Composer and pianist Django Bates has written music for a new stage production of Jules Verne’s classic 1873 novel, Around the World in 80 Days, running through Christmas and into the new year at St. James Theatre in London’s Victoria. It’s Bates’ latest work for director Lucy Bailey (Gogmagogs, Titus Andronicus). Bates took time out from the technical rehearsal to talk to Stephen Graham.
Beavering away at the sound desk, hours from the ﬁrst performance of Around the World in 80 Days, Django Bates was in ﬁne fettle, twinkling in the murk of the ill-lit daytime.
Snatching a quick break and moving away from the auditorium so that he can grab a bite to eat, the great British jazz composer and pianist tucks into some piping hot ﬁsh and chips with some gusto soon enough in the restaurant, explaining between tasty morsels a little more about his music for the new production.
As he munches, the strains of Dixieland jazz almost impossibly drift up merrily from downstairs, merging in a Falstafﬁan counterpoint with the sounds of other diners’ knives and forks scraping on china plates, as Django begins to ruminate.
The much loved story of Around the World in 80 Days in the narrative actually begins not far away from St James, in the Reform Club in Pall Mall where classic English gent and adventurer Phileas Fogg (played by Robert Portal) makes a seemingly desperate bet, insisting that despite his friends’ scepticism, he can indeed travel around the world preposterously enough to make it back to Blighty in 80 days. Bates sees Fogg as a fastidious kind of Englishman and relishes his quaint eccentricity.
“I suppose with someone like him, I had in mind a cliché of a reserved Englishman of that period. And the funny thing is, in writing music for theatre, there is so much detail you can put in to the music that you don’t have to necessarily go into massive detail about each character. You can have a broad outline and just let the director and actors go delving 2,000 leagues down into that.” The Verne bug has deﬁnitely bitten hard.
“For me, I’m focussed on how the music colours things and has a parallel development, which I ﬁnd a really fun challenge. It’s quite hard for me to describe that, but there are two things going on here for me. One is a very pragmatic thing of making the play work with what I can do to help that. That’s what everybody’s doing in that room, everybody’s just trying to check that there are no gaps and that everything looks as it should, sounds like it should, everything is moving along at the right tempo and the music is part of that process. But also I’ve got my own secret agenda in a way because I can tell you because you are writing for a jazz journal!”
There are no live musicians in the production although, sometimes in the past, Bates’ work with director Lucy Bailey has involved this factor. Bates’ point of departure for this production was to draw on different resources instead. He channels a little Conlon Nancarrow, a little boogie-woogie via Meade Lux Lewis and Albert Ammons in the process and even some of his early work for his small fusion group Human Chain.
Feeding in sound effects worked up by sound designer Mic Pool, who Bates has collaborated with before on a production of classic noir The Postman Always Rings Twice, the composer, a youthful, puckish 55 says: “Mic puts the sound in related to the story, like a ship’s bell or something, and I can say ‘can you put that up a minor third so it ﬁts with this music?’ It’s very much working together about blending sound and music so it becomes one thing, just a feeling, an emotion.”
The music has a lot of breadth to it, built around mood and themes. After all, Bates is a master of colour and pace and just recently he has been nominated for another British Composer Award after picking up the award last year for contemporary jazz composition.
Wary of being too literal, period detail is not really the issue in his approach to this new work.
“You’re doing this job, and if you think too much about that, you really stiﬂe yourself in terms of what’s possible. So I suppose I take a starting point that’s relevant and then allow myself to wander away from it just in a way that you would hear that rhythm in Kurt Weill operettas and something incredible would happen over the top of it. So OK, how am I going to make this vamp something that anyone coming to the show would go ‘Oh there’s Django sneaking in some of his views on the story’? And then I just add tiny little ﬁlls on a quarter-tone piano above to show the piano kind of warping for a split second.
“But it all starts with Fogg. There is a huge streak of eccentricity in him from the beginning – this great tradition of English eccentrics. And long may that continue!”
Around the World In 80 Days runs until 17 January 2016. To book, call 0844 264 2140 or visit St James Theatre.