How a new London play about Ava Gardner is challenging female narratives

Interview with Gaby Dellal | Soho House

Director Gaby Dellal talks to Hanna Hanra about putting women's stories centre stage

16 February 2022 By Hanna Hanra

Ava Gardner broke the mould; she grew up as the youngest of seven children in depression era-North Carolina. The odds of her becoming a feted Hollywood actress were slim. Were it not for a portrait taken by her brother-in-law, placed in the window of his photography studio and discovered by a scout for MGM, (‘she can’t act, she can’t talk, she’s terrific,’ said Louis B. Mayer, the studio boss), who knows how her life would have turned out. But whatever she may have done, chances are she wouldn’t be the subject of a new play, Ava: The Secret Conversations.

The play is directed by Gaby Dellal and stars Elizabeth McGovern, who also adapted the play from a book of the same title. Having worked together in 2011 on the film Abandoned, the pair remained friends: ‘The interesting thing about working with someone is that you become best friends with them, and then at the end of production you might never see them again,’ says the director, who lives between London and New York. ‘It’s quite rare to work with the same people again.’

Interview with Gaby Dellal | Soho House

Dellal was drawn to the theatre from an early age, and knew she wanted to be an actor by the age of nine. ‘I wasn’t doing badly as an actress, and then I got pregnant, so going on tour with a theatre company became difficult. And I could only do things in London, where I lived.’ A few years later she was cast in a production at the Notting Hill Gate and persuaded the costume designer to make her outfit a little larger than needed. She was seven months pregnant with her second child before they clocked it. Dellal’s move into directing came naturally: she wrote a short film and couldn’t find a director – a friend suggested that she pick up that task and she never acted again. ‘It was a happy thing that allowed me to let go of acting seamlessly, which I never thought I could do,’ she says. 

Throughout her work, Dellal has explored a common thread: the relationships between different generations of women, and how they flex and change, from being a younger parent to becoming an older parent. Her 2015 film, 3 Generations, portrayed three members of the same family – played by Susan Sarandon, Naomi Watts and Elle Fanning – in which the youngest wants to be a boy. Exploring transness was something that at that point had not really featured much on screen, but for Dellal the real story was the family’s relationships with each other. ‘I explored mothers and children, and then added in a third generation,’ she says. ‘As I get older, I fall in love with older women – they have something to say. Ava was extraordinary and I admire her message.’

Interview with Gaby Dellal | Soho House

Ava: The Secret Conversations focuses on the last moments of Gardner’s life, spent in a flat in west London. Initially appearing in a grey tracksuit (a visual lifted from her last ever portrait), she flits through glamorous costumes as the wallpaper fades around her, a metaphor for her failing body and mind. Created by 59 Productions, computer-generated projection mapping is used to create the illusion of changing seasons and the passing of time. The stage itself shifts, growing and shrinking, until the very end when it zips itself into a tiny square, like a prehistoric TV shutting off.

Featuring Elizabeth McGovern as Ava and Anatol Yuself as Peter Evans, her biographer, the play is spliced with sequences of film from Gardner’s and her three husbands’ lives (she married Mickey Rooney, Artie Shaw and Frank Sinatra). ‘I work impulsively and instinctively,’ says Dellal. ‘I’m very into distinct colour palettes: for example, Mickey Rooney was her husband during the 1940s, and that, to me, was a very turquoise and green era.’

Interview with Gaby Dellal | Soho House

In our youth-obsessed society, it is pertinent to see a story focus on the later stages of an actress’s life, particularly one who had to navigate a society where women were very much second-class citizens. ‘The way she was treated by men and the way she dealt with it was phenomenal,’ says Dellal. ‘She didn’t belittle herself, even though men belittled her. She owned and was accountable for her actions, and there is something to take from that.’ 

At a time when more space than ever is being created for women’s voices to be heard, Dellal is gracious about the fact that when she started directing there were only a handful of female directors. ‘You get to a certain stage and you stop competing,’ she says. ‘You’re passing the baton. I feel wise enough and gracious enough to help and support a whole new generation. It’s exciting.’

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