Interview: Richard Bean

Written for IdeasTap

Richard Bean: Playwright

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.


Belief walks in from the wings.

Written for the Church Times

In the spotlight: Messianic John (Trystan Gravelle), centre, with Stephen (Danny Webb) and Ruth (Geral­dine James) in the National Theatre production of 13  NATIONAL THEATRE/MARC BRENNER

“I HAVE always thought that the theatre is a kind of surrogate reli­gion,” The Guardian’s longest-standing theatre critic, Michael Billing­ton, says. “It has its disciples and its adherents.” He’s laughing, but we both know that there is some truth in this.

Western theatre is rooted in the miracle and morality plays of the 13th century; so religion and the stage have long been entwined. Billing­ton, per­haps one of theatre’s most devoted disciples, is not alone in seeing paral­lels between the rituals and roles of church and theatre.

For the new incoming artistic dir­ector of the Donmar Warehouse, in Covent Garden, London, Josie Rourke, her love of theatre was fuelled by her Roman Catholic up­bringing. “[It] is born from hours and hours spent in church. . . I read in church as a child, and the act of reading out loud and listening to others read out loud pro­foundly influenced me.” Her journey into storytelling began with perhaps the greatest story of all, that in the Bible.

Interpreting faith: right, left to right: William Tyndale (Stephen Boxer) and Lancelot Andrewes (Oliver Forde Davies) wrestle with the Bible in Written on the Heart

This influence works both ways; some find that their love of theatre develops into an appreciation of the rites of faith. This was certainly the case for my father, who started out training as a theatre director and ended up as the Bishop of Hertford.

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London Road

Written for

London Road is something of a surprise. The idea of a piece of musical verbatim theatre based around the murders in 2006 of five sex workers in Ipswich sounds like pure madness. In musicals all the characters know the lyrics and the dance-steps through a weird Borg-like symbiosis; how could such a fantastical form hope to engage with something so grimly real? But Alecky Blythe, composer Adam Cork and director Rufus Norris have succeeded in creating one of the best new musicals of recent years using not just the words but the ‘ums’ and ‘ahs’ of an embattled community. What’s more they’ve tackled this raw and painful subject matter in a manner that is both respectful and believable, no mean feat.

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Twelfth Night @ The National

Written for

Review: Twelfth Night – National ***

Peter Hall celebrates his 80th birthday with a return to the theatre he used to run, so it is fitting that his Twelfth Night is a reflective affair. In fact it is so reflective if it were a record it would be turning at least 4 speeds too slow. For whilst this is an undoubtedly elegant production, you leave with the sneaking suspicion that Twelfth Night should be lighter of foot than this.

It is a visual feast however with the modern setting clashing beautifully with the strict period dress that the poised cast wear with graceful aplomb. And calm it may be but it isn’t dull, each moment is performed richly, seeped as this production is in the wealth of knowledge and experience that Hall’s ‘friends and family’ cast bring to the text.

Shakespeare enthusiast Simon Callow as Sir Toby Belch is surely the male star turn here (the female being of course a doe eyed, silken Rebecca Hall) but it is the lesser known Charles Edwards as a delightfully cheeky Sir Andrew Aguecheek who steals their mischievous scenes. Simon Paisley Day is a wonderfully wounded Malvolio whose torment reaches a genuinely disturbing climax and David Ryall makes a gently charismatic Feste, singing us out with heart rendering delicacy.

In keeping with Hall’s great age this feels a very wise production and the storytelling is faultless. It is the work of an old giant of theatrical history, performed with reverence by an estimable cast. But where is the raucous celebration? Parties in the Hall household clearly take a much more sedate form. This refined experience is enjoyable, but sometimes you need to let your hair down. Shakespeare’s celebratory play is such an excuse for a knees-up, it seems a pity that Hall has decided to turn it into a soiree.

Runs until 2nd March 2011

Review: The Black Maze & Revolutionary Steps

The first thing you notice when you approach The Black Maze is that it’s a lot smaller than you may have been led to believe a ‘lorry’ would be. But don’t let that fool you it’s still a pitch-black labyrinth in there. An air of mystery surrounds this experience; the calming gentleman who explains the instructions is as slippery as a politician when it comes to describing what we’ve got coming and people’s reactions as they exit vary from fury (in teenage terms) and befuddled smiling to genuine fear.

In actuality it is all these things (except maybe the fury, not sure what that girl experienced). Stan’s Café have placed just the right amount of external treats and tricks to keep you on your toes throughout your journey, teetering between excitement and nervous palpitations. It may not be a ghost train but there are strong carnivalesque and Victorian overtones to this Black Maze, along with distinct echoes of submarines and some CCTV star gazing. But there’s nothing to fear except fear itself and really the only thing you confront in this maze is yourself (and some glorious trompe l’oeil illusionism).

Revolutionary Steps takes the strict foyer spaces of the National Theatre and turns them into an improvisational playpen. Cheerfully coloured vinyl footprints and speech bubbles wink out at you from stairs, lift doors and window frames depicting 13 scenes in a simplified version of Danton’s Death.

If The Black Maze is best done alone, Revolutionary Steps has to be done in a group. It is a piece which lives or dies by how much you put into it, as you are the performers and (if there are too many of you to perform or some don’t want to) the audience. And you need balls, because these are spaces full of the theatre going public and they will watch you. But the bravery pays off and it does feel as though Danton’s Death is leaking out of its theatrical constraints.  In a sweet twist there is a cracking monologue at the end like a jewel in the crown “I’ll scream so everything will stand still in shock” Camille cries. You feel that if someone actually does, the whole of the National actually will.

The Black Maze runs until 8th August

Revolutionary Steps runs until 30th August.

Written for What’s On Stage

Craig Stephens On … Stan’s Café at the National Theatre

A house of mirrors in The Black Maze

On Stan’s Café’s website they mischievously proclaim “Forget ‘1-on-1′ Theatre, here’s ‘Just You (and maybe your mate) Theatre.'” It’s a teaser to The Black Maze, one of the shows coming to the National Theatre’s Watch This Space festival this August. They have every right to make such a cheeky statement with their 1998 project It’s Your Film sitting like the Godfather at the BAC’s One-on-One Festival last month. Remarkably prescient this Victorian illusion piece for an audience of one, gave this newish art form a historical context. Associate Director Craig Stephens laughs, “In a way it’s a nice little period piece… no one in the film has mobile phone because when we were creating it no one had one!”

The Black Maze follows on from It’s Your Film in that it places the audience at the centre of the experience. A solo trip through a series of pitch-black corridors encased in a lorry, The Black Maze sends your senses into overdrive through external stimuli (it would be cheating to reveal what these are but suffice it to say they sound exhilarating) with each story and adventure being uniquely forged by us.

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Periods of upheaval; scary but essential.

So the observant (and faithful!) of you will have noticed that I have been absent from this blog for the last 2 months.  I won’t make excuses, but this has been due to a massive bout of upheaval and hopefully the last move I’m going to have to make for a long time.

Now that I’ve come out the other side, and into a very sexy face lift for this tired old blog, I took some inspiration from Carrie Bradshaw and it all ‘got me to thinking’ – is change destructive or just a necessary part of life?

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