Thomas Jolly: Portrait of a rock star director

The stage director makes his operatic debut

By Simon Hatab 06 September 2016

© Olivier Metzger

Thomas Jolly: Portrait of a rock star director

From 14 September to 15 October, Thomas Jollymakes his operatic debut with Eliogabalo, a rare Baroque work by Francesco Cavalli. In 10 years and with two major Shakespeare productions, the stage director has been propelled to stardom and is now considered one of the key figures of the new generation.

Thomas Jolly is enthusiastic in these first days of rehearsals: opposite Franco Fagioli, Paul Groves and Nadine Sierra, he can barely stand still. He never ceases to bound across the space separating the stage from the worktable where he is installed with his studiously attentive artistic team, to perfect a gesture or clarify an intention. He passes out his instructions with his characteristic humour and joviality. When I met him almost a year ago, he declared: “First and foremost, I am an actor. I direct using my own personal experience of the stage”. At the time, I asked him if, by switching from theatre to opera, he felt he was missing something by not being able to perform in his own productions. These first days of rehearsals answered our question.

At the age of 34, the man making his debut at the opera would be wrong to conceal his delight. In less than ten years, he has come out of the shadows and into the limelight—from a bright young hope to a director coveted by all: a meteoric rise for a “child of public theatre”, or, as he likes to reiterate: “I opted to study theatre at high school and went from there to the conservatory and then the school of the Théâtre National de Bretagne: I never paid a centime to learn my profession”. The time spent at the TNB led him to attend the classes of Claude Régy, Jean-François Sivadier and Stanislas Nordey: three generations of directors, each of whom in their own way embody a particular notion of French theatre which Thomas Jolly does not disavow: “They awakened me”.  

Arlequin poli par l'amour
Arlequin poli par l'amour © Nicolas Joubard

After leaving the TNB, Jolly returned to his native Normandy. The year was 2006. With the help of a few friends from his year, he decided to set up his own company. La Piccola Familia was born. The name was the brainchild of one of his favourite actresses, Charline Porrone: “It was only later that we realised just how programmatic the name was” says Alexandre Dain, his artistic collaborator from the very beginning. “The work carried out in the company laid the foundation for our artistic project: continuity, constancy, the need for good working relationships, the co-responsibility of the narrative, even if Thomas remains responsible for the production’s overall aesthetic”

After completing his first production – Marivaux’s Arlequin poli par l’amour – he worked on a version of Sacha Guitry’s Toâ at the aptly-named Impatience Festival, which Olivier Py had just created at the Odéon. The director of the Théâtre de l’Europe was won over by the young director’s imagination. The rest is history: Henry VI, the monumental trilogy, had its debut performance at the Avignon Festival—a festival which Olivier Py had since assumed responsibility over. It was a vast, extravagant production: eighteen hours of feverishly declaimed Shakespeare. The audience entered the theatre at 10am and came out again at four in the morning, stupefied by the dramatic mastodon. Everyone was talking about Thomas Jolly. The following year Richard III closed the Shakespearean cycle and set the crown upon the director's brow.

Henry VI
Henry VI © Nicolas Joubard

The eighteen hours of Henry VI at Avignon couldn’t fail to evoke the twenty-four hours of La Servante, directed by a certain Olivier Py twenty years earlier. Their aesthetic affinities have not escaped some, who talk of Thomas Jolly as Py’s worthy successor. But does it irritate the young director to be already categorised? “There are worse references, says his dramatist Corinne Meyniel. “As for the rest, they do in fact have a lot in common: the same love for the excessive, the same compulsiveness to work, and above all, the same visceral connection to the text: Thomas doesn’t know it but he is Villarien. His primary concern is to tell a story and ensure that it is understood by the audience. He doesn’t believe in the notion of the author-director which developed in the second half of the 20th century: he sees his role more as that of a performer whose duty is to organise the encounter between the author and the audience.”

The fans who follow him production after production, spontaneously evoke the electro atmosphere of his Shakespeare.

Even though Thomas Jolly’s attachment to the text is undeniable – in his productions, it is rare for a phrase not to end up being displayed downstage, preferably in gaffer tape and extra-large characters – that same text will never supersede what forms the originality of his aesthetic. If you question any of the many fans who follow him production after production, they will no doubt spontaneously evoke the electro atmosphere of his Shakespeare. That atmosphere is primarily created by the lighting which has taken on increasing importance with each successive production. Already, in Arlequin poli par l’amour, particular attention was paid to the lighting, with bulbs that faintly illuminated the shadows of the stage and ended up criss-crossing around the embracing couple in the final scene with the Hollywood-style kiss. For the first time, with Piscine (pas d’eau) [2011], he used the Servomotors which would become his trademark: these remote-control projectors that create laser-like beams of light are traditionally used for rock concerts. As he puts out, his lighting designer Antoine Travert uses them to “sculpt, chisel, and cut through the space”. In Eliogabalo, he skilfully sets the light—symbolising the moral subversion conveyed by the Emperor (the god Hélios is also the sun god)—against a sombre scenography representing the established order.

Richard III
Richard III © Nicolas Joubard

Jolly is a staunch proponent of mixing genres: “Thomas has a desire to revitalise the theatre and appeal to different audiences by importing the codes of pop culture says Alexandre Dain. He comes from a generation that grew up with television, mangas and video games and he fully embraces it. When he explains his intentions to the performers, he loves to draw on these mainstream references”. If you visit the Piccola Familia website, you can also play Richard III Attacks! This hilarious video game, developed by the company, allows you to morph into the monstrous king of the Shakespearian drama in a Pacman-style labyrinth where the objective is to accede to the throne by liquidating all the enemies who stand in your way. 

This capacity to look beyond core theatre enthusiasts and appeal to a wider audience has now earned him the distinction of being wooed by television – a rare privilege which he shares with a few colleagues like Olivier Py and Joël Pommerat. This summer, his Avignon chronicles were broadcast each day on France 2 for the duration of the Festival and watched by several million viewers. Prior to that, last February, he was invited to present Richard III on the French TV show On n’est pas couché – a Saturday night infotainment programme– during which he shared the bill with Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Pascal Obispo. Aside from the unaccustomed praise from the columnist Yann Moix – “You have genius!” - the interview earned him this double-edged question from the journalist Léa Salamé: Who, in your opinion would the monstrous Richard III be today? » But since cannot know Shakespeare intimately without being versed in the tactics of political debate, Thomas Jolly answered the question with another, leaving the text to speak for itself: “The real question that Richard III poses is this: - Who is coarse enough not to see the palpable artifice, but who is brave enough to say who sees it?” It was a response which served to crucify the audience.

Le jeu vidéo Richard III Attacks !
Le jeu vidéo Richard III Attacks !

In 2006, as La Piccola Familia was being formed, Thomas Jolly summed up his notion of collective work in a poetic phrase: “Work together, separate for a while, keep in touch, go somewhere else and send yourself a post card.” Ten years later, the company is still there and continues to support the majority of his projects. According to Alexandre Dain “Time has a predominant place in Thomas’s work. “He believes strongly in “theatrical laboratories”. They enable us to work together long before the premiere, to take a break to allow the project to develop and then come back together again.” Switching from theatre to opera, he has tried to recreate a little of that family spirit: for Eliogabalo, he maintained a continuous dialogue for a year with the conductor Leonardo Garcia Alarcon. He also asked to organise a reading of the libretto last May with actors from his company playing the roles, in order to identify the challenges and compare his point of view with the point of views of the conductor, the dramatist, the scenographer and the translator…

Back to the rehearsals: it is the scene in which the Emperor plans to poison Alessandro and take advantage of Gemmira. One wonders how Thomas Jolly’s “solar” character – as his former mentor Stanislas Nordey describes him – can come to grips with characters as dark as Richard III or Eliogabalo to whom he has devoted himself these last few years… Darkness, anxiety and disquiet need to be sought out elsewhere: “We live in troubled times. It is an era marked with fear and division. We are seeking to create new political hope. These are the questions I pursue through these heinous political monsters”.

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