Nigel Planer On … Being an Adolescent PlaywrightDate: 6 July 2009
Actor and writer Nigel Planer, who rose to fame playing hippie Neil in 80s sitcom The Young Ones, has since carved a successful career in musical theatre (he is currently appearing as Wilbur in Hairspray at the Shaftesbury Theatre) and is known for his über-luvvie alter-ego Nicholas Craig. He has also recently branched into playwriting, and his new play Death of Long Pig premieres this week at the Finborough Theatre (9 July, previews from 7 July).
Death of Long Pig is set in the Polynesian South Seas in the 1890s and concerns the lives and deaths of the writer Robert Louis Stevenson and the painter Paul Gauguin. The same actor - Sean Murray - plays both roles and the play has a surreal element, with the spirit world of the islands a tangible presence throughout.
Although accurate in historical detail, it’s a long way from being a straight biographical piece. A ‘Long Pig’, incidentally, is what the islanders would call a white man to be cooked and eaten, and although we don’t have any cannibalism actually going on on stage, we have tried to create as authentic an atmosphere as possible; with a brilliant set by Alex Marker and the assistance of Rosanna Raymond from Samoa and Tahiarii from Tahiti, who put the actors through a Pacific island culture workshop in our second week of rehearsals at the Jerwood Space. Further authenticity should be provided by the fact that the Finborough can be a pretty hot place to be in July.
I remember reading David Hare, in an interview some years ago, saying that a worry for a playwright is having anything worth saying after the age of 50. Thank God I don’t have this worry - although I'm 56 in real years, this is only my second play, so as a playwright I am technically still in my early teens. Alexander Summers, the director, was resident assistant director at the Finborough for a year after University and more recently won the Haymarket bursary to be apprentice director on the McKellen/Stewart Godot, so I guess he is a little bit older than me - in playwright years that is.
Prior to starting rehearsals we had two rehearsed readings of the play and on both occasions Dominic Rowan very kindly gave his time to read the Stevenson/Gauguin role double and I'm grateful to him and all the other actors for, well for being so amazing and putting in the time and commitment - now at last I understand how it is that theatrical people get so teary-eyed when asked to make speeches about each other. I’ve always been a bit of a curmudgeon about Winslet-style gush - I’ve even made a mini-career out of my cynicism with my Nicholas Craig character - but increasingly as a playwright, I find myself wanting to hug and kiss actors for, well, just for being so committed and fantastic and wonderful.
Because of the Finborough policy of aiming high and casting late, we were only fully cast by five-thirty on the Friday afternoon before we were due to start rehearsals at the Jerwood Space on the Monday. This was stomach-turning stuff and my gushing thanks go out once again to the ideal cast who are willing to dedicate what seems to be endless amounts of time for what is - the Finborough being such a small venue - a very small amount of financial reward. And that’s even when taking into account a generous donation from another lovely actor person, who prefers to remain anonymous, but who proves that there is nothing as wonderful in the world as actors. More gush from me. Gather, Nigel, gather.
Since I'm still appearing in Hairspray, it will be a strange experience, I imagine, going onstage of a night at the Shaftesbury, knowing that there is a performance of my own play going on down the road at the same time. I wonder if the intervals will coincide and text updates will be possible.
Death of Long Pig opens at the Finborough on Thursday (9 July, previews from 7 July), where it continues until 1 August 2009.