Here’s your starter for 10: Who said: “I hate being interviewed and I have refused altogether to allow it. But I have to break the rule for you, for you were a friend of my father. And because you are the author of Dracula”?
I’ll have to hurry you… Time’s up: it was Winston Churchill. I kid you not. In one of those real-life events that seem beyond unlikely but turn out to be true, 32-year-old Churchill met 59-year-old Bram Stoker at the former’s house on Bolton Street off Piccadilly when Churchill was Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies. Well, it was 1907.
Frustratingly, according to the interview that Stoker wrote for New York World, they failed to discuss garlic or crosses, let alone stage adaptations of the most famous vampire novel in history. But Stoker did ask Churchill if he would write another novel after his earlier Savrola – a book of which Churchill later wrote: “I have consistently urged my friends to abstain from reading it.”
Yet the most surprising thing about the encounter is that Tom Stoppard hasn’t written a play about it. It was he, after all, who engineered James Joyce, Lenin and founder of Dadaism Tristan Tzara into his 1975 play Travesties. If that weren’t enough, his cast for The Invention of Love includes poet AE Housman, John Ruskin, Jerome K Jerome, Walter Pater and Oscar Wilde. And his nine-hour, three-play marathon The Coast of Utopia is peopled by a bevy of 19th-century revolutionary Russian thinkers and writers up to and including Turgenev. So maybe someone should give Stoppard a call?
On second thoughts, please don’t.
Frankly, I’ve had it up to here with bio-dramas that all too often feature more bio than drama. With Piaf, Marlene (Dietrich) and Stanley (Spencer) to name but three, the late Pam Gems made something of a cottage industry out of dramatising what could be termed The Lives of the Not Very Rich But Famous and in none of them does she wear her research lightly.
She’s not alone. Ronald Harwood, author of the hugely successful The Dresser has an entire strand of plays devoted to great musicians, from Taking Sides (Furtwängler and anti-Semitism) to Collaboration (Richard Strauss and Stefan Zweig and anti-Semitism) via Mahler’s Conversion (Mahler and anti-Semitism), the first act of which worried over whether or not Mahler converted to Catholicism, throughout which one wanted to cry: “The clue is in the title.” It limped through four weeks at the Aldwych before vanishing with little trace.
But even that pales in comparison with James Goldman’s jaw-dropping Tolstoy at the same theatre in which poor Gemma Jones was reduced to asking F Murray Abraham something along the lines of: “Have you finished War and Peace yet?”
‘In the ‘when X met Y’ format, audiences are often treated to yards of exposition masquerading as a play’
I’m thinking all this after seeing Two Ladies, Nancy Harris’ disappointing new play at the Bridge Theatre. New writing has been something of an Achilles heel for Nicholas Hytner – besides Alan Bennett’s The History Boys (about which, I fear, history will be less than kind), his National Theatre track record of new plays that weren’t adaptations wasn’t good.
Harris has lumped herself with the ‘when X met Y’ format so beloved of bio-dramas in which audiences are treated to yards of exposition (the enemy of drama) masquerading as a play. For reasons undramatic, characters pour out weakly motivated self-justification and defences of their positions. For a previous example of this sort of thing, see Paul Barz’s punningly titled play about the two Baroque masters – Handling Bach – or, rather, don’t.
In Harris’ defence, her play is not strictly a bio-drama since her two main characters are not precisely Melania Trump and Brigitte Macron, yet the play still sinks beneath information overload.
I’m not the biggest fan of Peter Shaffer’s ‘when Mozart met Salieri’ drama Amadeus, but for all its flaws it has an in-built vivid theatrical imagination that a good director can seize upon to nourish theatregoers. That’s also the thinking behind Terry Johnson’s best works, the mind-expanding Hysteria – ‘when Dalí met Freud’ – and Insignificance.
The latter, a fascinating collision between characters who are named the Actress, the Ball-Player, the Senator and the Professor but are clearly based on Marilyn Monroe, Joe DiMaggio, Joseph McCarthy and Albert Einstein, is worth the price of admission for the knockout scene featuring Monroe in the hotel room demonstrating the theory of relativity to Einstein with a toy train, a torch and a balloon.
It’s not just famous names doing conversational battle, it’s a theatrical balancing act between fact and fiction. Johnson is as interested in imagination as he is in information. If we must have bio-dramas, please can that be the blueprint?
Read David Benedict’s columns every Wednesday at thestage.co.uk/author/david-benedict