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Adam Nichols - OVO's Roman Theatre Festival Interview

OVO’s Roman Theatre, the oldest producing theatre in the UK, will celebrate the tenth edition of its annual open-air summer festival with an incredible line-up of theatre and music. Renowned for its bold and imaginative spins on classic plays and stories, this landmark year will present brand-new adaptions of English classics as well as the return of some iconic audience favourites from OVO and visiting companies.

The Roman Theatre Open Air Festival has become a highlight of the summer cultural calendar, attracting diverse audiences who are drawn not only by the allure of the ancient ruins, but also the high-quality productions presented by OVO and visiting theatre companies. OVO are marking the 10th anniversary of the festival with an incredibly diverse roster of shows, all representing the company’s commitment to showcasing the art of theatre through imaginative, contemporary productions.

OVO’s 10th anniversary summer season will be bookended with exciting highlights from the company, directed by Artistic Director Adam Nichols.  Opening with the return of their critically acclaimed production The Merry Wives of Windsor, where the classic Shakespeare comedy receives an ‘80s makeover in this ‘inventive and laugh-out-loud remodelling’ (Daily Express), the season theatre programme rounds out with a brand-new musical The Highwayman, based on the narrative poem by Alfred Noyes, with book, music and lyrics by Kitty Morgan.

Ahead of the season we caught up with Adam Nichols to discuss the season. 

Where do you begin when choosing which shows to stage?
We present bold, imaginative and surprising reimaginings of classic plays and stories. So we’ll always start by looking at classic titles, and then think about whether we can find a fresh take on a particular text. We try to have a mixture of shows across a season – some comedy, some more serious drama, some that incorporate music, usually at least one Shakespeare. And we’ll also have in mind the cycle of shows over a period of years – it would be unusual for us to do the same title more than every five years. Finally, we may try to be topical. So, for example, we did The Importance of Being Earnest in 2022, written by Oscar Wilde who was famously jailed for “gross indecency”, to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the first Pride march.

Do you have to select shows with the open air elements in mind?
Very much so. Anything that is too wordy, or too static, generally doesn’t work. We try to select shows that contain plenty of action and are fairly narrative rich, because to a greater or lesser extent you are always in a battle with the environment – from passing aircraft to the local bellringers!

How do you reflect on the past 10 years of the open-air festival?
It’s hard to believe we’ve been producing shows at the Roman Theatre for a decade. What began as a quirky experiment has really captured people’s imagination, and that is incredibly gratifying. I think the proudest achievements are being instrumental in helping to bring live performance back after Covid, becoming a major employer in our area and contributing significantly to the local economy and creating shows that have engaged people who wouldn’t normally go to the theatre. I’d like to think that, more widely, we’ve started to make people respect outdoor theatre as an equally valid form, with its own unique power, rather than just being a curio. The biggest change, post Covid, is that people are now much more focused on a unique experience when they go “out out” and I think we’ve been able to benefit from that – you can’t replicate what it’s like to go to one of our shows in your living room on a big TV screen.

You firstly direct The Merry Wives of Windsor this season and set the piece against a soundtrack of 80s classics. What led you to set the piece here?
Falstaff is a vain, boastful, preening man, and when I saw previous versions of the play he always reminded me of an 80s rock god – albeit one who had lost his mojo (but didn’t realise it). That was my route into the wider 80s setting, but as I started to explore the play in more detail it just seemed to fit so well with the other characters – the rich but complacent Fords, the socially climbing Pages, and Falstaff’s “gang” who hate him like only the members of a rock band can despise a lead singer. I’m a child of the 80s, and I am in love with the music of the period, so it was both easy and a joy to find the right tracks to bring out the key moments.

Adam Nichols. Photo by Tim Morrozzo

The show is returning after a previous sell-out run, do you do much tweaking with a production that you’ve already had success with?
I suppose it’s dangerous to change a winning formula! On the other hand, I think one of the curses of directing is that you are never fully satisfied with any show you create and you always see the flaws and areas for improvement, even a long way into a run when it is often too late to make significant changes. It’s a great privilege, therefore, to have the opportunity to revisit a production like this and hopefully make it even better. We have a mixture of the original cast and some newcomers, which I think will give us the ideal balance of what made the show great last time along with fresh ideas and energy. I’m certainly not precious about making changes.

Your second piece in the director’s chair is Sense and Sensibility. How are you going to approach bringing the text to life?
I’m working with a wonderful new adaptation by Frances Poet which is fresh and funny, as well as being incredibly moving. The thing about Jane Austen is that it feels like it could have been written yesterday and, whilst the society she is portraying is very specific in terms of its norms and values, the situations and emotions of the characters are timeless. Adaptations of classics, especially Austen and Bronte, can be quite static and dull, so we’ll be incorporating a lot of music and movement to ensure it’s an exciting, dynamic show to watch.

Finally you’ll direct The Highwayman which is set in 1666, but promises to reflect who we are in 2024. How will you do this?
Primarily through the genius of Kitty Morgan’s incredible book, music and lyrics, which are genuinely genre busting and will, I think, take the best elements of a classic tale and bring it right up to date with a contemporary sound and style that hasn’t been seen in a British musical before. Like all great art, there is a universality to Alfred Noyes’ original poem which Kitty has brilliantly augmented with her beautiful and insanely catchy songwriting. I’m so excited about this show!

What would be a dream show to stage that you’ve not done yet?
Death of a Salesman on Ice (one for the Mel Brooks fans). On a more serious note, every Shakespearean Director wants to have a crack at King Lear, so I’m definitely building up to that one.

What are the biggest challenges facing OVO in 2024?
Like all theatres at the moment, balancing the books. We’ve seen amazing audience growth since the pandemic, bucking the trends in the industry, but it continues to get more and more expensive to make theatre, whilst people have less and less money in their pocket. I think theatre can change people’s lives and keep them healthy and happy, but I’m realistic enough to recognise that for most people going to see a play is a luxury. So we have to keep trying to be innovative in how we create work and keep people coming through the door (or gate!).

What keeps you inspired?
Wonderful colleagues and creative people that I’m lucky enough to know and have the opportunity to work with. And listening to music – that’s where all my best ideas come from.

What are your hopes for OVO going forwards?
That we can continue to make work that is bold, imaginative and surprising, with a truly collaborative approach, but reach a much wider audience across the UK and beyond.

The 2024 season begins with The Merry Wives of Windsor on 31st May. Find out full details by visiting

Photo by Elliott Franks

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