Patrick Marber: ‘I’m a bit of a traditionalist. To me, theatre is posh showbiz’
High up in the warren of the National Theatre’s offices, Patrick Marber, blue eyes blazing and shoulders characteristically hunched, seems excited. He’s just been watching a rehearsal of his adaptation of Hedda Gabler, directed by Ivo van Hove.
“It’s wonderful being a writer during tech,” he smiles, “kicking back and letting someone else do all the hard work.” It’s the fourth production Marber’s been involved in at the National in the last 18 months, and he looks at home here. As he relaxes into his chair, he takes the first of many surreptitious drags on a large e-cigarette and asks politely if there’s a “little biscuit knocking around” to go with his coffee.
This calmness is doubly surprising from someone not only known for being a slightly spiky interviewee but also someone working on three shows at once. His production of Tom Stoppard’s intellectual farce Travesties transfers to the West End in February, with a slew of four- and five-star reviews in its wake, and there’s some last-minute fiddling to be done to his 2006 play Don Juan in Soho before it opens in March with David Tennant in the lead role.
Not bad for a man who claims he didn’t write a word for several years due to crippling writer’s block. “Writing is luck,” is his answer, “like life is luck. I’ve been lucky at times and unlucky at times. It’s good to know when you’re being lucky and when you’re not.”
Marber has softened over the years. After graduating from Oxford with a degree in English, he became a stand-up comedian then joined one of the most influential groups of comedy performers ever assembled. As a writer and actor on BBC Radio 4’s satirical current-affairs show On the Hour, and its TV incarnation The Day Today, Marber worked alongside Armando Iannucci and Chris Morris, co-creating the character of Alan Partridge with Steve Coogan along the way. The comedy was abrasive, it mercilessly satirised the patronising and exploitative tone of news programmes, but Marber became restive working in that team.
He turned to theatre, quickly building a reputation as both a director and a writer with an ear for sharp, witty dialogue and for incisive commentaries on contemporary vice. So when his first play Dealer’s Choice, which Marber also directed, was staged at the National to great acclaim in 1993, it looked like a renaissance.
But in interviews at the time he came across as restrained and fractious. Conversation often turned to rumours of rifts with erstwhile collaborators and urban legends about his gambling addiction. In one interview, when asked if he would move to New York for the Broadway transfer of Dealer’s Choice, Marber snapped: “Well, I am directing it so I think it would be a good idea if I was in the general vicinity, don’t you?”
As has been widely documented, after moving from London to Lewes with his wife, actor Debra Gillett, and his three children in 2007, he barely wrote a word for five years. He used to describe the period as extended writer’s block but today he’s less equivocal. “I think I was depressed for five years. So that didn’t help.” Has he found any way of ensuring a block like that doesn’t happen again? “No. Just prayer.”
During that period, Marber was having to hand back fees for work not submitted. He called himself “a serial non-deliverer” and was certain he was on blacklists. These days, now back in London, he seems to have found a new groove. “I’m no good when I’m not doing anything. Right now it’s not a problem, but it was for a long period of time.”
Directing, Marber claims, gets easier the more he does it. Writing doesn’t. “I didn’t think I’d one day be 52 and still find it difficult. It’s really hard to just keep chugging away as a writer because you get so much bad luck and misfortune and upset, which I didn’t have at the beginning of my career – it was all plain sailing. Writing remains the same tooth-pulling challenge. I always feel like an innocent every time.”
When his fallow period ended, he emerged middle-aged and, if not quite an elder statesman of the theatre world, at least an authority figure. These days, the lacerating quips are gone. Marber is often witty and occasionally laconic, but each of my questions is answered with a careful weighing of words.
He’s now the National’s unofficial writer in residence, christening the new Dorfman space with his football drama The Red Lion. He’s your go-to man if you’ve got a foreign classic you want translating – a Turgenev or an Ibsen lying in a drawer somewhere and crying out for a lavish production. No one is asking about the specious rumour that he lost £10,000 in one night any more. When you’re sought after by Rufus Norris, Josie Rourke, Sonia Friedman and Stoppard, the past hardly seems to matter.
In fact, along with Harold Pinter, it’s Stoppard whom Marber credits with being his biggest influence. “I got to know Harold Pinter and Tom Stoppard,” he says, “I got to work with them both, and the way they conducted themselves as people in a room, the way they were with me as a younger writer, their encouragement and their friendship meant a great deal to me.”
Their attitude towards him has made him aware of the responsibility more senior and experienced theatremakers have to the younger generation. “When I see a play by a younger writer, I always write and say ‘I thought it was great’ ” – even if, as he claims, they never write back. “It’s just a kind of conduct: as an older person, the way you relate to the younger people coming up should be as generous and positive as it can be.”
When I ask him if there are any younger writers he really rates, he mentions Lucy Prebble, “but she’s not really young anymore. I don’t get out enough to see the hardcore young work. I wait for it to arrive at the National”.
Although he sees more theatre than he did when living in Lewes, he shies away from the fringes. “I’m not a great forager into the unknown. I think I’m ‘small-c conservative’ and a bit of a traditionalist. I see myself in the entertainment industry, which I know isn’t fashionable, but it’s where I came from. I came from showbusiness. And I think of theatre as posh showbiz.”
He challenges my suggestion that the commercial sector is risk-averse: “I don’t necessarily believe that the great advances are in the non-commercial sector of theatre. Hamilton being a very good example: a radical piece, a truly radical piece, will find a huge audience because the new is always exciting. But there is a kind of ‘niche new’ that doesn’t interest me – I’m much more interested in the commercial new.”
For Marber, great theatre is accessible to a great number of people. “It’s why I continue to do work in the West End, because I want the work to be seen by lots of people.”
Commercial theatre doesn’t just come with bigger audiences, I suggest, but bigger prices too. “I hate the high prices of theatre, I hate that it’s become a form that isn’t open to anyone. But equally you can go and see Travesties for £20, you can see Don Juan in Soho for a similar price.”
Does he try to control that aspect of his shows, to keep prices low? “I don’t need to because the producers I’ve been working with – Sonia Friedman, Playful, the Chocolate Factory – believe in that as a principle anyway.”
“It wasn’t that long ago,” he adds, “that I was a student queueing up for standby seats. Part of the pleasure of getting in was the difficulty of getting in. But I don’t think there’s anyone in the theatre who doesn’t wish prices could come down. That’s what would change everything.” Marber is clearly passionate about this, and I ask if there are plays that he’s decided not to see because of the ticket price. “No,” he smiles, “because I’m relatively rich. I can’t pretend that I’ve been put off by price. Quite often I’ve come out of the theatre thinking, ‘I’ve paid 95 quid for that?’ And I’ve been appalled after the event. But it’s never put me off going.”
Looking at the spread of plays Marber is working on at the moment – an Ibsen, a Stoppard and a Moliere update – it doesn’t come across as particularly radical, nor particularly new. And how can a play be accessible when Marber himself advises friends going to see Travesties to familiarise themselves with the plot of The Importance of Being Earnest?
“It was a very, very hard play to direct,” he admits. “One had to hold one’s nerve and believe in what one was doing. But making it more accessible has been part of the job.” He thinks that his “brilliant cast” helped: “I think it will be a famous company. I hope that this production will have pushed the play into a comprehensible zone where other directors and theatres feel like they can do Travesties.”
Q&A: Patrick Marber
What was your first non-theatre job? Bar work at the Barbican.
What was your first professional theatre job? Definitions matter here. I was a comedian, but my first theatrical job was writing and directing Dealer’s Choice. Prior to that I’d done plenty of cabaret and stand-up and comedy.
What is your next job? Don Juan in Soho at Wyndham’s Theatre.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? It’s a long journey. Just staying in the game is an achievement in itself. You don’t have to win, you don’t have to be the best. Just find pleasure in the doing of it. Don’t be quite so results-based.
Who or what was your biggest influence? I’m influenced by everyone I’ve ever worked with and ever known. But I think I’ve been very influenced over the past 25 years by Harold Pinter and Tom Stoppard.
What’s your best advice for auditions?
• Don’t learn it, because in the intensity of an audition you generally forget it. I much prefer an actor glancing down at the script.
• Do not use an iPad. Print out your sides. Reading off an iPad, swiping, then scrolling, trying to find this bit of text with sweaty fingers… just don’t do it to yourself. Get it on paper, mark up the piece of paper. I’m really old school. A play is a thing on a piece of paper as far as I’m concerned. It’s not some digitised thing.
• Make it seem like you’ll be a pleasure to work with. There’s too much competition out there to be in any way tricky or difficult. We’ll just go, ‘Let’s cast the one who seems really up for it’. Be charming, be delightful.
• Get seen earlier in the day. When you’ve spent a whole day seeing actors, someone has to be phenomenal to wake you up. Try to get your meeting between the hours of 10 and 2.
• Don’t come in if you don’t actually want to play the part that’s offered. That happens a lot. The agent’s clearly said to the client: “I know you’re not going to do it, darling, but we’ll deal with that as and when. It’ll be good for you to meet him.” No. It’s not good for you to meet me. We assume, as directors, that you’ve come in because you want the part. So don’t come in as a courtesy. I’d much prefer: “No, that’s not for me” or “I’m not available” or “The part’s not big enough” or “I’m looking to do telly”. That’s fine.
If you hadn’t been a writer and director, what would you have been? I think I’d have tried to get a job on a newspaper covering sports.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals? I always wear a suit on the first day of rehearsals to begin the process in a slightly formal way, to acknowledge this is a big day.
Besides, he argues, his update of Moliere’s Don Juan, set in present-day Soho, will appeal to a younger, more diverse audience. It’s an interesting choice, a play about an unashamed lothario prowling the streets in search of sexual conquests. This has been a strange year for masculinity – the “locker-room talk” of the president-elect, the revelations of abuse at football clubs, several very high-profile rape trials. In one scene, Don Juan bags a date with a woman while being fellated by another.
Ten years on, is it more difficult to like Don Juan? “Possibly,” Marber says slowly. “But he’s never supposed to be likeable. He’s supposed to be an antihero you gradually end up liking despite yourself. I think that’s the whole point of the play: he’s a man you love to hate, and then hate to love. There are obvious parallels in the contemporary world of the trickster, the charlatan who triumphs. So it doesn’t need to be spelt out, it’s there for anyone who wants it.”
The play didn’t get a transfer after its Donmar run in 2006, which Marber claims was logistical more than anything else: “There wasn’t a theatre available, I felt a bit sad about that.” But he’s keen for the play to reflect the present day. “Because it’s set in contemporary London, I was very determined for it to be a diverse company. It’s got a good, diverse feel to it – ages, classes, colours. I was determined to do that, not as a principle – although it is a principle – but because I thought it would be good for the play. I didn’t for a second want an all-white company.
“In Travesties, we’re not all white. My net was cast wide, and always is. I feel guilty for every great actor I don’t cast, whatever colour or gender they are. I’ve seen maybe 100 actors for Don Juan in Soho, I can only cast 16. I’ve turned away a lot of hugely talented people.”
Since he’s known for writing particularly well about men and masculinity, I ask if he would ever consider gender-blind productions of his own plays. Could there ever be an all-female Closer, or gender-swapped Howard Katz?
“I’m completely open to it,” he says. “Playing with gender interests me. Someone did approach me once and asked if they could do an all-female Dealer’s Choice, and I said fine. I’m very open about almost everything in theatre because as a writer/director I think about it very much as a practical activity: whatever works, whatever gets the curtain up at 7.30pm. So you can have all kinds of theories and positions, but they really don’t get the curtain up. And that’s the job. So I approach it with all the humility I can muster.”
Born in Wimbledon, educated at a private school and then Oxford University, Marber initially wanted to become a comedian precisely because his privileged background wouldn’t help him at all. He sees the same kinds of privilege in theatre – “your background matters in terms of whether you get access,” he explains – and isn’t particularly optimistic about whether it’s getting better.
“You have periods where you go, ‘Yeah, it’s really changing’ and then some survey comes out and proves it hasn’t changed at all. I’d like to say it’s getting better, but I’m sure there’s someone who can pop up and tell me it’s getting worse. It feels to me like it’s getting better, but I say that from the smug position of a snug little room in the National Theatre.” He pauses. “I’m against all pronouncements, really.”
Quite quickly after becoming a playwright, Marber became known for updating classic texts. In the past he’s put his own stamp firmly on whatever he’s been adapting: Turgenev’s A Month in the Country got cut to just Three Days in the Country, and Strindberg’s Miss Julie, transposed from 19th-century Sweden to the eve of Labour’s 1945 election victory, became After Miss Julie.
Has he fiddled similarly with Hedda Gabler, a much more familiar play than his other adaptations, and one beloved of audiences? “It was a very interesting brief from Ivo. He didn’t want me to update the dialogue, but he didn’t want it to be fusty either. He said, ‘I want it to feel like you could do it in period costume, a realistic 19th-century set’, but I’m choosing to do it in modern dress.”
By now he’s used to the “ugly business” of adaptation, and not just because of his theatre work. When his 1997 play Closer was turned into a hugely successful film in 2004, starring Julia Roberts and Jude Law, Marber penned the screenplay. After that, he began to do more and more film work, picking up an Oscar nomination along the way for adapting Zoe Heller’s novel Notes on a Scandal, and even rewriting the script for Fifty Shades of Grey (though it was binned by the book’s author EL James for straying too far from the source material). He likes the ubiquity of film, the fact that “anyone can go online and find that piece of work”.
Patrick Marber’s top tips
• Prepare thoroughly but be prepared to change your mind.
• You don’t have to lead but you do have to host.
• Cast actors who are playful and flexible and don’t have a ‘process’ from which they won’t budge.
• Get your own room to do it in, lock the door and don’t let anyone in.
• Love your babies.
• Ignore deadlines
His approach to adaptation is academic, he explains. “I do about a month of reading around the play, pondering the thing, taking it seriously. And then I abandon all that and assume it’s gone in on some level and I grant myself the freedom to work side by side with the text and discard, create. Once you start following some impulse inside, you can’t ignore it. But it takes a while to grow in confidence.”
It’s been slightly different with Hedda, however – less Marber-ised and more of a straight translation. “A clear, fairly faithful version” is how he describes it. Someone at the National is very canny, I point out, pairing a director known for his pinpoint dramaturgical precision, Van Hove, with Marber, whose dialogue shows a similar exactitude. Shying away from the praise, he says simply: “It’s not over-worded. I hope.”
Due back at Van Hove’s side any minute, he indulges one last question about balancing so much work at once. “I feel blessed at the moment. Equally, I look at 2017 when Don Juan closes and I’m unemployed.”
It’s been four years since Marber got his mojo back; surely he’ll be fine. “Writing’s a constant process of trying to be confident when you’re in despair.” With a final curl of vapour from his e-cigarette, he heads back, confidently, to tech.
CV: Patrick Marber
Born: 1964, Wimbledon
Training: University of Oxford, English
Landmark productions: Theatre: Dealer’s Choice, National Theatre (1995), Closer, NT (1997)
Film: Closer (2004)
Awards: Evening Standard award for best comedy, Dealer’s Choice (1995), Critics’ Circle award for best new play, Closer (1997), Olivier award for best new play, Closer (1998)
Agent: Judy Daish
Hedda Gabler runs at the National’s Lyttelton Theatre, London, until March 21, 2017