How did this adaptation of Creditors come about?
I was asked to look at the piece by Michael Grandage at the Donmar. I've done a number of pieces for them and so I suppose they thought I was right for this one. I thought the play was full of potential, and I love working at the Donmar - their standards are very high - so it was a project I was keen to be involved with.
Did you read other adaptations of the play before beginning work on your own? Did you work from a literal translation?
Yes, I read every available translation. I also read Strindberg biographies and other background material. However this work is based on a so-called 'literal translation' commissioned by the Donmar. I actually very much dislike the term 'literal,' as it diminishes the achievement of the translator. What the translator did, in this case, is translate the play and clearly annotate the ambiguities and possiblities in the text so that I was able to explore them in my version.
Themes of translation seem prevalent in your other work (such as The American Pilot and, more recently, Damascus). Why do you personally find adapting plays for English-speaking audiences important?
For me this is about the difference between meaning and effect. Translations of a play exist on a continuum of truthfulness either to the meaning of words and sentences in a play or truthfulness to the effect if those words and sentences. The easiest example of this is where a line is humorous in a scene. Being true to the meaning of the lines may well lose the humour. To make the situation humorous it may be necessary to change the meaning of the lines. The question is: where do you want to place your production on this continuum? For me - plays are much less about direct meanings than they are vehicles for experiences which allow an audience to reflect on their own lives. So - for me - a truly great production would be one which it was possible to watch in a language one didn't understand and yet still, somehow, experience the pity and terror of catharsis. To aim at that, one needs to attend to the dramatic effect of the original playwright. I find that - generally - playwrights are very much in tune with an authors 'effects' whereas translators tend to be in tune with their meanings. Creditors was a shocking and funny play to its original audience. I wanted it to be every bit as shocking and funny to the audience today. I was less concerned about being true to each twist of Strindberg's often convoluted sentences. So - for me - the pleasure in doing 'versions' of plays is the pleasure of giving an audience a direct and visceral experience of a living text the way I believe its original author hoped an audience would experience it.
This year and last year, there were awards were given in the U.S. by the University of Rochester for Best Translated Book of the Year. Do you feel a similar award might be helpful for establishing adaptation and translation in theatre?
I suppose it might. But of course our culture is rather cruel to translated books - they sell badly - whereas the [effect of an] award for a well-translated play is that the production of that play is succesful and people want to buy tickets.
Is it as satisfying to adapt a play as it is to write one? More difficult?
It's extremely satisfying but in a different way to writing an original play. An original play is a journey of emotional nakedness and exploration. It is a mighty wrestling match in the wilderness of one's own dark spaces. An adaptation is altogether more cerebral. The pleasure of it is the pleasure of craft - of good making. Having said that, whenever I do an adaptation I find I have to somehow experience it as if I am writing it for the first time. I have to find the part of me that needs to write this particular play. It's as if, by sitting in the position of the original author and typing out his words I begin to have a ghost experience of what it was like to be him.
It's technical work, fascinating work and not easy but it is much less emotionally draining than writing an original play.
Is there a freedom to adapting a lesser-known work that doesn't apply to something like The Bacchae(which you adapted for a National Theatre of Scotland production in 2007 starring Alan Cumming) that's been adapted many times over?
No, in fact it's the opposite. I felt confident that whatever I did with The Bacchae it would survive and be produced. It's an established classic. My variation could be good, bad or indifferent but I would not damage the original. Creditors was slightly less well established and so I felt more responsible. This was a high profile revival, and a bad adaptation could have left it mouldering on shelves for another couple of decades.
Were there parts of the play with which you felt freer to take liberties or that you wished you could have changed? And do you feel that the adaptor has a responsibility to the original author that negates the playwright's desire to "make a mark" on the text per se?
No, I felt that Strindberg's play was structurally sound, and it just needed a speakable, clear, translation to release its taut, coiled power. So I wasn't seeking liberties particularly. I think the 'making a mark' thing is tricky. I don't really want to make a mark. I think most playwrights doing 'versions' feel like lighting designers do about their work: we've done our job best when you don't notice us. The last thing I want people to talk about it the 'version.' I want them to experience Strindberg.
Is Strindberg trickier than other authors to adapt? Does the psychology of his characters translate easily to modern audiences?
Strindberg is tricky, because his dialogue and sentences are fractured and odd. They're full of non sequiturs and logical lacunae. To be true to him, one sometimes has to accept sentences which feel badly made. However on the level of psychology he is utterly true, utterly modern. He was a writer who had no fear of exposing the darknesses of his psyche and, as a result, he is every bit as exciting today as he was in his time.
Do you have a personal take on the play as a whole?
Yes, I think it is profoundly a play about masculinity - its terrors and its vitality and its deep fear and need for women. Strindberg is often called a misogynist. I think this [misses] the point. I think Strindberg is a truth teller and the truth about heterosexual men is that our desire and need for women leads us - often - to fear them.
It's also a play that explores heterosexual men's deep fear and need for the relief of cuckoldry.
What qualifies one to adapt a play? Does an adaptor necessarily need to be a playwright in his or her own right in your opinion?
I think one needs to be a translator or a playwright and, in an ideal world, both. In my opinion it's like yin and yang. I view my work with the 'literal' translators of the plays as being a collaboration.
What's next for you as a writer and as an adaptor? Is there a play you're dying to make your mark on as an adaptor?
My adaptation of J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan is just about to open for The National Theatre of Scotland in Glasgow, directed by John Tiffany. That's an interesting case because it's a 'version' of a play whose original is in English.
As for foreign language plays I have always wanted to have a chance to work on some of Brecht's plays.