Producing a play is always an act of collaboration — one reason novelists sometimes find stage adaptations of their work terrifying. How can a director, these actors, this designer, be allowed to meddle with such a delicately constructed world? How can they even consider such crass casting of painstakingly observed characters? If the book has been a success, beloved of its readership, changing any aspect of the original is surely sacrilegious? When the book is mutating into a movie the money and glamour bestowed will help, but still — the sense that a work has been violated by a bunch of callous strangers, rather than becoming an immaculate re-conception, can stick. ‘Collaboration’ in that context seems just another word for loss of control, a dilution of imaginative power, rather than the glorious infusion of creative energy promised on the tin.
Collaborating in the act of writing itself might seem even worse.
My first experience of this was working with an author many years my senior who’d written a memoir of his golden years, working with a bunch of jazz-loving, hard-drinking black journalists in apartheid-era South Africa. He had now entrusted his book to a director for a stage adaptation, and I was brought in as ‘co-writer’. The play would deal with a piquant slice of history about which I knew little. I met the author, and liked him — he openly admitted he knew nothing about writing for the stage; he was happy to trust the director and myself with all the major dramatic decisions, and there was money on the table. I signed up.
The process that followed is neatly encapsulated by Faulkner‘s exhortation, riffing off Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, to ‘kill all your darlings’ — except, as I became acutely aware, the ‘darlings’ in this case were someone else’s. Each week brought more blood. With every successive draft, another of the author’s fondly remembered friends or colleagues failed to make the cut as the director and I battled to get a shifting tale covering many years and tens of characters into a powerful two-and-a- half-hour drama we could afford to stage. This was how I first learned that although we often talk about fidelity to the original – the stuff we know – adaptation is all about being faithful to strangers, the ‘stranger’ being the receptor medium. Making a good (or even, a bad) novel into a hamstrung play serves no one.
So — a few principles emerged. These were characters we were talking about, not people. In a stage play in particular, every character has a role, a function, contributing a specific point of view or exerting a particular pressure on the action — even if that’s only to bring in news; the ‘water carriers’ writers sometimes talk about. Even though this play was about a whole gang of people, that gang had to be limited in size and focussed on the main players. There could only be one, at most two photographers in the press office in the play, rather than the five clicking away in the author’s memory.
By the end of the writing process, upwards of twenty heroes had been conflated into ten, and for purely dramatic reasons a couple of antiheroes kept their place while much better human beings, more deserving of remembrance, were left slaughtered on the cutting room floor. Dirty work, but if history is to become drama, I told myself, someone has to be the assassin.
The final play was a fair artistic success, and a moderate commercial one, and the author and I remained on good terms until his own death a couple of years ago. But it was a distant relationship. I was always, in his mind, I suspect, the young brute who so callously cut his comrades from history. Living writers are, it seems, so often the problem. On another occasion, a certain unnameable actress – famed for interpreting Shakespeare – reacted badly during a script meeting for one of my own plays. Her determination to shorten the script by reducing any role but her own was met by this writer’s immovable objections. Finally, in a burst of exasperation she slammed the script down and hissed: ‘O God, this is so much easier when the writer’s dead’.
My next writerly collaboration, however, was a far happier one, and led to one of my closest friendships. If brutality was needed in my earlier experience with the author, my job with the poet was all about tenderness. The source material was a suite of poems written by a young woman who had been through the most traumatic of experiences. The verse she had produced was written almost as the events unfolded; it was raw, and unyielding, and brilliant. Now, twenty years later, she was keen to adapt these poems into a drama — would I take the job?
At first, I was almost undone by the sheer power of the poems, and by the enormity of the experiences being treated. Then the dramatist kicked in, and I made a few key decisions; firstly, I could see a stage drama would always feel clumsy compared with the delicacy of the poems, but a radio play was a definite possibility. Secondly I would try to ‘set’ the poems in the drama almost as a composer might, preserving the unique choice of words and timings and observations — the voice of the poet. This would require the trick of bringing verse and not-verse very close together in style, so the transition between the two elements – poem and dialogue – would be at times almost imperceptible.
The poems themselves would be used to push the narrative forward — and would be spoken very plainly; the heightened, intensified form that is ‘poetry’ would not be announced with titles or especially elevated delivery. To make this work, thirdly, the poems would be ascribed to different characters in the story. This was aided by the fact that all the poems were written in the second person, reflecting not only the poet’s cool eye, but also that sense that many of us have had in times of high trauma — of watching ourselves stumble numbly through events. The poet quickly grasped the idea, and generously began to tweak lines to reflect the particular point of view I needed. This strategy had a powerful effect — a poem describing a post-mortem was placed in the dead man’s mouth. Now we had the dead man naming his own parts — a suitably devastating effect.
By this time the poet and I were growing in confidence and having fun. To have the poet in the studio during recording also turned out to be useful. When it became clear the script was going to fetch up three minutes short of the running time, I began to panic. No worries. A sheaf of poems originally sidelined to avoid over-running was miraculously produced from the poet’s shoulder bag. She and I then spent a few minutes huddled in the corner of the studio, extending the script with more of those scalpel-like words.
Probably my weirdest experience of collaboration is a recent project in which I effectively collaborated with myself. This involved writing a screenplay about Mikhail Kalashnikov (inventor of the AK47) based on my own stage play. The film, being a docudrama, is now a very distant relation to the original play. It has grown to incorporate interviews with authorities on weapons and gun control, and insights into the work of a very exciting conceptual artist. Scenes in the screenplay follow the artist as he travels around Eastern Europe with a giant machine that (I kid you not) eats guns.
My very latest collaboration is more conventional, an adaptation in which I am collaborating with a long-dead, forgotten Russian. This has turned into a real labour of love for me – a crime of passion, for sure – turning a short story I first discovered more than seven years ago into what I hope is a resonant, genuinely dramatic new play. With luck, the open rehearsal in a few weeks’ time – during which short extracts of the play will be performed in public – will release this author’s work to a new audience. Stalin is said to have written ‘scum’ in the margin of one of the forgotten Russian’s stories — meaning that little of his work was published in his lifetime. I hope my collaboration will enhance and extend the F.R’s influence at last.
That will sound a lofty motive, but there is another great joy to be found in this and any collaboration. I am always quoting my favourite subtitle —from a book about playwrights in rehearsal. It’s also a phrase that serves to describe the real driver, for me, of collaboration. It is, quite simply, ‘the seduction of company’. When you collaborate, you are never alone.
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