He began as a playwright, but Christopher Hampton’s long career has encompassed this and much more. Now in his 60s, with new productions of two of his plays currently running, plus more adaptations, films, an opera and a musical in the pipeline, Hampton tells Caroline Bishop that variety is what keeps his career going, and he has no intention of stopping work just yet…
More than 40 years ago, a young first-time writer called Christopher Hampton was quoted as saying that one day he wanted to be the oldest playwright working in the West End. Though happily still some years away from qualifying for that title, today the 61-year-old says he is busier than ever, and is still gunning for it.
“I think I said that because I was fed up with everyone interviewing me and saying I was the West End’s youngest playwright,” says Hampton, whose first play, When Did You Last See My Mother?, ran at the Royal Court and the Comedy in 1966, when he was just 20.
In the five decades since that early success, Hampton has built a career of constant variety, one that embraces translation, adaptation, screenwriting and film directing as well as “the backbone” of all of this, playwriting. His presence in London theatre has rarely waned, whether it be one of his own plays, an adaptation of a Chekhov or an Ibsen, or a translation of a Yasmina Reza. Right now, his name is on billboards at the Garrick, where a new production of his 1976 play Treats opened earlier this month – sparking much publicity due to the West End debut of its star, Billie Piper, and the speculation surrounding her health and relationship with co-star Laurence Fox – and at London’s venue-of-the-moment, the Menier Chocolate Factory, where Total Eclipse, Hampton’s 1968 historical play, is getting another airing starring 2007 Laurence Olivier Award winner Daniel Evans.
Total Eclipse was Hampton’s second play; it premiered in 1968 at the Royal Court when he was 22. It is based on the true story of 19th century French poets Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine, both precocious young artistic talents, who had a tumultuous and passionate love affair when the wild and arrogant Rimbaud came to stay with the older, more conventional Verlaine and his wife. The tempestuous, alcohol-fuelled relationship resulted in Verlaine being jailed for shooting and injuring his lover.
"I was very, very confident and the critics absolutely hated it first time out"
Hampton, who was a precocious young talent himself, discovered the work of Rimbaud while studying French aged 16, the age Rimbaud was when his first poems were published. The young Hampton became intrigued by the story and the “French equivalent of the Oscar Wilde scandal” and, while studying languages at Oxford University, began gathering research to create a play. “By the time I came to write the play I was about half way between the two of them, because Verlaine was 26 and Rimbaud was 16 and I wrote the play when I was 21.”
Hampton was initially drawn to the brilliance of Rimbaud, but it is perhaps an indication of the playwright’s own work ethic that during his research he began to admire the more committed, less unruly Verlaine. “I was particularly fascinated by [Rimbaud’s] revolutionary attitude and the fact that he wanted to destroy everything and rebuild it differently. You can argue that the whole of modern art grew out of Rimbaud’s work, it was so fiercely original,” he says. “But the more I worked on it, I realised he was kind of an amateur at genius really, he wasn’t really committed to the idea of being an artist, whereas Verlaine was; he was much less gifted but he was really tenacious and determined and kept working for the whole of his life, trying to make his work better. By sheer effort he turned himself into the poetic equivalent of an impressionist; he was as original in his way as Rimbaud.”
It is obvious that the story held enormous fascination for Hampton, and, despite being his second play, Total Eclipse was “the play I’d always been planning to do”. It must have been a highly personal blow then, when after the critical success of When Did You Last See My Mother? the first production of Total Eclipse was not so well received. “I was very, very confident and the critics absolutely hated it first time out,” he says. “I thought, this play is clearly so much better than the first one which had been very well received, and all the known critics who had received the first one so rapturously, hated it. So it was a very good lesson, because it made you think, well you really can’t take any notice of any of these things, you just have to soldier on and do the next one. It was a bit of a blow.”
It is a lesson that has stood Hampton in good stead throughout his career, which has seen both huge highs and further critical disappointments, to the extent that Hampton no longer has any idea if something he writes will be a critical success. It works both ways. His 1985 play Les Liaisons Dangereuses, adapted from the 18th century French epistolary novel by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos and directed by Howard Davies for the RSC at the Barbican Pit, was a big success, sweeping the board during the awards season, including winning Best New Play at the 1986 Laurence Olivier Awards. The subsequent 1988 film directed by Stephen Frears, with the English title Dangerous Liaisons, was also a critical and box office triumph, winning Hampton both a BAFTA and an Oscar for the screenplay. “No one was more flabbergasted than the RSC when Les Liaisons Dangereuses was such a big success, and me too. We just thought it was a little adaptation of a not very well-known classic. And so the fact that it did what it did was quite surprising really.”
In its wake, Hampton embarked on another film project, adapting Lawrence Thornton’s novel Imagining Argentina into a screenplay “foolishly thinking that because Dangerous Liaisons had been such a success, this, which was so completely different, would somehow easily get made”. But it didn’t. “It took 14 years to get it made and then it didn’t go down very well at all. So, you just don’t know.”
However, critical failure has offered him some advantages. “The great thing about having a failure is that people leave you alone for a couple of years so you can regroup your forces. And the great disadvantage of being very successful is that… people think of you much more easily and you’re absolutely bombarded with offers.”
"You sit down and work very closely for two months on a masterpiece, it’s good for you"
Anyway, as Total Eclipse has proved, critical failure doesn’t always mean the end of a play’s life. Despite the less than favourable reviews first time around, the play enjoyed a well received 1981 production directed by Hampton’s contemporary and former schoolmate David Hare at the Lyric Hammersmith, a 1995 film starring Leonardo DiCaprio and David Thewlis, the screenplay of which was penned by Hampton, and it has become a favourite of university drama groups. Hampton comments: “People who saw it [on stage in ‘68] and got on its wavelength remembered it, which is how the play has had a life I suppose.”
He feels “a great sort of pleasure” in seeing his plays produced again after so many years, finding it reassuring that people still want to do them. He is also fascinated to see how each new team approaches his work. “It’s very, very interesting to see the differences between one decade and the next, and one production and the next.”
Despite having himself directed (albeit on screen), he has a relaxed attitude towards how his plays should be performed, and directed, on the stage. “I think experience teaches you to keep it as loose as possible and not to be rigid about it.” He adds: “It’s good to have an objective eye that’s not as involved with it as you are as a writer. “If you work with good directors and you’re open, I think you probably get a better result from a combination of two heads than you might from one.”
Hampton feels lucky to have worked with some good directors on productions of his plays in the UK. Abroad, however, is a different matter: “In translation, plays often go astray, so I’ve been at some pretty ghastly productions of my plays abroad,” he says.
Though he has never translated any of his own plays for foreign productions, Hampton has used his language skills to translate several plays by playwrights including Molière (Don Juan, Tartuffe) and Yasmina Reza (the long-running Art, Life X 3, Conversations After A Burial). He continues to adapt novels for the stage, recently Embers, based on the book by Sandor Marai, and has written new versions of many famous works such as Chekhov’s Three Sisters, which ran at the Playhouse in 2003, and The Seagull, his new version of which had a critically acclaimed run at the Royal Court this year and is tipped for a West End transfer.
Why does he want to adapt other people’s work, when he could be creating more of his own? “You learn things,” he says simply. “You do a play like The Seagull, it’s a masterpiece. You sit down and work very closely for two months on a masterpiece, it’s good for you. Also, I feel very strongly about the importance of translation, the fact that translators, by and large, are very ill-regarded, not very much admired and not particularly taken any notice of, and I think it’s a really important job. It’s clock-making, very intricate.”
Though he admits translating and adapting is probably not as satisfying as writing his own work, he says “it’s a different sort of satisfaction”, and perhaps more importantly, “it’s less agonising”.
Besides, adapting is all part of “the challenge of doing something different”, which is what drives Hampton. It is what led him to turn his talents to cinema, both as screenwriter and director, a discipline he loves. Before Imagining Argentina made it to the screen, he wrote and directed Carrington in 1995 and The Secret Agent in 1996. Carrington, like Imagining Argentina, took an age to get made. “The subjects I’m interested in are not mainstream subjects, so they are always pretty hard to finance,” he says.
Recently, Hampton has continued to notch up screenwriting (though not directing) credits on films including The Quiet American, based on Graham Greene’s novel and starring Michael Caine, Valerie Martin’s Mary Reilly, with Julia Roberts heading a stellar cast, and the forthcoming Atonement, adapted from Ian McEwan’s novel and starring Keira Knightley and James McAvoy, which comes out in the autumn.
"I’m rather avid for novelty. It stops me from boring myself"
In the theatre he is constantly challenging himself to do something different, too. He wrote the lyrics for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1993 musical Sunset Boulevard and delved into opera last year by writing a libretto for composer Philip Glass.
In explanation, Hampton says: “Every so often I just like to strike off in a new direction and I think if you have a long career then you need to. There are artists who have their own completely individual recognisable style that they refine over the years and get better and better at it, but I’m not like that, I’m rather avid for novelty.” He adds succinctly: “It stops me from boring myself.”
This is one reason why his career – which he initially thought would last “10 years if I was lucky” – is still going strong today. “It’s to do with variety and you know, trying to freshen one’s repertoire all the time. But you can’t make rules about these things, it’s not really worth thinking about, I just get on with it really. I’m busier now than I think I’ve ever been, which is good in a way, though it slightly drives me crazy.”
The craziness doesn’t look likely to stop any time soon. Treats and Total Eclipse aside, Hampton’s current projects include writing the libretto for a second Philip Glass opera, Appomattox, which has its world premiere at the San Francisco Opera in October, working on another musical, adapting William Dalrymple’s historical love story White Mughals for the National, and translating another Reza play. There’s no sign of him slowing down, in fact, given a bit of luck and a few more years under his belt, Hampton could well claim the title of West End’s oldest working playwright.
Total Eclipse opens at the Menier Chocolate Factory tonight.
Treats is booking at the Garrick until 26 May.