Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Michael Oakley: Infamous

By | Published on Friday 8 September 2023

The latest show to come to Jermyn Street Theatre sounds fascinating, and – like quite a lot of things that I find fascinating – it’s a historical piece.

‘Infamous’ is about Emma Hamilton, one of the most famous figures in Georgian society, who rose from humble beginnings to marry into the nobility and, most famously, attracted the attention of Lord Nelson.

The play is by April De Angelis, and stars mother and daughter team Caroline Quentin and Rose Quentin.

I was keen to find out more about the piece and the creative team behind it, so I spoke to director Michael Oakley ahead of this month’s run. 

CM: Can you start by telling us about the content of ‘Infamous’ – what story does it tell and who is it about? 
MO: ‘Infamous’ explores the extraordinary life of Emma Hamilton – a truly unique personality – who against all the odds rose from rags to riches and back again in the late Eighteenth and early Nineteenth Centuries.

She really was one of the very first celebrities who by sheer will power, belief and determination became famous just for being her.

CM: What themes are explored through the play?
MO: This is purely subjective on my part – and other people may extract other meanings from it – but for me the play explores the fickle nature of celebrity.

It examines the personal costs, not only to the famous individual concerned but also to those around them, in the pursuit and aftermath of fame.

It tells the story through the lens of two mother/daughter relationships – so that’s also a very important theme too. 

CM: Can you tell us a bit about the historical characters portrayed in the play? Are the events depicted based on real events?
MO: The play is very much based on real people and events and what we know about their real life relationships and interactions.

Though historically we don’t know an awful lot about it, Emma Hamilton clearly had a fascinating relationship with her mother and an equally fascinating – but very different – relationship with her daughter, where more information survives to give us clues.

Emma herself has left us heaps of letters and they make remarkable reading – she was evidently a very passionate woman. We also have countless portraits of her, probably more than any other woman – excluding royalty – of her era, so visual evidence has been useful and important too.

CM: What made you want to work on this piece? What do you love about it?
MO: I’ve previously worked with playwright April De Angelis on four projects – so when the opportunity of a fifth came up I couldn’t say no!

Also, I’ve worked with Caroline Quentin before and this felt like a great next project to do together – it’s always wonderful being in a rehearsal room with people you know and love working with. Though, of course, I’ve made some wonderful new friends and colleagues on this production too.

Although sometimes I admire rather than like her – her political leanings are very different from my own! – the story of Emma Hamilton is incredible and, in our current celebrity obsessed society, is definitely one worth telling. 

CM: Can you tell us a bit about the playwright?
MO: Funnily enough all the previous projects April and I have worked on together have been set in the past! Uniquely, her writing can tap into a cadence and style that convincingly evokes speech patterns from the past whilst feeling completely modern at the same time.

Bringing the rhythm and style of her writing to life is always a challenge – but a totally fun and exciting one. She writes such brilliant parts for women and I love the stories she chooses to tell; I always feel phenomenally privileged and honoured in helping her tell them.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about the cast?
MO: I’ve been blessed on this production with three brilliant actors.

Obviously Caroline Quentin and Rose Quentin are a real life mother and daughter – and as the play functions around mother/daughter relationships it’s absolutely thrilling to watch them work together and see what their chemistry brings to the play – it’s priceless.

They’re joined by Riad Richie who I’m already looking forward to working with again in the future.

CM: And now can you tell us about yourself? What made you want a career in the arts and how did you begin it?
MO: I really wanted to be a historian, so when I was in year eight at school I begged the drama teacher to let me go on the school trip to Stratford Upon Avon – when it was for years nine and above – because I wanted to visit Warwick Castle which was part of the trip.

Obviously we went to the RSC and I saw a production of ‘Richard III’ – I can even remember the date, 13 Oct 1995! I didn’t understand all of the play but I found it exciting and disturbing in equal measure.

The Shakespeare bug had bitten me and I’ve never looked back since! I was really lucky as a teenager – my mum worked for the railway so I got free train travel which meant I could go from my home town of Ipswich to London to watch theatre. I would never have been able to afford it otherwise.

I was twelve when I saw that production and by fourteen I knew I wanted to work in the theatre – and so it’s been that way ever since!

CM: What have been the highlights of your working life thus far?
MO: When I was 24, I miraculously won the JMK Award – which was brilliant but hugely daunting. I look back on that time with mixed feelings as I was so green I had no idea how to direct really – but it still remains a highlight.

There are three productions I have done since – and I won’t name them all – that I hold really close still. One of them was in 2018 when I directed a production of ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ for young people at the Globe.

Imagine directing a play which over 20,000 young people got to see for free, most of whom had never been to the theatre before. I’ll never forget the roar from the crowd when Beatrice and Benedick finally kissed. A life changing experience.

CM: What aims and ambitions do you have for the future?
MO: Just to keep directing! And as you can probably guess I really like Shakespeare – so I’d love to do more of that. Also to keep working with amazing actors. I admire them and their craft so much that I often have to pinch myself that I’m in the same rehearsal room as them! 

CM: What’s coming up next for you after this?
MO: There’s talk of a massive project that was programmed and going ahead in 2020 finally happening in spring 2024 – so I’m crossing everything and hoping that it does.

‘Infamous’ is on at Jermyn Street Theatre until 7 Oct. Read more about the show and book tickets here.