Written for IdeasTap
Richard Bean’s One Man, Two Guvnors is the National Theatre’s most successful export since War Horse and is currently running on both the West End and Broadway. Other plays include The Big Fellah and England People Very Nice. He talks to Honour Bayes about speaking the truth, writing what you know and not being cocky…
You became a playwright later in your career – what made you realise this is what you wanted to do and how did you go about doing it?
I never wanted to be a playwright. I morphed into one, having become a stand-up comedian with good material but a B-team performance, and then a comedy sketch writer for BBC. I wrote a play, Of Rats and Men, which went on the fringe and then the BBC picked it up as a 90-minute radio play.
I then started thinking that I might be able to write plays, and get them on, something I’d never believed. I wrote Toast which was a co-production between the National and the Royal Court and then all the doors opened.
Of Rats and Men and Toast drew from your past working as a psychologist and in a bread factory. Should writers draw from their own life experience?
I guess. People are very sniffy about the usual advice “write about what you know” but in truth everyone does that. The great writers mine their own experience and understanding of life and can only really write about the culture they know and understand. So it’s pretty good advice still.
As a retired stand-up, do you think it’s helpful for playwrights to also perform?
All experience is useful. For me, it has helped in understanding what is funny, and why something’s funny, and how it can be funnier.
England People Very Nice caused quite a bit of controversy, as have some of your award acceptance speeches! Do you think it is part of a writer’s role to provoke the establishment and audience?
It’s certainly part of a writer’s task to speak the truth. And that’s all I’ve ever done. I wasn’t aware that my acceptance speeches had upset anyone. It’s my chance to do a bit of stand-up, which I enjoy. Paul Taylor [theatre critic for the Independent] said after one acceptance speech that he didn’t like me, that I was too cocky, but he was wrong. I’ve never been cocky in my life. He just doesn’t like me.
Do you think it’s important for theatre to be political?
I think overtly political theatre can be a bit tedious. The best theatre is very human, with the politics there just because the business of humanity, trying to live with each other, is inherently political.
You have had huge success with One Man, Two Guvnors, an adaptation of the Commedia del Arte comedy, Servant of Two Masters. What’s the secret to a successful adaptation?
Usually truncate it, cut it, take out the verbosity, use full stops a lot.
This very British production has recently opened in Broadway. How much should a playwright let an audience’s cultural understanding affect their writing?
In an ideal world, one would be able to present a play to another culture in exactly the same way it was originally presented, but with a play like One Man, which only exists to make the audience laugh, it’s permissible to change the script. You can’t ask an actor to stand on an American stage night after night delivering a punch line which consists of “…. Swiss roll!” if the Americans don’t know what a Swiss roll is. It would be cruel to both actor and audience.
With a tragedy, one might change esoteric stuff just to get the meaning across. I had a version of Toast done in Geordie once, so that’s a wholesale change. It worked.