Around the World in 80 Days: Q&A with director Hal Chambers and actor Stefan Adegbola

All aboard for an adventure of global proportions! Around the World in 80 Days is traversing into Hull Truck Theatre this spring.

Arriving on stage on Thursday 4 May, this co-production with Theatre by the Lake (Keswick) will transport audiences back to the most exciting age of invention in a family-friendly, playful theatrical extravaganza brought to life with evocative music, puppetry and circus.

Ahead of their arrival into Hull, director Hal Chambers (The Ballad of Maria Martin) and actor Stefan Adegbola, who plays the title role of Phileas Fogg (Channel 4 series Get Millie Black) explain what the production is about and what it means to them to be a part of the creative cast and team on such an iconic production.

Around the World in 80 Days is a classic tale, why do you want to tell this story now?

Hal:  My early ideas were about declaring a style and not pretending we were anywhere else other than a theatre and that we were going to represent the world in a dynamic and quite modern way and re-examine some of the themes of Empire. It was going to be an incredibly joyful, music-filled, brash and quite theatrical production.

That set off many months of finding the right creative team that could fulfil the brief and then really dig into what the play is – as a piece of nostalgia. People remember it as something that’s been around in the dramatic ether for many years, it’s a well-loved story but it has some quite challenging themes in it. One of the first things I said was that I don’t want two white men paying their way around the Empire, that doesn’t feel like a story that urgently needs to be told. So, we cast Stefan Adegbolan as Phileas Fogg and we’re playing him as a black man in a white world of privilege and I think that’s a really interesting journey, it adds stakes and lots of interesting textures to the story.

What has been your experience creating the character of Phileas Fogg?

Stefan: I come across as an extrovert, but I’m an introvert as well. However, because of my profession I’m generally able to override it. Phileas Fogg’s character and the story that we created for him together is of someone who is actually an extrovert, but he’s been put in a position where he seems like an introvert. It’s not so much that he’s an introvert but he’s private, so what we start with is a very private person who opens up through the story. He’s learning to open up through the people he meets, through the experiences he has and through the wild, spur of the moment, uncanny decision to go and do this thing and try to travel around the world in 80 days!

Tell us a bit more about your Fogg… and Passepartout?

Hal: The play is about a love story between Passepertout and Fogg, not in a conventional sense, more like a platonic sense, the odd couple traveling the world. An unlikely pair who are at the other end of the spectrum, a man with privilege and money who’s able to do these things with a white woman who’s from some sort of artistic background, who’s eccentric and very theatrical and bizarre. These two people put together on this journey are like underdogs rather than overdogs in the previous versions, so it makes their journey more daring and impossible.

There’s a sense of 80 Days being an impossible thing to stage anyway and this becomes more interesting because we have an even more unlikely pairing. So, with the rest of the casting, I wanted to make sure that half the cast weren’t white, half the cast were female or non-binary and half male. If you read the play, it’s a very male-dominated white world and I just wanted to make sure the world was represented a bit more when you look at the stage, like Britain right now. Of course, we then needed to find actors with tremendous spirit.

How DO you go around the world?

Hal: It’s one of the first questions I asked myself… I stared at the page and went ‘oh ok’, obviously the elephant comes in and then naming the travel is the main thing. If there’s one thing I want people to remember in 10 years’ time it’s the travel, all eight actors and all the stage crew running around backstage hell-for-leather going ‘let’s do it’.

There’s a lot of ‘Around the World in 80 Days’ at the moment and our team know they are plugging into something that is of a moment and it’s not just a played-up comedy, it’s got guts and heart and it’s more in the realm of director Sally Cookson and a Wes Anderson film. UK theatre can be a little bit academic and we’re not, our rehearsal room has been noisy and fun and for me the visuals have been such an enticing element.

How did you become an actor?

Stefan: My experience as an immigrant in the UK; you’re playing a part, to a degree, because you have to. Your nationality always gets referenced, you’re being a different person or an other. That means that you have to learn to manage the expectations that people might have when they encounter that otherness in you and that’s a sort of acting process in itself. What made me want to become an actor was I realised it was something that I could actually do as a profession rather than as something that was an aspect of having to live the way I lived. I think that’s the briefest and clearest way I can describe why I became an actor.

How do you prepare as a director?

Hal: I do a lot of my thinking beforehand, I record myself doing all the parts on my phone, I walk around listening to the play until I know it, I immersed myself in the book and watched the David Tennant TV series, I have lots of chats with the creative team and then I come in and I spend about 30 minutes each morning deciding what we’re going to do. A lot of it is about having the space. Distancing yourself and not getting too obsessed with it. I like to take the evening off, I’ve got a kid so that’s a good leveller. Cleanse the palate and then come back in.

Have you found your Fogg yet?

Stefan: He’s coming, I’m one of those people that likes to play and keep developing as I keep moving throughout the whole experience. The character work doesn’t stop on press night, it might be a few weeks afterwards, it might even carry on to the end of the run here or it might still be going when we get to Hull Truck Theatre. I take each one on a discretionary basis.  This time around there’s a lot more to this project than I bargained for and so there are flashes of him coming out and I can see it sometimes.

Around the World in 80 Days will be on Stage 1 at Hull Truck Theatre from Thursday 4 May until Sat 20 May. The production is recommended for those aged 6+. Find out more about the production and buy tickets here: Around the World in 80 Days.