A wealthy widow on her way up...

  • The Fantastic Follies of Mrs Rich at the RSC's Swan Theatre
  • Jo Davies, Director of The Fantastic Follies of Mrs Rich at the RSC's Swan Theatre

A quick Q&A with Jo Davies, director of The RSC's 'The Fantastic Follies of Mrs Rich' - playing at Stratford-upon-Avon's Swan Theatre from 23rd March - 14th June 2018

You were last with the RSC in Stratford in 2014 directing The Roaring Girl. Could you tell us what you’re looking forward to about working in Stratford again?

I love working in Stratford - especially in The Swan. It’s such a magical and beautiful theatre. The intimacy and immediacy of the space is completely engaging for both actor and audience. I love the audience being so close and connected to the action - it’s especially thrilling for comedy. The space demands strong physical action, but with an audience right next to you, to hear a whisper and see even the tiniest thought you also have to be almost filmic in detail, which makes it such an exciting and challenging space to play. I also love just being able to stroll along the river to work – as someone from London, suddenly having just a 2-minute commute is a total gift!

This time you’re directing the 18th Century comedy, The Fantastic Follies of Mrs Rich, which is a play many people might not have heard of. Can you tell us a little bit about the story, and what drew you to the play?

The Fantastic Follies of Mrs Rich is actually the fabulous story of two very different widows, both in search of two rather different husbands. Mrs Rich is a wealthy older woman who, through her second husband, aspires to rub shoulders with the great and good, gain a title, more power and higher social standing. Lady Landsworth - a younger, but equally rich widow - has spent the last 5 years of her life caring for her ailing 85-year-old husband in Yorkshire. Now he’s dead, she’s free, wealthy, independent and has come to London, primed and ready for all the thrills the city has to offer and this time is determined to marry for love.

We follow the quests of these two women through restoration London in 1700. What’s really unusual about the play, and what drew me to it, is how it’s totally powered by these women. It has 11 women and 10 men - which is incredibly rare as a cast balance from this period. It really is 50/50 in its gender split. Normally, in plays of this period you view a woman in relation to her husband, but in this piece, none of the female characters has a husband and the women that are in search of them are doing so from a particular point of wealth, stability and power. The language is sharp, satirical and biting and the women, bold, brazen and badly behaved. I love spending time with them and I think an audience will too.

The play is written by Mary Pix, who unlike her fellow female playwright, Aphra Behn, has almost been lost to history. What do we know about her?

Mary Pix only wrote for eleven years of her life, but in that time, made a great impact on the theatre in the 1700s. We know she was the daughter of a schoolmaster, who died when she was young. She seems to have been quite a saucy and wild young woman. There’s a picture of her that hangs in the National Portrait Gallery and her eyes seem deeply suspicious of the painter, whilst she’s in quite a provocative pose. There were rumours that as a young girl she had an affair with the young replacement schoolmaster at her father’s school, and that during a night of passion the two of them knocked over a candle, and burnt the schoolhouse down. Whether that’s true or not it certainly gives a good sense of the tone of Mary Pix’s cheeky writing and of the woman that hangs in the National Portrait Gallery.

You’re working with designer, Colin Richmond, whose previous design work with the RSC includes Wendy & Peter Pan, and last season’s Vice Versa. Can you tell us a bit about the design for the production?

The design for the production is essentially of the period, but with a few modern twists. At that time in the theatre in 1700 the physical energy and layout of the stage was shifting from the thrust to the proscenium arch. We play with the notion of that in the Swan and have created a small proscenium arch within the space, which we then use with a series of painted cloths to indicate our changing surroundings. All of the costumes are also generally period - which is exciting. The fashion of the 1700s was quite wild and outlandish. Historically, some women had wigs so tall that they had to sit on the floor of their carriages when they went out! So, it’s a terrific period for Colin and the actors to be exploring.

Sophie Stanton is playing the title role of Mrs Rich. What do you think she will bring to the part?

Sophie is a wonderful comedienne and has a real feel for the natural eloquence and style within the play. Tonally, the sharp biting satire asks an actor to delicately tread the line between cruelty and comedy and Sophie has such skill and dexterity with this. From the first time we met, I knew that with all Mrs Rich’s glorious faults and foibles, Sophie loved her - and that’s a terrific starting point with any actor. We’re also being quite bold with our re-imagining of the play and adding some songs and sword-fighting to our evening. Sophie has a great voice and is highly musical which is enormously helpful - and she’s not bad with a sword either!

How did you get into directing, and what other productions have you got in the pipeline?

I started directing plays at school and university and then I went to New York to train for 3 years in an Academy on Broadway. I started my training in New York as a performer, but used to direct the other students in secret - so by the time I left, I knew that’s what I wanted to do. I came back to the UK and started working as an assistant at the RSC, at the National Theatre and in the West End, and my directing grew from there. In 2004, I directed my first opera and that broadened my career into the international field. As a result, I’ve now directed all over the world and it’s not at all unusual for me to be working on 3 or 4 projects at the same time. Alongside Mrs Rich, I have two other shows opening this year so I’m also working on Kiss me, Kate for Opera North that will play at The London Coliseum in the spring, and a new production of Oklahoma!, with a 50-piece orchestra that will be for Grange Park Opera later in the year.

Find out more and book tickets here.