Playwright Robert Farquhar: ‘I’d love to crack London, I’m aware time is running out’
Inspired by Monty Python and the Beatles, Liverpool-based Robert Farquhar pens off-the-wall, anarchic, funny plays, but always with a message. He tells Catherine Jones about his ‘epic’ reworking of Ibsen’s Peer Gynt
Playwright Robert Farquhar’s latest work is big in every sense. The Big I Am, which receives its premiere at the Liverpool Everyman this weekend, is the culmination of a 20-year fascination with Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt and is his most ambitious play yet.
“This is epic,” the prolific Liverpool-based writer says. “I’m of the age now where I’m not interested in doing anything normal. Or in a box. Or ordinary.”
There is nothing ordinary about taking on Peer Gynt, although The Big I Am is not simply a translation of the Norwegian original but brings Farquhar’s inimitable style to it.
He has used the original’s structure to create what he hopes is “an Everyman-appropriate piece of popular theatre”. He adds: “It should be the home of intelligent popular theatre – that’s always been my attitude towards it.”
The sprawling scope of Ibsen’s narrative remains in this reworking. Though it now has a John Lennon-style hero as Gynt; a northern baby boomer whose life story unfolds across continents during the last decades of the 20th century.
Ibsen’s classic was written in verse but Farquhar decided against replicating the form in The Big I Am. Instead the language has a “heightened poetic, earthy style”.
“It’s not Jim Cartwright,” he says alluding to the lyricism of Road’s Lancashire playwright, “but I suppose that would be a signpost in terms of my original thinking about it. There’s a relish of language about it.”
A relish of language is something Farquhar developed at a young age, fired by seeing Monty Python live at Drury Lane, as well as work by the famous Liverpool Everyman company of the 1970s.
“I saw John, Paul, George, Ringo and Bert in the West End,” he says of the 1974 musical by Willy Russell about the Beatles. “I saw it twice – at the very beginning of its run, and at the very end. And that’s what put this idea of the Everyman in my head as this sort of mythical place of great, intelligent, popular theatre. There was just something about the style of theatre that I was incredibly drawn to.”
Trips to stay with a cousin in London were an eye-opener for the teenage Farquhar who had few other creative outlets. Theatre certainly didn’t feature at home in Aylesbury, w here there was no drama on the curriculum at Sir Henry Floyd Grammar – at least not until sixth-former Farquhar organised the first school play, a production of Robert Milner’s farce How’s the World Treating You?
He wrote his first proper play, City Octopus, while studying for an MPhil at Loughborough University, where he had received a first in English and drama. But at the time he never thought of writing as a viable career.
Instead, he moved to London where he became “a very mediocre, unemployed actor”, running youth theatres and working in small theatre companies and in theatre in education at Regent’s Park.
After a chance meeting at a wedding with Sue, the woman who would become his wife, the then 31-year-old relocated northwards. It was the early 1990s, and Farquhar – who accepted a job teaching at Liverpool’s Community College – says at that point it seemed he could have a life in the city that wasn’t possible in London.
Crucially, it also introduced him to Liverpool’s Unity Theatre, long a cradle for new and experimental writing. “I met some actors and started writing plays,” he says. “And I would book the Unity and have a title and an idea for a play, and some actors, but I wouldn’t have written it. One of those plays, 25 years ago, was Kissing Sid James. And that is still performed two or three times a year, somewhere in Britain or the world.”
During the past 25 years he has written more than a dozen plays. These include Bad Jazz, Dust to Dust – described by one reviewer as “tangy tabloid theatre” – God’s Official, which he adapted into the film Kicking Off, and the frenetic rollercoaster ride of Dead Heavy Fantastic, which premiered at the old Everyman in 2011.
Farquhar has also written and directed for Big Wow, the company he formed with actors Matt Rutter and Tim Lynskey, with works including The Art of Falling Apart. In recent years he has also directed other people’s work in theatres including Liverpool’s Royal Court.
Q&A: Robert Farquhar
What was your first theatrical job?
I was in a play called The Tyrant in a venue in the Cut, round the back of the Young Vic.
What was your first non-theatrical job?
Washing up in the Bell pub in Aylesbury where my sisters were barmaids.
What is your next job?
I’m working on a musical. And I’m writing a screenplay called Lawrence of Suburbia. And I want to write a folk horror stage play.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
Be prepared to discard the vast majority of what you write.
Who or what is your biggest influence?
David Bowie, the Beatles and Monty Python are the gods of my life. And Joe Orton – because when I read him I thought: “Plays can be this irreverent.”
What is your advice for auditions?
Be yourself and leave when you should.
If you hadn’t been an artistic director what would you have been?
A lecturer in higher education probably.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
His style is off-the-wall, anarchic, funny and physical, but he insists the plays have a message. “I’ve got some heavily intellectual friends who’ve loved my plays, but they said there are always ideas underneath them,” he says.
“In Big Wow I was always adamant we weren’t just a pratting-about theatre company, that underneath it all there were serious ideas we were satirising. And I’d hope that was the same in all my plays.”
As he mulls on the subject further, Farquhar concedes that perhaps it isn’t true of Kissing Sid James. “That’s about loneliness and trying to find the perfect partner. But ever since then.”
Religion runs through much of his work, including in this latest production, where he has “taken head on the idea of salvation at the end and saying that’s an empty conceit”.
Still, he likes the fact people look forward to his new work because they expect to be given a good time. “I’m really buoyed up by that, that people think: ‘Oh Bob’s written a play. It’s going to be really good fun’.”
With a burgeoning catalogue of work that has been staged in countries from Malta to Mexico, and Norway to Australia, is there one play that has a lot of meaning for him, or he is particularly proud of?
“It would be Bad Jazz,” he says of the work that played Off-Broadway, and then adds: “Or The Big I Am. What I like particularly about this play is the ambition that I had for it in my head is on the page.
“Obviously it’s not as perfect as you want it to be – I’m not saying it’s perfect at all – but that initial ambition that I had for it, and it is a big ambition, is something that I’m pleased and confident with.” With a grin, he adds: “I may have to eat those words.”
Farquhar says he is not ambitious – “I’ve learned not to be. I’m 58, I’m very aware that time is running out” – but would still like to crack London. Despite international success, making it in the capital has always eluded him. It remains a place where he sees real audience appetite for new writing.
“I’d love to have a play on at the Royal Court in London, or the National Theatre,” he says, or outside London at the Royal Shakespeare Company, he adds. There is going to be “quite a major production” of Kissing Sid James in Rome this year with “apparently two quite big television stars”.
In the meantime, he has a slew of projects for stage and screen at varying stages of development, from ideas doodled in one of his ever-present notebooks to full-blown manuscripts.
And then there is The Big I Am, which brings the Everyman’s second repertory company season to a close. “The whole play is infused with humour, and satire, and wit – I hope, or I’m going to have egg on my face,” he says.
“I’ve made Peer Gynt a lot more approachable I think. He’s also arrogant. And at the end, that’s what he recognises; that he’s made some dreadful decisions. But that’s drama. Emotionally healthy people do not make good drama.”
CV: Robert Farquhar
Born: 1960, Aylesbury
Training: Loughborough University
• Bad Jazz, Off-Broadway (2008)
• Dead Heavy Fantastic, Liverpool Everyman (2011)
• The Art of Falling Apart, Edinburgh Festival Fringe (2014)
• Edinburgh Spirit of the Fringe award for Almost Forever But (2000)
• Edinburgh People’s Choice award for Insomnobabble (2006)
• Audience Choice Film of the Festival for Kicking Off at Raindance Film Festival (2015) and best production at Oxford Film Festival (2016)
Agent: Charlotte Knight at Knight Hall Agency