most excited about is being able to bring my aesthetic and my approach to theatre-making to the Company, because after our experience on Dangerous Liasons, and the love that we got from subscribers and the MTC audience, I just really wanted to share that again and have an opportunity to have a riot and make a work that speaks both to the heart, but also to people’s sense of humour.
SC: Mike Leigh wrote Abigail’s Party as part of a ten-week rehearsal workshop, and it’s had amazing success. Can you tell us what is unique about your rehearsal room?
SN: I don’t take myself very seriously, so I like to have fun in the rehearsal room. I love to play with music, and I love to experiment with scenes in various ways. Sometimes I’ll do something incredibly straight, and then I’ll just take the piss out of it. I have a playful process, I love working with actors and finding the most ridiculous and theatrically unique ways of presenting moments. The same level of detail and rigour that goes with Mike Leigh improvising, I think I apply to how I interpret a play.
Stephen Nicolazzo’s production of Abigail’s Party plays at Southbank Theatre, The Sumner from March 17, 2018.