Interview: Richard Bean

Published September 15, 2010

He has two shows opening in London this month, has been commissioned by West End producer Sonia Friedman, has had his worked performed in the National’s Olivier theatre, yet is concerned that his plays have not been seen widely enough. The sky is the limit for playwright Richard Bean.

It is not a bad record to have; just over a decade since his first full length play premiered, Bean’s work is regularly performed at some of the most influential theatres in the country. England People Very Nice saw his work taken to one of the largest spaces in the capital, the Olivier theatre; Toast, Under The Whaleback, Honeymoon Suite and Harvest all premiered at the Royal Court, and this month his adaptation of David Mamet’s thriller House Of Games will open at the Almeida theatre while new play The Big Fellah comes to the Lyric Hammersmith.

It is the kind of success he could only have dreamed of 15 years ago, though there is absolutely no chance of complacency. “There’s whole swathes of the country that have never seen one of my plays,” he says without a flicker of irony. “Birmingham has never seen a play of mine, Manchester has never seen a play of mine, Ireland, Scotland. There’s plenty to keep working for.”

But where do you begin when interviewing Bean? He may have had a relatively short playwriting career to date, but there is no shortage of widely reported intrigue to be explored. Why not start with the job in hand, the soon-to-open Mamet adaptation, House Of Games.

“I genuinely didn’t understand it at the first time of viewing,” the Hull-born playwright says of Mamet’s con caper movie, which he had not seen before being approached to adapt it for the stage. “Even now, we still have arguments in the rehearsal room about the con and how clever it is.”

“I don’t think people can go to the theatre and sit there for 90 minutes and not laugh, can they?”

The 1987 movie, American dramatist Mamet’s directorial debut, follows a psychiatrist who, while trying to help a patient, finds herself drawn into a shady world of hustlers and conmen. While Mamet had the luxury of multiple locations in which to set his film, much of Bean’s work to bring the piece to the stage has involved reworking the drama to fit in just a couple. That, he says, and adding a little humour to proceedings: “The truth of it is, if you go to your DVD shop and rent a Hollywood thriller, you’re not expecting to laugh all the way through. You just want to be gripped and watch the thriller and enjoy it and feel that it’s an experience and to lose yourself in the fictitious world. Theatre’s different, because we’ve only really got two tools in theatre and they’re the two masks, comedy and tragedy. I know I’ve made one character specifically quite a funny character, hopefully a source of comedy in the play, because I don’t think people can go to the theatre and sit there for 90 minutes and not laugh, can they? They want to laugh.”

After some initial trepidation about adapting the work of a living writer, the process of bringing Mamet’s big screen story to the stage proved “a bureaucratic exercise”, with no more involvement from the US playwright than an okaying of any big changes. These did include, however, an alteration to the ending which, Bean says, was “not a satisfying theatrical denouement”. Hopefully it is now.

“It’s a different kind of night in the theatre,” Bean explains, impassioned. “It’s not about social issues, not on the surface, anyway. You could say it’s a critique on capitalism, of course, if you wanted to, but on the surface it looks like a really clever con, and that’s what it is. It’s almost popular theatre; unpretentious, popular, populist theatre in the way that you would say Ghost Stories is popular theatre. It has absolutely no artistic pretensions whatsoever. You go along, you pay your 10 quid, you get a stuffed dog. You get a satisfying evening. It’s intellectually stimulating as a play and also, hopefully, it’s thrilling. It’s a thriller, isn’t it? It should make you not want to go home halfway through. I find that very exciting, actually.”

When he spoke to Official London Theatre back in 2003, Bean said his plays aim “to make ‘em laugh and to make ‘em cry,” continuing that “if you set out to write a political play, you’ll just write a bad one.” Talking about House Of Games, it doesn’t sound like much has changed. Yet his second London opening of the month, The Big Fellah, an Out of Joint production that runs at the Lyric Hammersmith, has a distinctly political bent, considering, as it does, the IRA.

“As a playwright you look for ironies. Those things are the fuel of plays”

The play tells the story of an IRA cell in New York over three decades of the Troubles. “It’s about making moral decisions in your life,” Bean says, “about how you fight for what you believe in and whether you fight for what you believe in and whether you take the fight to a certain level of violence. It’s about how we paint our moral landscape as individual human beings in this world.”

Inspired by a trip to New York “on Kevin Spacey’s money” made soon after the terrorist attacks on the twin towers, it is, he says, his 9/11 play, though it focuses not on Al-Qaeda, but on the IRA.

“As a playwright,” he explains, “you look for ironies. Those things are the fuel of plays.” On his trip to the US, what jumped out at him was that “this horrendous, possibly the most disgusting thing that any of us have ever seen on our television screens,” happened in New York. “The great irony is that for 30 years, New York and Boston bankrolled the IRA.”

It is comments like this and their expression within his work that have recently earned Bean a reputation for being controversial. They may well be reflections of truth, but pointing them out will inevitably ruffle some feathers.

The controversial tag doesn’t sit well with Bean, nor does telling him what he can or can’t do. He has a seemingly insatiable inquisitive nature that pushes him to ask questions where others might just accept what is placed in front of them. On receiving a charity leaflet through his door, where others may have binned it or let it hide under a pile of accumulating post, he researched its claims, found them to be false and challenged the charity.

“Caryl Churchill told me to stop writing about Muslims. I told her to F off.”

The suggestion that writing about the Troubles is normally the territory of Irish playwrights, and that exploring that area as an English writer could have been uncomfortable, is also quickly quashed. “I’ve always stuck two fingers up to those people who tell me I can’t write about people who are not my people. Bonnie Greer’s given me a b*****king about that; I told her to F off. Caryl Churchill told me to stop writing about Muslims. I told her to F off. It doesn’t bother me. I’ll write about what I like and I’ll stop writing about it if no one goes or they hate it. I’ve got opinions about the IRA. I grew up with the IRA. They’ve been trying to kill me for 30 years. Why can’t I write about that?”

It is a fair point. Theatre should and does explore the taboos and concerns of society through different voices. But when you write a play that deals with a sensitive area, you have to expect a certain amount of backlash.

This is what happened with Bean’s National Theatre production, England People Very Nice. The tale of successive waves of immigrants to London’s Bethnal Green dealt with and in racial stereotypes as it explored the effect of the French Huguenots, the Irish, the Jews and the Bangladeshis all making a new home in the English capital.

“It’s hugely annoying,” says Bean, “when you see [Guardian theatre critic] Michael Billington basically saying it was racist. The very idea that he’s failed to understand that it’s a play about racism, about stereotyping, that he’s failed to grasp that… It’s like saying Toy Story is a brilliant film; it’s just a shame that it’s about toys. The play was about racial stereotypes. Is [National Theatre Director] Nick Hytner really going to do a racist play, for God’s sake?”

Of course, much of the clamour to deride and defame England People Very Nice came from those who had not even seen it, as is so often the case; people whose views are garnered from hearsay and rumour. That may again be a problem with Bean’s next project, a “global warming play” commissioned by Sonia Friedman, which, he says, may well make its way onto one of the Royal Court’s stages early in 2011. “I’m angry about all the clap around global warming, which is extremely thin science. I’ve got a science degree. I understand statistics. I know how to read statistics and I know the presentation of statistics can be basically a marketing tool rather than the truth. I’m a genuine sceptic when it comes to global warming and I mean sceptic in the sense that I don’t know, whereas everyone else seems to take it as some kind of truth. There’s so little truth in science.”

“I’ve got enough things I’m angry about to keep going”

Race, terrorism, the environment; these are topics that people have strong opinions on, that stir people to make changes to their lives. They should be examined and explored by theatre, but if you go there, you have to expect a response, and not always a good one.

“The main problem with writing new plays is not writing them, it’s having the idea,” Bean says. “That’s the breakthrough, having an idea that’s worth a play. I’m okay, I’ve got enough things I’m angry about to keep going.” This in itself explains why some commentators, critics and theatregoers have reacted to his work; if the subject makes him angry, there is a good chance it will have the same effect on others who may not share his view.

Yet amid the anger and controversy, I get the feeling that Bean is, at his heart, still an entertainer. He moved to playwriting through a short-lived stint as a comedian, helped Hytner “gag up” Boucicault’s London Assurance for the National Theatre and plans to return to the South Bank venue with a tale of what happened after the mutiny on the Bounty that he describes as the stage equivalent of “a page turner”.

“The nine mutineers went to Tahiti and got 12 Polynesian women and six Polynesian men to start a community on Pitcairn Island, which was uninhabited. So it’s a desert island, we start again, it’s Adam and Eve, a new start… Six years later there’s one man standing. I don’t know why the hell they made three movies about the mutiny, which is a bit dull really. The story after is much better. It will be a ‘what happens next’ play, which is kind of the definition of drama, in a way; if it works, you want to know what happens next.”

That is, in a way, how I feel about Bean’s career. Will controversy rear its head again? Will he return to the tales of Yorkshire that he mined as an emerging writer in shows such as Under The Whaleback and Toast? Will he crack the Midlands? If nothing else, watching it unfold will be entertaining.

MA