20 Questions With... Blake Morrison
Date: 4 September 2006
Poet-turned-playwright Blake Morrison - whose adaptation of A Servant to Two Masters, renamed The Man with Two Gaffers, has just premiered in York - discusses Tom Stoppard, regional stereotypes & Northern Broadsides energy.
Blake Morrisonís books include: two collections of poems, The Ballad of the Yorkshire Ripper, a controversial account of the James Bulger murder case called As If, childrenís book The Yellow House, the novel The Justification of Johann Gutenberg and a collection of stories and journalism entitled Too True. He also wrote a bestselling memoir, And When Did You Last See Your Father?, and an accompanying novel, Things My Mother Never Told Me.
For the stage, Morrison has penned a number of libretti and plays, including versions of Kleistís Der Zerbrochene Krug, called The Cracked Pot, and Sophoclesí Oedipus and Antigone, all for renowned touring troupe Northern Broadsides.
The Man with Two Gaffers, adapted by Morrison from Carlo Goldoniís Italian farce A Servant to Two Masters, receives its world premiere care of Northern Broadsides at York Theatre Royal, where it runs until 16 September 2006 prior to a national tour.
The play, directed by the companyís artistic director Barrie Rutter, has been relocated from Venice to a small Yorkshire town in the mid 19th century. A broke and hungry Yorkshireman lands himself two jobs. Great! But can a man really serve two bosses at once and not be rumbled? And imagine the confusion when he discovers theyíre actually in love with each other.
Date & place of birth
I grew up in Skipton, Yorkshire, and I was born in 1950.
Lives now in
South East London, Greenwich area. Iíve been there for 25 years with my family. I have three children.
What made you want to become a writer?
I wrote a bit of poetry when I was a teenager, and at some point in my early 20s, I said ďright, Iím going to take this seriouslyĒ and I did. I set about sending poems to magazines and trying to make a go of it, and just sort of started from there. I think Iíve always really enjoyed writing.
First big break
When I was doing a PhD at the University College London, I got a chance to do some book reviewing for the Times Literary Supplement, which gave me a career in journalism. I think that was my first writing break. The theatre in a sense came out of the poetry. The Ballad of the Yorkshire Ripper came to the attention of Richard Eyre, who was artistic director of the National at the time, and he asked me to do a translation of Kleistís Der Zerbrochene Krug (which means The Broken Jug), which he wanted to do at the National. I produced a first draft but Eyre then moved on. Barrie Rutter of Northern Broadsides got to hear of it because he had worked at the National and said it was good but needed more dialect and vernacular. So I worked on that, changed the setting to Yorkshire and it became The Cracked Pot, which did very well.
I think The Ballad of the Yorkshire Ripper, which was a disturbing poem but had a great impact, was really a highlight for me. And When Did You Last See Your Father? in the early Nineties. Those memoirs were very important to me as well. After that, I would say The Cracked Pot, that was really great.
Do you prefer writing plays or poetry?
I like both. Whatís great about theatre is youíre not stuck alone in your study, youíre working with someone and thereís a collaborative thing going on. When youíre writing fiction, youíre pretty much holed up in your own space all the time. That can be nice, but itís also good to work with other people and be a bit sociable!
Almost all the plays I have worked on have been with Northern Broadsides, so Barrie has been a huge influence on me. Although I did work with Robert LePage, too. I wrote a piece about the Jamie Bulger case which related to loss of children, and he wanted to do a play based around Mahlerís famous Kindertoten songs about the deaths of children. It was great to work with such a well-known director as him. Also Atom Egoyan, I worked with him a bit and he was great. And I collaborated with Gavin Bryars on an opera at the ENO called Doctor Oxís Experiment, which was on in 1998.
Harold Pinter. And Tom Stoppard, just because of his wit and I think heís done some fantastic pieces. And Alan Bennett. Iíve admired some of David Hareís work too. And further back, a variety of people, but I remember being very struck Sean O'Casey, and by Chekhov and Strindberg, Brian Friel, and of course, Shakespeare.
If you hadnít become a writer, what might you have done professionally?
I think the only other thing would have been to become a doctor. My parents were doctors, and they were very keen that I should become one too. But I wasnít good at all the subjects you need to be good at for medicine, so itís just as well Iím a writer.
What was the last stage production that had a big impact on you? And the first?
Going an extremely long way back now, one of the great moments for me was seeing the original production of Pinterís No Manís Land with John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson at the National Theatre back in the Seventies. And more recently, The History Boys - I saw that one twice.
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
I would probably choose a historical figure in order to have been present at some historical event Ė but having said, that I canít think of which one Iíd choose!
I have so many favourites. Off the top of my head, Iíd say The Great Gatsby, Philip Larkinís poems, and 1984.
Favourite holiday destinations
I was lucky enough this year to judge a literary prize in Mauritius, which I have to say was one of the best holidays, sorry, working weeks, Iíve ever had.
How did The Man with Two Gaffers come about?
Barrie Rutter and I had a dialogue for at least two years about what we should do next. In January, he read A Servant to Two Masters and thought it was great and had potential and said I had to read it. So then I read it and thought, ďyes, I can see this working, this is funnyĒ. It was as simple as that!
How did you transform A Servant to Two Masters into The Man with Two Gaffers?
I donít know Italian so I canít call myself a translator, Iím an adaptor. I surrounded myself with about four translations and did a first draft, keeping it extremely close to the original, then developed the vernacular and dialect and reset it in the Yorkshire Dales in the middle of the 19th century. I began to introduce accents and characters into the mix, some of them changed professions and names from the original and I made a few additions. And now I canít remember what was there and what wasnít. The essential plot is there, nothing has been radically moved, but Iíve put my own take on it.
How much of a say does Northern Broadsides have on the text?
Itís always collaborative. I do drafts, Barrie reacts. And the minute rehearsals begin, if Iím not there Ė and Iím there quite a lot of the time Ė Iím making changes to the play and responding to how the actors interpret it.
How do you choose which plays to adapt?
The reason I chose The Cracked Pot was that I knew it from school. And Oedipus and Antigone are classic Greek dramas, so you have to have a go at those! This one - I thought I could just see it working as a Northern Broadsides production, and I thought it was going to be fun to take it out of Venice and put it in Yorkshire.
How important is location & setting in your interpretation of the play?
It was very important with The Cracked Pot and it is with this. With Oedipus and Antigone, it didnít specify where they were set, it didnít say Thebes or Delphi or Athens, so it was sort of a no manís land, but it had a Northern feel as well as a Greek feel. That was interesting so see whether that worked, and I think it did work very well. The setting in this play obviously accounts for their accents and to a certain extent their behaviour, because Northern characters have certain tendencies. Goldoni worked with stock characters in the commedia dellíarte tradition, and Iím also perhaps working with social stereotypes with my Northern influences. But the characters very much have the same attitudes as the ones in the original text, not least towards money and social advance.
What do you particularly like about Northern Broadsides as a company?
I know exactly how they work, what their stage values are, and I know what Iím doing for them, so that makes things simple. They have such respect for the language, which is great for the writer. You hear every word they say. And I just think thereís a huge energy about them. You know you wonít be in for a dull evening at a Broadsides play.
What are your future plans?
Iíve got a novel called South of the River coming out next year. Itís set during 1997 to 2002 following five characters, basically about the recent times weíve lived though. I did a draft of another play and Iím not sure whether Iíll do a second one or not, but Barrie and I were talking about doing Lysistrata, the sex-strike play. I can see how that would work with Northern Broadsides. I would want to make it contemporary, and that might be a good thing for next year. Also, at the moment, thereís the possibility that my memoirs bout my father will be filmed with Colin Firth and Jim Broadbent, which I hope will happen.
- Blake Morrison was speaking to Caroline Ansdell
The Man with Two Gaffers continues at York Theatre Royal until 16 September 2006 and then visits Huddersfield, Salford, Nottingham, Leicester, Richmond (North Yorkshire), Skipton, Liverpool, Newcastle, Southampton, Scarborough, Blackpool and Halifax, where it concludes on 9 December 2006.