Saturday 28 June 2014

Interview with Jack McNamara About Adapting von Trier's The Boss of it All for the Stage

The mischievious 2006 corporate comedy The Boss of it All is one of Lars von Trier's less widely known works. Writer/director Jack McNamara has adapted the film for his New Perspectives company, and the production opens at the Soho Theatre next week, after an acclaimed run at last year's Edinburgh Fringe. Below, I talk to Jack about the process of adapting The Boss of It All for the stage.
AR: When did you first see The Boss of it All and what was your response to it? What was it about the themes that interested you?
JM: I knew von Trier’s work pretty well, but this one was a step away from the others. It was less of a formal experiment. More a good old fashioned story. But the thing that excited me was the tone, I think. Just this sparse, clinical Scandinavian feeling. It seemed such an incongruous atmosphere for the setting of a comedy and that appealed to me.
The film’s central idea – of an actor hired in to pretend to be the boss of a company – almost seems like a classical theatre premise. It’s simple, obvious but full of possibilities. And in its own quiet way, it also manages to raise a major question, about whether leadership in our society is ever more than a posture or performance.
What was it about the film that made you think it would work as a play, and would be a good candidate for a stage adaptation?
The main theme is performance, and somehow this is more potent onstage than on film. To some extent film is photographing reality, or a version of it, whereas when I watch a play, I never stop thinking that I am watching something artificial, no matter how good it is. So exploring this story on stage was a natural fit for me.
What was the process of getting the rights from von Trier like? Was he open to the idea of a stage adaptation, or did he take some persuasion?
I was lucky in that the agent who manages his rights was so open, supportive and encouraging. It’s amazing how the wrong gate keeper can really stop a project from happening. She was encouraging; however we were aware that this would be the first Von Trier in the UK, so it was not a dead cert that it would happen. I had to write the first draft for approval before being granted the rights. I made so many changes and altered so many scenes and characters. I was a little scared to submit it, so when I heard he had OK’d it I felt tremendously relieved and grateful. A more precious person might have taken issue with some of what I was proposing!
Could you talk a little about the process of writing the adaptation? What were some of the challenges involved? Have you made any/many changes in terms of plot or structure? Did translating the comedy of the film into a stage context hold any particular difficulties or challenges?
I wrote out the finished film by hand to begin with, and compared this to the screenplay (both were quite different). I then put both of them aside and just started writing a play from scratch. I felt that by going through the rewriting process I had somehow done my homework, and now I could just get on with writing the play I wanted to see onstage.
One challenge with the play was how to move between scenes in an elegant way. So I came up with the idea of making the scene changes very visible and integral to the action. The actors move the set around and at one point a voice over comes in and applauds them for their hard work. It all added to its deliberate self-consciousness as a piece of theatre.
Tonally it was a challenge to get right. On one one hand it was a straight comedy, but it also needed that kind of von Trier mischief to it. I didn’t want to copy any of Von Trier’s tricks, so I managed to find my own way of gently subverting the action.

Photo credit: Pamela Raith
How did the process compare to other adaptations that you’ve worked on? How does adapting a film differ from adapting prose works, such as the DeLillo and Bellow texts you’ve worked with previously?
I think the material tells you what it wants you to do with it. With Bellow, it was just amazing language so I didn’t really get in the way of that. I just found a structure to try and help give access to the language. But with von Trier I felt much more freedom to actually create a whole new play, as the main point wasn’t the language but the tone, characters and story. Yet it would never work as a direct lift from the screenplay. It had to be completely reconceived as a new play.
Did you watch the film with the actors in your production, or has your work with them been exclusively based around your text?
No, we avoided the film. There wasn’t a ban on watching it but I didn’t think it would be helpful. I think actors need to find their own solutions to things. And the casting onstage is incredibly different. For example, the bad businessman Finnur in the film is a massive Viking of a man, whereas in our production he is played by someone trim, lean and mean.
Do you envisage adapting other von Trier films for the stage?
Only if one of them calls out to me! He creates brilliant worlds to play around in. But I wouldn’t necessarily want to compete with iconic images. That can be a burden. The Boss of it All was ideal. It was my anonymous little baby.

The Boss of It All runs at Soho Theatre from Wed 2 – Sun 27 July. For further information and to purchase tickets online:

Theatre Review: Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (Savoy)

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels - Frank Oz’s 1988 Steve Martin/Michael Caine-starring comedy about two men on the con on the French Rivera - was one of the cherished comedy films of my childhood: often watched and quoted. And a few years ago I was also pleased to finally see Bedtime Story, the original 1964 film on which Oz’s remake was based, with David Niven and – of all people! – Marlon Brando in the lead roles. It’s pretty good fun too: at least until its flat, moralising end.
But David Yazbek and Jeffrey Lane’s musical version – which debuted in New York ten years ago and has been in the West End for a few months now – left me completely cold. I don’t think it’s over-familiarity with the source material that’s to blame: rather, it’s the blaring, Broadway-by-numbers treatment that the material’s been given. No-one expects subtlety or soulfulnessness from a musical version of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, of course, but some wit and style (and a few good songs) wouldn’t go amiss. Alas, Yazbeck and Lane’s book and lyrics are wincingly mediocre, and the songs are poorly, clunkingly integrated. This isn’t a show that’s sparked or advanced by its musical numbers: rather, it stops dead for them, and you see the joins. Pretty much everything here feels forced, strained, effortful.
All flash and not an ounce of substance, Jerry Mitchell’s production exacerbates the weaknesses of the material with a superficial glam n gloss slickness that at the same time ends up looking rather cheap. The money’s up there on the stage, all right (in Peter McKintosh’s deluxe slidy sets and twinkly costumes). Yet aspects of the production - the pirouetting chambermaids; John Marquez’s thickly accented Chief of Police - suggest nothing so much as an 'Allo 'Allo! episode directed by a very off-form Bob Fosse.
In the leads, and providing the smuggest double act the West End has seen since Matthew McFadyen and Stephen Mangan graced the (equally God-awful) Jeeves & Wooster, Robert Lindsay and Rufus Hound spend as much time playing to the audience as to each other. You don’t feel an evolving dynamic between them and Lindsay – with Prince Charles impression and constant recourse to little hip thrusts – is especially irritating. And Hound’s big comic set piece - the classic “Ruprecht moment” in which the younger con artist poses as the older’s mentally retarded bro - is fumbled by being set against the reactions of a character about as crude as Ruprecht is himself (Lizzy Connolly, in a nightmarish turn as an heiress singing about her Oklahoma home). As the pair’s winsome target, Katherine Kingsley yelps in with a painfully shrill introductory number that’s a true Broadway horror (and does precisely nothing to establish her character), while Samantha Bond wafts through as the rechristened Muriel Eubanks of Surrey (what’s wrong with a little Fanny, one wonders?). Decidedly weak of voice (and not helped by lyrics like “I’ve been royally screwed”) she’s at least a respite from the other performers’ blasting. A charm-free throwback.
Booking until March 2015.

Monday 23 June 2014

Theatre Review: Orange Tree Theatre Festival (Orange Tree)


Betsy Field in 7 to 75 (Photo: Robert Day)

Mums and sons. Daughters and Dads. Shakespeare/Coward/Beckett mash-ups. Gay rainbow rosary beads. Edward Snowden. Katy Perry. Plaintive (but playful) piano-scored puppetry. Synchronised hula hooping, Contemplations of the cosmos. What do all these (and much, much more) have in common? Well, they all feature, in one form or another, in the Orange Tree’s extraordinary Festival of Theatre, the last hurrah of Sam Walters’s 42 year directorship of the venue.

With typical self-deprecation, Walters has chosen to close out his tenure not with a self-directed production of a lost classic or a familiar favourite. Rather, he’s serving as producer and “curator” of this Festival, having invited a host of the theatre’s recent trainees to propose and direct short plays for production. The results, split into three Programmes which can be viewed on separate afternoons/evenings or together on one day, are stunning, and deserve much more media attention than they’ve thus far received. I saw all three Programmes on Saturday, and left elated and inspired by the sheer diversity and quality of the work on display, by the connections that the Festival makes cumulatively, and by its exhilarating mix of the traditional and the weirdly, wildly experimental.

Rebecca Egan in Non-Esential Personnel (Photo: Sarah Lam) 

The Lunchtime Programme comprises two plays, opening with Caitlin Shannon’s Non-Essential Personnel, directed by Nadia Papachronopoulou, and followed by David Siebert’s revival of Christopher Durang’s The Actor’s Nightmare. Shannon was the author of The Getaway, the highlight of last year’s OT Directors Showcase. And she brings a similar kind of radiant empathy to this new “duet,” in which a widowed mother and her son (Rebecca Egan and Jack Parry-Jones) – she a council worker sent home as “non-essential personnel” following a bomb scare and he an astronomy/Internet obsessive dodging his exam revision – confront their grief and tentatively face the future. It’s a tender, intimate piece with lovely details, and Papachronopoulou’s sensitive production features a quiet heartbreaker of a turn from Egan as the Mum.

Paul Kemp and Carolyn Backhouse in The Actor's Nightmare (Photo: Sarah Lam)
By contrast, Durang’s The Actor’s Nightmare is a marvellously contrasting proposition: a riotous meta-ride in which an accountant finds himself forced on stage as an understudy in productions of Coward, Shakespeare, Beckett and A Man For All Seasons, and attempts to fudge and ad-lib his way through the scenes. With a brilliant tour de force of increasing desperation from Paul Kemp in the lead, and delicious full-on turns from Carolyn Backhouse, Rebecca Pownall, Amy Neilson Smith and Christopher Heyward in support (Heyward’s hamming as Horatio in Hamlet is truly spectacular), Siebert’s production is pure pleasure and leaves you eager to see more of the great Durang’s work produced on UK stages.

Johanna Tincey and Paul Woodson in Mobile 4 (Photo: Robert Day)

Programme 2 mixes up four equally contrasting pieces. Orlando Wells’s engrossing Four Days in Hong Kong offers a distilled, plausible take on the Snowden saga, dramatising the whistleblower’s meeting with journos Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras and Ewen MacAskill in a Hong Kong hotel. Punctuated by portentous passages from 1984, and with great performances from Laurence Dobiesz, Karen Archer and Nicholas Cass-Beggs, Phoebe Barron’s taut production has style, wit and assurance as it lucidly brings out the play’s concern with privacy in the digital age and the moral implications of Snowden’s actions. John Terry contributes a fine production of Stephen Jeffreys’s funny, snark-with-a-heart Mobile 4, which explores the dynamics among a Northern commune involved in the art world, and Arlene Hutton’s Mametian I Dream Before I Take the Stand, directed by Katie Henry, finds a woman interrogated about her behaviour prior to a sexual assault. In terms of argument, this is probably the thinnest, most obvious piece here, but intense performances from David Antrobus and Heather Saunders maintain the tension.  Meanwhile, Amy Hodge’s thrilling, beautiful work-in-progress devised piece 7 to 75 suggests Caryl Churchill and Pina Baush collaborating on a reimagining of Albee’s Three Tall Women, as a quintet of performers – Simonetta Alessandri, Rohanna Eade, Betsy Field, Stella Nodine and Jessie Richardson –present five stages of womanhood via unashamed navel-gazing (literally), confessional monologues and a glorious interpretive dance sequence set – yes - to Katy Perry’s “Roar.”

Duck, Death and the Tulip (Photo: Robert Day)
The evening concludes with the mortality-themed Programme 1: Adam Barnard’s involving father/daughter drama Closer Scrutiny, with its intriguing structural quirk and moving finale; War Horse collaborators Andy Brunskill and Jimmy Grimes’s exquisitely enchanting puppet reimagining of Wolf Erlbruch’s Duck, Death and the Tulip; and, finally, David Lewis’s Skeletons.

Paul Gilmore in Skeletons (Photo: Robert Day)
Here Lewis mines a similar type of family dysfunction to his previous How to be Happy and Seven Year Twitch, as a gay son (Ben Warwick), a voyeur brother (Paul Gilmore), a harried sister (Amanda Royle) and an Alzheimer’s-afflicted mum (Diana Payan) reunite for ructions and revelations. Happily, Lewis – who might be described as what Alan Ayckbourn would be if Ayckbourn was actually any good – has some terrific jokes and twists up his sleeve here (including a classic “coming out” gag) and Alex Lass’s well-judged production proves laugh-out-loud funny and sometimes touching too. Richly rewarding, challenging and surprising, the Festival as a whole is something special and makes for an original and inspired end to Walters’s tenure. It runs for just one more week, until June 29th, and I urge you to book for as much of it as you can.

Further information at the Orange Tree website.

Covers Commentary: Unrepentant Geraldines Tour "Lizard Lounge"

Tori Amos has just completed the European leg of her solo Unrepentant Geraldines tour (album and London show review here), with a staggering series of performances that, once again, have surprised and amazed and confounded with the diversity of their set-lists. I’ve written about Amos’s cover versions before (here and here), but the Lizard Lounge section of this tour’s shows – the mid-way spot at which Amos performs requested or city-specific covers - has yielded so many awesome performances that I wanted to post something on them. Honestly, I can’t think of another artist capable of performing the diverse range of material that Amos has delivered so brilliantly over the last couple of months (everything from Metallica to Rodgers and Hammerstein), all of which she has made come out "Tori." Below, with some brief commentary, are some of the covers that I’ve loved the most so far. (And thanks/kudos to those who got such great footage. :))

“Extreme Ways”

A raw and brutal take on Moby's Bourne series closer, with percussive piano and a startling growled vocal taking us deeply into the “dirty basements, dirty noise” that the song evokes. The piano punch at the end suggests a way out, perhaps.

“Not Gonna Get Us”

A truly exhilarating gallop through t.A.T.u’s contemporary classic complete with Russian language opening.

“Rooting For My Baby”/”Three Babies”

As we know by now, cover versions, for Amos, aren’t just a diversion but a way of finding new meanings in material, of inhabiting a song from a fresh perspective, of connecting with other artists, across time and space, of showing the history of music to be one seamless, ever-evolving story. Performing Miley Cyrus’s “Rooting For My Baby” alongside Sinead O’Connor’s “Three Babies” Amos made a beautiful bridge of connection between two female artists that suggested the transcendence of the pair’s silly public spat.


“Silver Springs”

Performed on Stevie Nicks’s birthday (aw!), Amos treats this Fleetwood Mac gem with the utmost reverence, investing the heart-wrenching lyrics with an exquisite mixture of sorrow and defiance. Unrequited love never hurt so good. Very special.

“Nights in White Satin”

“A sonic rainbow. In here. Those motherfuckers can’t take that away.” A superb foul-mouthed tirade referencing the destruction of the Warsaw rainbow arch by neo-Nazis precedes Amos’s beautiful performance of The Moody Blues’ glorious epic, one that transforms the song into an anthem of gay community support , complete with subtle, ineffably Tori lyrical shift: “Just what they want you to be you can’t be in the end/Just what you want you to be, you must be in the end.” The cover of the tour so far, for me.


“The Rose”

Timelessly elegant, restrained and beautiful. I was nearly at this show.*cries*

“Take My Breath Away”

  “I don’t remember playing this ever. But I’m menopausal, so I might have.”


“Famous Blue Raincoat”

Once more in Warsaw, here Amos hilariously adlibs her way out of a mistake before slipping right back into the dark heart of Cohen’s endlessly ambiguous psychodrama.

“Rise Like A Phoenix”

So who’d have thought that within Conchita Wurst’s bombastic Eurovision winner lurked the soul of an Amos opus? Transformed. Reborn.

Also worthy of note:

"Nothing Else Matters"


“In Your Room”