Daniel Sparrow

The spirit of Almod

Daniel Sparrow on how he persuaded the Spanish director to let him stage All About My Mother

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In the theatre programme notes for the new play based on Pedro Almodóvar’s film, All About My Mother, the playwright Samuel Adamson observes that the play’s protagonist, Manuela, is drawn towards the world of theatre by an unexpected event. Back in 1999, although I didn’t know it at the time, my own life was about to imitate Almodóvar’s art. Perhaps calling a simple trip to the cinema ‘an unexpected event’ might itself seem a touch theatrical, but little did I expect that catching a flick on a Friday night in Sydney would spark the beginning of a journey that (not unlike Manuela’s) would draw me to the world of theatre, in the guise of a West End theatre producer.

It was in the summer of 1999 that I found myself sitting in a chic art-house cinema, watching a Spanish film that had just won almost every accolade for cinema invented, completely unaware of the impact the film I was absorbing was about to have on an impressionable, aspiring soon-to-be producer. All About My Mother packs an emotional punch that, on first viewing, leaves its audience reeling after the sudden and unexpected death of its young leading man just 15 minutes into the film, providing the catalyst for a rollercoaster ride through Almodóvar’s unique and irresistible world of women, desire, actresses and motherhood. Personally, the film left a rather more lasting impact — one that two years later would inspire a bold approach to Almodóvar’s film production company, to seek out the theatrical stage-adaptation rights.

Much of the Spanish director’s work is inherently theatrical and none more so than his 13th film, All About My Mother, a homage to theatre and actresses alike, laden with theatrical inspiration and references. From Mankiewicz’s All About Eve to Cassavete’s Opening Night, and Lorca’s Blood Wedding to Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire — all interlinked and layered in an astonishingly complex web of part tragic/part comic emotion and drama. And most of it set in or around theatres and actresses. For this reason I couldn’t stop visualising the world of All About My Mother told in the medium in which, to me, it surely belonged, the world of live theatre. And so the journey began.

Armed with the conviction that All About My Mother belongs on the stage as much as it does on celluloid, I contacted El Deseo, Almodóvar’s Madrid-based film production company to inquire as to whether the rights were in the first instance available, and in the second attainable! The response was almost immediate. And the answer was no. Almodóvar had instituted a blanket ban on any stage adaptations of any of his films rendering any stage rights impossible to acquire. However, his management left open the tiniest window of hope, asking what it was that I had in mind...so three weeks later a detailed creative proposal outlining the vision for a first-class West End theatrical adaptation landed on their desks.

A month later, an email arrived, informing me that Almodóvar had reviewed my proposal, and...was interested. For the first time in nearly 20 years, a major stage adaptation of one of Almodóvar’s films would be permitted. The news hit me like the impact of seeing his film for the first time all over again. And my own personal Almodóvarian rollercoaster took off.

To develop a stage-play version of an Oscar-winning film might seem like a good idea on paper — but the practicalities are something else and the rights had been assigned subject to Pedro’s personal approval of the adaptation. First hurdle, therefore: to find the right person to adapt the script. As producer, my criteria for the perfect writer to take charge of Almodóvar’s film script and sculpt it into a theatrical work in its own right included finding a new talent, with full-blooded passion, a racy wit, someone who could sensitively capture and honour the spirit of Almodóvar’s world, while simultaneously providing a theatrical world for it to inhabit. My luck held: I was introduced to the work of Samuel Adamson. Samuel fitted the criteria on every count — an award-winning playwright, whose new work was vibrantly, and often wickedly, modern but with a poetic soul, which was vital to communicating Almodóvar’s passion via translation, and whose gift of adaptation had made a hit of Ibsen’s notoriously difficult Pillars of the Community at the National. Pedro was convinced and All About My Mother was officially bound for the stage!

But which stage? Wanting to ensure that the world’s first English-language Almodóvar project was surrounded by the best production and creative team I could find, I approached Caro Newling, one of the West End’s most experienced theatre producers and director of Sam Mendes’s film and theatre production company Neal Street Productions (NSP). Together with the NSP theatre producer Beth Byrne, they immediately signed up for the project. In what was rather like an Almodóvarian coincidence, Samuel Adamson was already working with Kate Pakenham at the Old Vic on The 24 Hour Plays. When she approached him about writing a full-length commission for the theatre, Samuel mentioned All About My Mother. The Old Vic is not only one of London’s most beautiful theatres but also one that possesses a rare combination of epic size and an intimate stage dynamic, the perfect complement to stage this epic yet intimate play. It was also a theatre that Pedro had both visited and loved, so when Kevin Spacey and the Old Vic expressed interest so did we.

With co-producers, a writer and a theatre on board, All About My Mother really began to take flight. Over the ensuing months a talented and committed creative team was assembled, led by the director Tom Cairns, set designer Hildegard Bechtler and the film’s original composer, Alberto Iglesias. The challenge of casting leading female roles of such immense range and emotional intensity resulted in a stellar cast featuring Diana Rigg, Lesley Manville, Eleanor Bron and Mark Gatiss.

Weeks, months and indeed years have flown by, and the journey to opening night is almost complete. The cast, crew, creative and production teams have spent the last few frenzied weeks working tirelessly around the clock, preparing for that crucial moment when Pedro Almodóvar takes his seat at the Old Vic on the opening night and at last sees the fruits of our collective labour. But I’m not worried. I’m sticking to my original conviction that All About My Mother belongs on the stage. Let’s hope Pedro agrees.

All About My Mother is previewing at the Old Vic and opens on 4 September.