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Duncan Gates: ‘An adaptation can be as interesting as an original play’

Duncan Gates.

His most famous play has just made a big West End return, but one of JB Priestley’s earlier novels, Benighted, has just made its theatre debut. Adaptor Duncan Gates tells David Hutchison about the process of reworking a book for the stage…

How involved have you been in rehearsals?

Much as I love being in the rehearsal room – it’s really fun – I never want to be there for long. Not because I’m uncomfortable, but I’m aware that people start asking me questions. I say: “Don’t ask me, ask the director. I just put some words on a page.” Lines can be tweaked here and there so they make more sense for the person delivering them. It’s not my job to okay all those changes – that would be a bit silly. It’s not really healthy for me or the production. I want people to take the text and make it fresh for me as well. So if I’m there all the time and I’m okaying everything, that doesn’t help me develop either.

How easy was it to adapt a novel that was written before JB Priestley became famous?

It’s a strange old text – quite theatrical. In many passages, there’s quite a lot of dense dialogue. And at other times, there are entire pages about someone’s inner monologue. So in some respects it lends itself to the stage quite well. But it’s incredibly difficult – how do you present those monologues without doing an aside to the audience? To be honest, I think that’s rubbish. Parts of it are dramatic and parts of it are prose. Priestley was finding his form at the time he wrote it: you can tell he’s moving towards theatre, but it’s not fully formed yet. You can see how he’ll go on to become the writer of An Inspector Calls.

Are you restricted when adapting things for the stage, as opposed to creating them from scratch?

That’s an interesting question. It doesn’t need to be more restrictive, but it depends what you’re doing and why. If you’re doing an adaptation of something very familiar, such as A Tale of Two Cities, you need to ask: “Why is this going on right here right now?” This is as true of original plays as of adaptations. Why are you doing this? What are you bringing to it that hasn’t been done before? If it’s a very familiar text, that’s a challenge. So it’s all about finding something that is in some way difficult to do. The obvious thing to do is just to have an actor on stage doing a monologue of the entire thing, but then why not just read the book? That’s boring.

How do you avoid making it boring?

I ask myself: what is the subtext of the work and how do you present it in a way that no one has seen before? That’s the best way to proceed. In that way an adaptation can be every bit as interesting as an original play. It’s about your take on it.


CV: Duncan Gates

Training: Royal Court Young Writers’ Programme (2007)
First professional role: Playwright, People Day, Pleasance Theatre (2008)
Agent: Micheline Steinberg Associates


Benighted runs at the Old Red Lion Theatre, London, until January 7

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