Interview with Lee Hall

Stage

You’ve adapted a stage play for the screen, and now vice versa – what are the challenges of adaptation? 

Adapting something is pretty much like writing anything only someone else has done 80% of the work. Thinking up a story, inventing characters and dramatic situations is the hard bit. Adapting something is really employing the editing skills that are requisite in making any piece of work. And in many ways it’s always easier because you are on the same side as the directors, actors, designers, etc in that as a writer you are an interpretive rather than creative artist. In many ways this is a huge relief. The feeling is much more collegiate. Often writing your own play you feel very isolated from your colleagues as you are creating something for them to interpret. Because what you are trying to create is unformed it is easy to feel what you are struggling to articulate is being traduced or misunderstood. Whereas when you are adapting something all the theatre makers are, at least, on the same side of the fence and are trying to do the same thing.

 

 

Both Shakespeare in Love and Warhorse had an iconic status before being adapted – is there a sense of a responsibility to do justice to these works?

I think the responsibility is less to the work than to the audience. They must first of all have a good time. Because I write original pieces I try to honour the original work as much as I can. Keeping the same plot / story. If I didn’t admire the original I wouldn’t try to adapt it. Clarity and simplicity are most important. With Shakespeare in Love the task I set myself was to imagine what the play would have been that the movie might have been based on. I don’t worry about the iconic nature of anything. It really doesn’t impinge. What matters is making the thing at hand make sense. Working with Sir Tom Stoppard made me see that there isn’t a trick to this. His method was very simple you just have to ask the most basic questions of the line in front of you. Who is saying this? Why are they saying this? Where are they? Does it make sense? Does it ring true? Does it sound right. Could it sound better? If you ask these very basic questions wether or not something is iconic or not just doesn’t come into it. I want the play to be iconic. You can see that the War Horse film did not outstrip the iconic status of the play. In my view it was because despite having all the resources of Hollywood Steven Speilberg did not pay attention to these basic things. So often he was striving for effect that wasn’t justified by the minute decisions he was effecting. It didn’t all ring true. It didn’t all add up to the emotional denoument we were all trying to achieve. Without everything being carefully weighed and justified things can easily become bombasic. Without the grain of truth things merely become rhetorical.  So of course there is a responsibility to the work but ones vanity about that responsibility must never get in the way.

 

You’ve worked regularly across screen, stage and radio. What are the different challenges of each? 

Radio is more like film. You can be in downtown Bangalore then zip to a scene at the North Pole and back again without worrying about how you are going to do that. On stage that’s never true. On stage you have to get actors on and off, or you have to create the conditions for being able to ‘jump cut’. You have to be concerned about the whole event. In film and radio you really only have to involve yourself with the ‘drama’. The challenges, however, are pretty much the same. Firstly, how can you keep peoples attention? What does it mean – to you, to the people who might witness it? Is it do-able? Who is for? Is it as good as it could be? Have I written good parts? Why would anyone be interested? All these things are the same in every medium. I see myself as a dramatist. It fundamentally it usually involves using sound and/or  images to create an event. It often, but not always, involves actors. But it implies an audience and at the bottom of it all is that imperative. What have I got to say.

 

What has been your connection with Shakespeare, as a reader and as a writer? 

Weirdly I went to a school where it was deemed too difficult to teach it to kids from a working class background and so I was not taught it until I did A levels. So I was actually quite old when I first really read and saw Shakespeare properly – around 17. The density of the language, the boldness of the drama really blew me away. The fact that this was poetry but was rough magic, coarseness cheek by jowl with the languages most elevated articulations was and is thrilling. Reading Shakespeare is a special thrill but where it is intractable or boring as a theatre maker it all makes sense. Learning about the conditions of the Elizabethan stage, how folk drama, commedia del’Arte, etc are so interwoven into the fabric of the plays made me see how useful knowing Shakespeare is for a dramatist. His theatre was so practical. It was a cleaving together of so many traditions, and it’s social context that it needed to address the highest minds as well as speak in a demotic idiom is so suggestive. Anyway, I think I equally enjoy Shakespeare as Literature as well as Theatre. He’s weird as quite often the plays are difficult, boring, very difficult to pull off yet they always contain, or yield, something that is as great as anything in drama.  But I think you can’t look at Shakespeare without understanding he was BOTH an actor and a poet.

 

How involved with the rehearsal process for Shakespeare in Love have you been? What has it been like to work with Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod, the driving forces behind Cheek-by-Jowl?

Rehearsals are about to start tomorrow. I will go along most days. More to encourage and enjoy myself than anything. But we have worked very closely for a couple of years. Every word and comma of the script has been poured over – for its implications for the set, the actors, costumes, narrative, character motivation, music, the shape of scenes, where we will put the interval, etc, etc. All of these practical matters are considered by a creative team and really one never starts a rehearsal period without all this work having been done. But, of course, when the actors arrive and the process of discovering the potential of the finished script starts ones best laid plans start to wander. So I will inevitably nip and tuck and do little alterations to fit the exact shape of the cast – but a writers real work begins again at the end of the process when you reach the ‘run through’, the dress, and  Previews. At this stage what was words on a page is an event in time and you have to mould THAT event. A script is merely a blueprint – it is not the finished building. So a writer, along with the directors, producers etc can make very important changes which can save a production. The tens of thousands of creative decisions made by actors, props, the speed of set changes, lighting cues, textual revelations, psychological connections which were not apparent to the author, etc all add up to a specific shape which can be moulded. Things which were subtexual may have become clear, things that one thought were obvious need underlining. There are places where nothing happens. There are places where things are done to death. I have discovered this is a moment where very careful emphasis and brave and bold cutting can make a disastrous production good, and a good production excellent. It is a nerve wracking but incredibly creative time in the rehearsal process for a writer. But this only works if you have a strong relationship with the other creative people and have the good will of your company.

 

Thomas Schumacher called Shakespeare in Love a “Valentine to the theatre”, and Billy Elliot was a testament to the transformative power of performance. How valuable is the theatre in modern society?

Incredibly the theatre business is in very rude health. Every new dramatic forum which looks like it might unseat theatre in our culture – film, tv, rock and roll, the internet etc – only seems to make it stronger. While obviously film and tv are incredibly powerful and more central media the fact that they are increasingly not collectively consumed, that they are merely reproductions of the drama between people rather than the ‘live’ thing itself has made live performance more valuable. The theatre is a place where (as in the original Greek word) we come to see ourselves. We are mysteries to ourselves and the collective act of looking at ourselves, both as individuals and as social/political beings, seems an essential part of living together. I see theatre as a metaphor (or more accurately) a metonym for our political lives. For me it is a Utopian space where a group of people come together and work collectively to transform themselves into something else. That collective act of imagination, the technical mechanics of making such a complex undertaking possible is a very beautiful and privileged thing to take part in. The rehearsal room is a very interesting place a Lord’s son maybe playing a serf, whilst the daughter of cleaner might be playing Lady Muck. The point is the theatre is a levelling place – where everybody becomes equal. It is a place where we can become something else. It is the realm of transformation and if it works it is a place where the audience, for a brief moment, can equally be transformed. Most times they will merely be bored or entertained or mildly diverted but when it works it is transforming. Something is different from when you went in. You are richer. It has been made out of thin air. It might only last in its elevated state of exhiliration until you get to the bar but the fact that it has happened at all is a miracle and a mystery. But that is why we all do it and that is why people go. It is a basic human need and that we can come together to do this rather than frustrate, exploit or denature each other is for me a political and very hopeful act.

 

In Billy Elliot and The Pitmen Painters, culture is very much intertwined with class. Only a quarter of children in the UK have ever been to the theatre – is this a class issue, a cultural issue, or a financial issue?

Of course all these issues are intertwined. It is a travesty that the Arts are preserve of the minority. We cannot have a properly democratic and functioning society if the majority of the population do not take part in their own collective cultural life. Every person excluded from our common culture means we are all worse off. The Arts in this country have largely been animated by people from underprivilged backgrounds who have been assisted in one way or another to make their contributions felt. Economically it has made us all richer. Democratically it is the only thing to do. Denying the reality that the majority are excluded from parts of life the privileged count as some of the most valuable elements of life is a political act. It an act of cultural violence. Keep people excluded so you can more easily exploit them. It is in Capitalisms interest to drip feed ignorance to the majority. To keep us innoculated from our own lives with Bread and Circuses. Art in general and theatre in particular allow us to extend our lives. They allow us a position to reflect on more than our material commerce; to consider ourselves collectively, to examine or spiritual, political, psychological health. There is a good reason, if your statistic is correct, that 75% of kids are subtly denied access to a forum where they might explore these things, start asking questions which might promote answers that are not answered by the enticements of consumer capitalism. In both Billy Elliot and The Pitmen Painters I have been keen to explore situations where class, culture and financial impoverishment are no obstacles to exploring the Arts. Art is an expression that are essential and fundamental to all communities and even if whole swathes of people are excluded from the theatre you will find they will have their own forms of Art which allow them an idenity, bring meaning to their lives. Dancing, song, folk arts be they Panto or Bhangra are all forms of theatre that you’ll find mean a great deal to people who might not go and see Macbeth at the National Theatre. The Musical of Billy Elliot is told by using the genre of music that that community used themselves. Folk idioms, Hymns, Political Ballads. The Musical itself is a form that is very popular with working class audiences and many millions have come to see it and saw themselves in it. The fact that somehow those same people might well feel excluded from theatre they directly subsidise through their taxes seems very interesting. But it does not seem mysterious. People are sold a very limited view of themselves.  This is a structural reality that runs through so many institutions of which theatre, Class, and State Subsidy are just a few. But it feels to me that most of the people who find themselves working in theatre whatever their political allegiances really believe that theatre is a place that will challenge our insidious cultural complacency.

 

What would you advise the government – or the industry – to secure the future of British theatre?

Theatre and the performing arts exist is a very complex ecology. Since 1945 we have gone through an extraordinary Age in terms of theatre. Outside of Ancient Athens, Renaissance London, the Spain of Lope de Vega and Calderon and maybe the mid-Twentieth Century Manhattan there has never been such an extraordinary flowering. Whilst this second Elizabethan Age of drama might not have produced a Shakespeare – the list of dramatists, actors, directors, set designers etc is simply extraordinary. They have fed film, TV, Opera, Rock Shows etc etc all over the world. Is it that these 70 years or so was genetically blessed or is it because something unusually was happening culturally? Of course I believe that something very precious emerged. Most of our preeminent figures emerged not from the top ranks of the Establishment but from unauspicious backgrounds. Peter Hall and Trevor Nunn who between them not only introduced Beckett to the English Language and created the international Musical as a form, but also gave us both the National Theatre and the RSC came from working class East Anglia. The most melifluous Sirs and Dames started out as kids from the Valleys of Wales or in back to back terraces. Nearly every director working in the West End started in Regional Theatre. So the path from the school hall, to youth theatre, to drama school, to first job, to competence to success and preeminence is delicate and needs crucial attention. To understand how so many Hollywood hits are made with people who a few years before were doing fringe shows at the Edinburgh Festival is very important. The key lies in making sure that we attend to all parts of the chain. The resources need to be aimed at the start. State provision for young people in schools and youth theatres is a shadow of what it was only 30 years ago when I started. Anyone connected with drama training in this country will tell you how the complexion of drama schools has changed dramatically in the last 15 years where the children of the privileged are out numbering those from other backgrounds in a way we haven’t seen since before the War. There has been a vast diversion of resources from the regions to London which is accelerating. The channels that made drama so incredibly successful between 1945 and now are being restricted at the source. We have led and indeed fed the world in terms of our theatrical culture I am truly panicked that in 20 years time much of that will be withered. There is a cultural argument that Art should be for all and not the preserve of the privileged but there is an even more salient economic argument that this infrastructure be preserved. The VAT from ticket sales in the West End alone is more than the entire Arts Council budget for the entire nation. That is not counting the knock on benefits for tourism, restaurants, taxis etc etc. Theatre doesn’t cost the nation anything. It is a net contributor to the governments purse. All this works because of the Butler Education Act which made it possible for talented young people who would have previously been excluded from the Arts to educate themselves and rise to International preminence. It happened because Keynes laid the ground for the Arts Council, that in the 1960’s Jennie Lee transformed the regional landscape by creating new buildings and institutions. It works because all of these people created the RSC and National Theatres which are keystones in the structure. It works because all of those people wanted to do Musicals which entertain people by the millions yet still wanted to make searing theatre in tiny venues for a few hundred people. All of these things are interconnected and any government policy has to see theatre as a complex whole. It’s commercial and it’s subsidised ends are part of the same beast.

 

What are your plans for the future?

I have been writing a number of films recently but over the next few years I am planning to concentrate on new plays for the theatre. I am writing two plays for the National Theatre. One about the soldiers from the Border Regiment who I discovered used to put on theatre in the trenches and another about Wittgenstein returning from WW1 thinking he’d solved the entire problems of World Philosophy but also determined to give away the largest fortune in Europe. That ones a comedy. But I have a few musicals I am developing.

 

Shakespeare in Love is showing at the Noel Coward Theatre, London from July 2nd to October 25th