Trying to adapt a classic farce for the stage, especially one that has long been regarded as a cherished masterpiece, was never going to be an easy task. Ben Travers' Thark along with many of his other Aldwych farces have been stored very firmly in the annals of stage history, where I was concerned they would remain as museum pieces with the occasional one emerging from time to time to remind us how funny they once were.
On the whole they are regarded as being charming and dated, which is a pity as I think each one a masterpiece in need of being re-examined. One mustn't forget that Ben Travers was writing for a repertory of actors headed by Tom Walls, Ralph Lynn and Robertson Hare, except that Tom Walls insisted that there should always be a part for his girlfriend, and as Walls kept changing his girlfriend on a fairly regular basis, sometimes halfway through rehearsals, Ben was always being kept firmly on his toes. Even so, what may have had audiences splitting their sides in the 1920's wasn't necessarily going to have the same effect nowadays.
I remember being invited along with other members of the family to join Ben Travers at a screening of Cuckoo in the Nest at the National Film Theatre, sometime in the late 1970's, a film which he had also directed. It was painfully slow to watch, a literal re-enactment of the stage performance, with agonisingly long pauses between some of the lines, which as Ben explained later were intentional: "The actors were leaving room for the laughs, you see"; which were certainly not coming thick and fast that afternoon!
The basis of all farce remains roughly the same – zany, slapstick humour, hilarious improbabilities, wild coincidences and seemingly endless twists and complications. It is the execution of its playing that has moderately changed over the years. Modern interpretations of farce tend to be played much faster – sometimes grotesquely so – with performances, unless controlled, verging towards the brink of insanity.
But back in the 1920's the characterizations tended to be more leisurely, more flustered and confused, certainly those conceived by Pinero and Travers. After all, Ben Travers was determined that all the characters in his plays should be recognizable types of human beings. "The funniness must be in the situation and the circumstances in which these beings find themselves and these are only funny because the characters are so recognizably human."
And that truism still remains as the basis of all good farce.
So bearing that in mind it was essential to find a happy compromise for Ben's play. I began by gently cutting and pruning; moving one or two scenes around; transforming it into two acts; reinventing comedy where I found it a little creaky and losing a central character altogether. But I suppose the most important thing I've done is come up with a new ending which I hope gives it the comedic button I felt it so desperately needed.
I remember Ronald Eyre saying back in the 1980's that he wondered if Ben Travers (who was still alive at the time) might be persuaded to come up with another ending, a request I felt inappropriate to put to the playwright. For me it was like asking Noel Coward to come up with a better punchline to Blithe Spirit.
Andrew Morgan, Ben Travers' nephew, said that one of his uncle's weaknesses as a writer was that he wasn't brilliant with endings. So hopefully with Ben's voice firmly in my ear I've come up with a twist which will be pleasing to a modern day audience, especially those who have never seen the play, or possibly even heard of it. Either way it has been an honour to have been given the opportunity to restore the spirit of Thark to a 21st century audience.
Thark, which is directed by Eleanor Rhode, opens at the Park Theatre in Finsbury Park tomorrow (23 August 2013, previews from 21 August) and continues until 22 September