Mike Poulton: ‘I don’t work to commission. I only write what I want to write’
Political intrigue from the past is meat and drink to the writer, who has followed up his adaptation of Wolf Hall with Imperium: The Cicero Plays, fashioning Robert Harris’ three-volume chronicles into six plays staged over two nights by the Royal Shakespeare Company. Nick Smurthwaite finds the history master has many more tales to tell
Mike Poulton loves a challenge. After adapting Hilary Mantel’s Tudor marathon Wolf Hall, and its sequel Bring Up the Bodies, into two plays for the Royal Shakespeare Company, he turned his attention to Robert Harris’ three-volume account of the life and times of Cicero, the Roman writer and statesman, for the theatre’s latest blockbuster, Imperium, opening in Stratford this week.
This time he has fashioned the books into six short plays, each directed by RSC artistic director Greg Doran, spread over two evenings. They may lack the Man Booker prize-winning razzmatazz of the Mantels, but the Cicero Trilogy – dubbed “West Wing on the Tiber” by Harris – has attracted the same kind of box office frenzy in Stratford and beyond. This is keenly anticipated event theatre.
“The reason the RSC is the ideal place for projects on this scale is that you can spend a lot of time getting them right, refining the drafts,” says Poulton. “We had a reading and two workshops before we went into rehearsal. There aren’t many companies that will say, ‘Here are 15 actors, go off and do some workshops’. If you get the script right before you go into rehearsal, you tend not to get great narrative chasms opening up later.”
Nevertheless, Poulton likes to be present throughout the rehearsal period. He says: “Theatre is the most collaborative of all the arts, and as the writer you must use and accommodate the talents and ideas of all your actors. I like to tailor the text to the actors’ dramatic strengths whenever possible.” Doran, with whom he has worked on four previous occasions, speaks of Poulton’s “generous interactive relationship with actors”.
Such is his investment and belief in acting talent that Poulton always asks for casting approval. “Greg and I knew who we wanted for the leading roles in Imperium from the word go, and we were fortunate enough to get everyone we wanted,” he says.
“You have to look for people who are going to get on together and bring out the best in each other, because in some cases, such as Wolf Hall and Canterbury Tales [at the RSC in 2005 to 2006], they may be working together for two years or more.”
Particular actors occur to Poulton as he is writing, he says. “When I was doing Wolf Hall, the only person I could see playing Cardinal Wolsey was Paul Jesson. Similarly, Cicero was always going to be Richard McCabe, who I believe is one of our greatest actors. I’ve tailored Cicero to the actor.”
Even more crucial to what Poulton does is his relationship with the author whose work he has adapted, whether dead or alive; although a living writer is likely to be more proactive in the process. “Robert Harris and I had talked about various projects, including an adaptation of his book about the Dreyfus affair, An Officer and a Spy, but there was a problem with rights.”
Then, Poulton heard that Doran was planning a Roman season and was interested in staging an adaptation of Harris’ Cicero Trilogy. “Putting a novel, or novels, of that scale on stage is not easy, it’s a different animal, and Robert was enormously helpful and generous to me,” Poulton says.
“His advice was invaluable and usually right. We devised the structure of the plays together but at the end of the day he was happy to hand it over to me. A conversation between two people can run over several pages in a novel, but on stage it has to be quickfire dialogue otherwise the audience feels swamped.” The writer continues: “Cicero is at the heart of all the novels. He wasn’t just an observer, he was right at the centre of Roman power politics, looking outwards.
“I’ve always been fascinated by this period of ancient history. Every problem these characters faced – Cicero, Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, Pompey Magnus, Catiline – has a modern parallel. One of the actors said to me: ‘Every time I turn on the news, there is something that relates to what we’re rehearsing’.”
Adaptations of books, films and classic texts have been meat and drink to the theatre for centuries, usually undertaken by already established playwrights or directors. Poulton is unusual; he made his reputation as a master of adaptation, stretching back to the mid-1990s.
As a young man, Poulton, who grew up in Bradford, was tipped to become a barrister from an early age because he had the gift of the gab. He studied English at Warwick University, partly because the English faculty was run by the Renaissance scholar George Hunter and partly because of its proximity to the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford-upon-Avon, which became Poulton’s home from home.
“I went to Stratford a lot when I was at Warwick and I got to know Terry Hands, who was running it, and other members of the company. I continued to make regular visits after I joined Oxford University Press upon leaving Warwick, and Terry and I used to discuss the RSC productions at length. They used to say I should have a go at writing a play.”
He didn’t get round to writing a play. But in 1995, at the age of 48, he left his job as managing editor of Oxford -University Press after 17 years. Bolstered by consultancy work with another publisher, he accepted an invitation from Chichester Festival Theatre to adapt an early play by Ivan Turgenev – Alien Bread – later retitled Fortune’s Fool.
Poulton recalls: “Alien Bread was a creaky translation from the original Russian, never produced here, which read like a 1930s drawing-room comedy. But under the stilted language, and the overlay of stiff upper-lip English manners, I could see there was a powerfully dramatic story, delivered by some extraordinary characters.”
He asked some Russian friends back in Oxford to produce a literal translation, and he went from there. “So Derek Jacobi, who was co-directing Chichester with Duncan Weldon, had presented me with a challenge, along the lines of ‘You’re always banging on about how vapid translations from the Russian are, so let’s see if you can do any better’,” Poulton says.
“The day after I gave Derek my draft he handed it to Alan Bates, who said he was committed to a year at the RSC. The following morning Derek phoned me to say Alan had turned down the RSC in favour of what became Fortune’s Fool.” Several years later, the play was revived on Broadway, winning the Tony award for best play and best actor for Bates.
Coincidentally, Poulton had also been working on an adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, which Jacobi collared for himself, proving to be one of the great Vanyas of the 20th century. This translation also found its way to Broadway, in 2000, with Jacobi in the title role. “It was an encouraging start to my career as a playwright,” says Poulton wryly.
Q&A: Mike Poulton
What was your first non-theatre job? Working on Barrs’ Iron-Bru factory production line in Bradford.
What was your first professional theatre job? The double bill at Chichester in 1996 – Fortune’s Fool and Uncle Vanya.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? To expect a lot of battles because I don’t compromise. The secret is only to work with like-minded people.
Who or what was your biggest influence? Shakespeare, Chekhov, Ibsen.
If you hadn’t been a writer, what would you have been? I did think about being a drama critic but Derek Jacobi said he would never speak to me again if I did.
What’s your best advice for auditions? Do something unusual, and don’t try too hard.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals? I’m terrified of my mobile going off so I leave it behind.
The same year that Vanya transferred to Broadway, Poulton returned to his home county of Yorkshire to work with director Doran on a new version of The York Mystery Plays, the 13th-century religious pageant, fitting out the nave of York Minster with a 1,000-seat theatre and recruiting a cast of 200 locals to enact the biblical play cycle.
“We had a fantastic time,” Poulton says. “The month-long run was sold out six weeks before we opened. The scope and completeness of the York cycle is astonishing. As far as possible I kept the original words, rhythms and speech patterns. Where I had to modernise I attempted to show the spirit underlying the lines.” It was successfully revived at York Minster last year, by a different director, Phil Green. “I’d happily do it every year,” says Poulton.
One of his favourite dramatists, Friedrich Schiller, provided the springboard for Poulton’s next big success, an adaptation of Don Carlos for Michael Grandage at the Sheffield Crucible in 2005. The Stage review called it “a political thriller at its most exciting, heavy with atmosphere and passion”. It went on to an acclaimed West End transfer, winning Grandage best director gongs from the Theatrical Management Association and the Evening Standard.
Poulton worked with his old friend Terry Hands on Schiller’s Mary Stuart at Theatr Clwyd in 2009, before Michael Grandage, having moved from Sheffield to the Donmar Warehouse, commissioned him to adapt Schiller’s Luise Miller two years later. Critic Michael Billington observed that, between them, Grandage and Poulton had succeeded in making Schiller sexy.
But it was Poulton’s collaboration with a living writer, Hilary Mantel, that took him to another level of distinction and acclaim.
He was wary when the producer Matthew Byam Shaw first approached him with the idea of adapting Wolf Hall for the stage. “I’d heard Hilary could be quite difficult and there was some debate over whether it should be one play or two plays,” Poulton says.
“Hilary was still writing Bring Up the Bodies when the stage idea was first mooted, and I always favoured two plays. I wanted the execution of Anne Boleyn to be the climax.”
When they finally got together, Poulton says, “we got on like a house on fire. Hilary adores the theatre, and she was full of useful ideas in rehearsal”. He welcomed her input and they worked together on it at Mantel’s house in Devon.
For her part, Mantel has described herself as “a frustrated playwright” who was happy to defer to the more theatre-savvy Poulton. “Mike knows theatre,” she told one interviewer. “If he wants the River Thames on stage, he can imagine it in his mind’s eye.”
Mike Poulton on adaptations versus original plays
• Ibsen wrote Ghosts in just over three weeks. It took me a year to adapt. However, a new play can also take years. I’ve been working on a play about Hitler for six years. With adaptations I start with a series of sketches, then distil and refine. The first draft of Wolf Hall was more than 100,000 words.
• The advantage of an adaptation is that you can assure yourself that you have the structure of a play there before you start. In a new work you research the material then identify the structure. All that said, we need more new plays, especially for women.
• I suppose the original master of adaptation was Shakespeare. He took a rickety old play like King Leir (sic) and turned it into The History of King Lear. Then he realised that parts of it were not working, so he adapted it again as The Tragedy of King Lear. He could take great chunks of Holinshead’s dull histories and turn them into the most thrilling history cycle ever written.
• The best adaptation of an Ibsen play I’ve seen in the last decade was by Samuel Adamson (A Doll’s House), David Eldridge’s Festen was near-perfect theatre, and Dennis Kelly’s adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Matilda is a classic. I don’t believe you can create a classic by throwing money at it and filling the stage, or screen, with pretty frocks. You need to start with great actors.
Pulling rabbits out of hats
Taking the plays to Broadway was not such a happy time for Poulton because the American producers, worried that audiences wouldn’t understand parts of it, wanted to make textual cuts. “I did make some changes but I tried to take a back seat. It seemed an awfully long way from the Swan in Stratford, where it started out.”
In the event, the double bill received eight Tony nominations, though won just one for best costume.
Last year, 70-year-old Poulton pulled another rabbit out of the hat with Kenny Morgan, an original play about the true story behind Terence Rattigan’s classic The Deep Blue Sea. In this “homage to Rattigan”, as Poulton describes it, we see how the distinguished playwright’s 19-year-old lover – an actor called Kenny Morgan, who committed suicide in 1949 – became the inspiration for Hester Collyer in the classic Rattigan play, which was revived last year at the National Theatre.
“Rattigan dealt with all the problems in his life by dramatising them,” Poulton explains.
“A play about a failed homosexual relationship would never have got past the censor, so Kenny became Hester. After censorship was abolished, Rattigan wrote to John Osborne, ‘At last I can write about my particular sins without Lord Chamberlain-induced sex change dishonesty. Perhaps I should rewrite The Deep Blue Sea as it really was meant to be.’ But he never did.”
As with all his projects, Poulton immersed himself in all things Rattigan – plays, letters, biographies. Doran says his friend has “an uncanny ability to draw out the wit and humanity from this total immersion in his subject”.
Poulton says he has “about 30 years’ worth of work to get through before I die,” including things he has been working on for a decade or more. “My rule is that I only do things I really want to do. I don’t work to commission, and I don’t like to be rushed. It’s ready when it’s ready.”
CV: Mike Poulton
Born: 1947, Bradford
Education: Warwick University, 1969-73
Landmark productions: Fortune’s Fool and Uncle Vanya, Chichester Festival Theatre (1996), Euripides’ Ion, Mercury Theatre, Colchester (2004), Don Carlos, Sheffield Crucible and West End (2005), The Canterbury Tales, Royal Shakespeare Company (2005-6), The Cherry Orchard, Theatr Clwyd (2007), Mary Stuart, Theatr Clwyd (2009), Morte d’Arthur, Royal Shakespeare Company (2010), Luise Miller, Donmar Warehouse (2011), Uncle Vanya, Print Room, London (2012), Fortune’s Fool, Old Vic Theatre, London (2013-14), Wolf Hall, Royal Shakespeare Company and West End (2013-14)
Agent: Sarah McNair, Alan Brodie Management
Imperium: The Cicero Plays run at the Royal Shakespeare Company until February 10, 2018. Part I: Conspirator, from November 16; Part II: Dictator, from November 23. For full details: rsc.org.uk/imperium. Next week: Susie McKenna