After emigrating from his native Australia, playwright Samuel Adamson burst onto the UK theatre scene in 1996 with his debut play Clocks and Whistles, which premiered at London’s Bush Theatre in a production directed by then-artistic director Dominic Dromgoole with a cast including Kate Beckinsale, John Light and Neil Stuke. The piece won Adamson a Pearson Writer’s Residency at the Bush Theatre and a Time Out Award, and was later produced in Germany and New York.
Dromgoole also directed Adamson’s second play, Grace Note, in a production starring Geraldine McEwan for the Peter Hall Company at the Old Vic in 1997. His third play, Drink, Dance, Laugh and Lie, premiered back at the Bush in 1999. Adamson’s other original plays include Fish and Company and 2005’s Southwark Fair, directed at the National Theatre by artistic director Nicholas Hytner with a cast including Rory Kinnear, Con O'Neill and Margaret Tyzack.
Adamson has also achieved continued success with fresh adaptations of works from the classical canon. For the Oxford Stage Company (now Headlong), once again with Dominic Dromgoole, he produced versions of Chekhov’s Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard. In addition to UK tours, the first transferred to the West End, with a cast including Kelly Reilly, and the second, starring Geraldine James, played a season at Riverside Studios.
Adamson has also had double hits with Ibsen. His version of A Doll’s House, directed by Thea Sharrock, was the tenth anniversary production at London’s Southwark Playhouse in 2003. And Pillars of the Community, directed by Marianne Elliott and starring Damian Lewis and Lesley Manville, was one of the big hits of the NT’s 2005 season. There have also been acclaimed versions of two Austrian plays: Bernhard Studlar’s Transdanubia Dreaming (retitled, in English, Vienna Dreaming) for the National Theatre Studio, and Arthur Schnitzler’s Professor Bernhardi, presented by Dumbfounded Theatre at the Arcola Theatre in 2005, the first time that play had been seen in London since 1936.
This year, Adamson has scored with his adaptation of Pedro Almodóvar’s Oscar-winning 1999 Spanish film All About My Mother at the Old Vic. The premiere production – directed by Tom Cairns and starring Lesley Manville and Diana Rigg - marked the first major Almodóvar stage adaptation in 20 years and the first time ever that the Spanish filmmaker consented to his work being produced in English.
Adamson’s latest original play Some Kind of Bliss, originally seen as in an NT Platform performance last year, premieres this week at the West End’s Trafalgar Studios. The one-woman play has been written specially for actress Lucy Briers. It’s directed by Toby Frow.
Date & place of birth
Born 27 November 1969 in Adelaide, South Australia.
Lives now in
I live in Bermondsey, south London. I’ve just bought a house that needs a lot of work.
What brought you to the UK in the first place?
I’ve lived here most of my adult life, about 18 years. I came because of the theatre and the question is why I stayed. A lot of people travel and find themselves in places they didn’t grow up in. I got here and found that all sorts of things about the place suited me. Then I began to build a career and start a life. And obviously London is a good place to be if you’re a practicing playwright.
What made you want to become a playwright?
I’m not sure I know. I’ve always been fascinated by the theatre. My grandmother acted in amateur theatre, and I used to watch what she did and think that it looked like fun. I had always written. I found that I didn’t really enjoy writing descriptive prose very much, but I loved writing dialogue. I abandoned my half-finished novels and short stories to concentrate on writing dialogue, often not really formed plays but just scenes. As I got older, I became more interested in theatre specifically. I’ve always been more intrigued by the lives of theatre actors than film actors. Eventually, I wrote a full-length play. My education in terms of theatre was sitting in my room flicking through old copies of Plays and Players Magazine. Back then it was edited by Whatsonstage.com’s own Michael Coveney.
First big break
I suppose my first big break was my first play, Clocks and Whistles, at the Bush Theatre in 1996. It was a play I wrote and then sent off, never expecting to hear anything. A few months later I got a call from the Bush and they wanted to do it. That was the beginning for me as a professional playwright. Before that, perhaps more importantly, I was working for Samuel French, the play publishers, in London. I went to the managing director John Bedding and asked if I could to go down to three days a week so I could spend time writing. He very generously let me do it - and didn’t dock my pay. Writers need time and money. Because he gave me that for a year, I was able to write Clocks and Whistles. So I think in a way that was my big break. It was an incredible gesture and I’ve never forgotten it.
Career highlights to date
There have been lots. It was wonderful to work on Pillars of the Community, the Ibsen play that I did at the National. That was an extraordinary experience because it was a very difficult play with a very strange ending which is almost impossible to pull off convincingly. Working with Marianne Elliott on that ending, going back to Ibsen’s drafts and finding a way to make Act Four workable was hugely challenging and hugely enjoyable. Having Southwark Fair directed by Nicholas Hytner was a highlight. Everything I’ve done has been challenging and enjoyable in its own way.
Obviously Lucy Briers - I like her so much I’ve written a play specifically for her. I’ve worked twice with Lesley Manville. She played Lona in Pillars of the Community at the National and she’s Manuela in All About My Mother. Lesley was my first choice for Manuela. I think she’s one of our best actors. She lets you see her raw nerves, and she’s completely inspirational in the rehearsal room. I would love to work with her again. When I did a version of Three Sisters for the Oxford Stage Company in 1999, we had Claudie Blakly playing Masha and Kelly Reilly playing Irina. At the time, everybody involved in that production looked at those two and thought that they would go on to have really glorious careers, as they have done. Lindsay Duncan, Margaret Tyzack, Mariah Gale - they are people I would pay to read the phone book. Rory Kinnear was the lead in Southwark Fair. He has a very rare ability to play diffidence on stage and really touch your heart. He has a very big career in front of him.
In this case, I think it’s sort of invidious to have favourites. However, I can’t go past Marianne Elliot, who has an incredibly inquiring mind and the most amazing work ethic. There’s no point working with Marianne if you’re not prepared to climb Mount Everest, and I love that about her. Tom Cairns, from All About My Mother, feels things very emotionally and deeply. We had a terrific time working together. And I wouldn’t be talking to you if it weren’t for Dominic Dromgoole, who did my first play. He’s a real risk-taker. His period at the Bush was a really exciting one, he discovered all sorts of great young writers. I haven’t worked with James MacDonald, but I love the slow-burn nature of his productions. I’m also a big fan of Indhu Rubasingham and I like the elegance of Ian Rickson. I’ve also enjoyed working with Mark Rosenblatt and, on Some Kind of Bliss now, Toby Frow. I thought Toby’s production of Ship of Fools was very detailed and rich. It made me desperate to work with him, so I’m really happy he’s on board for this.
What other playwrights do you admire?
I am a huge admirer of David Harrower. He did a play called Knives in Hens, which I saw at the Bush Theatre in 1995. It was a really bruising and poetic piece that I fell instantly in love with. Edward Albee has always been an influence, in particular The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?. I was a bit obsessed with Tennessee Williams when I was younger, and there’s Chekhov obviously, in particular Three Sisters. I also like the American writer Phyllis Nagy, the Scottish writer Sharman MacDonald, especially The Winter Guest and When I Was a Girl I Used to Scream and Shout, and I consider Stephen Sondheim a playwright, with emphasis on the wright part of that word. Sondheim’s attention, the care he takes over every single word, has always been very inspiring to me.
What’s the last thing you saw on stage that had a big impact on you? And the first?
There was a Michael Bhim play called Pure Gold at Soho Theatre recently. I thought that was sensational – and he’s only 24, just amazing. It was incredibly mature and it made me very excited. Caroline, or Change is probably the thing that I have most enjoyed over the past 18 months. I saw it three times. I loved that it was essentially a play that was set to music, and I thought the music was superb. The first thing I have a memory of was my grandmother playing Donna Lucia in Charley’s Aunt, which was very camp and very silly, but I thought it was amazing. I would have been about five.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
Various people have told me not to forget to have fun. I think that’s really great advice. Sometimes you can get so bogged down in the details of what you’re trying to achieve that you forget what a good time you’re having. A director like Dominic Dromgoole is good at reminding me of that lesson. He has what one actor called “serious fun” in the rehearsal room, which is all about remembering to play as well as work.
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
I’d like to swap places with somebody very rich so that I could set up lots of programmes for young writers and directors. Maybe I would be Richard Branson. I’d also quite like to swap with Philip Henslow, the Elizabethan theatre entrepreneur. Sorry, that’s two wishes, which is very extravagant.
I’ve always loved Christopher Isherwood. Mr Norris Changes Trains and A Single Man are probably two of my favourite novels. I just had a bit of an Ian McEwan fest. I went back to an early one called The Comfort of Strangers, which I read on the beach. My favourite book changes daily.
Favourite holiday destinations
The Greek Islands, particularly Skopelos. I never used to take beach holidays, but I appreciate them now. I think you really do need to set aside time to not be busy. It’s good to recharge. I went to Skopelos after All About My Mother.
That was a big risk adapting Pedro Almodovar’s seminal Spanish film for the English stage. How would you describe the experience?
All About My Mother was a terrific experience. It’s a great film and a great story. I always felt very strongly that it could and should be on stage. It was wonderful to work with Pedro Almodovar, who was incredibly generous to me, and very gracious. He let me take his story and his characters off in directions that I thought they needed to go in order to make it work on stage. He really gave me a lot of freedom, which was extraordinary. It was definitely a challenge, but I enjoyed every second of it.
In addition to All About My Mother, you’ve had tremendous success with new versions of other writers’ works. How does the creative process differ when you’re developing an original piece?
The lovely thing about working on an adaptation is that you’re not facing a blank page. You’re exercising different muscles and different parts of your brain when you do that from the muscles and parts you’re using when you write an original play. Right up until you have a script, that is. Once you have a script, it’s always about reworking and the process of actually getting the thing on stage – casting, rehearsing, all those things are the same. But, yes, the writing is different. I get more grey hairs from the original work because it’s more stressful, but I enjoy them both.
How did Some Kind of Bliss come about?
I’d seen quite a lot of the work of Lucy Briers on stage and always thought she was a terrific actress. We were introduced one night after a performance of a play she was in called Spike, at the Nuffield Theatre in Southampton. We got on very well so I met her for a cup of tea, and completely out of the blue, she asked if I would be interested in writing something for her. No actor had asked me to do that before so I jumped at the chance.
Had you written with a particular actor in mind before?
Inevitably, as a playwright, you often have actors in mind when you write, although the reality of the world is that very rarely do you end up getting them. Actors and their craft are often very inspiring. I find myself being inspired by stuff I’ve seen them do. But this is the first time I’ve written directly for an individual.
What’s the story about in an nutshell?
It’s one day in the life of a tabloid journalist as she walks along the River Thames to get to an interview with a pop star. She walks from London Bridge to Greenwich. On the way, she addresses her life and begins to think about the compromises she’s made, particularly with the men in her life. Two incidents cause her to realise that she has taken certain wrong turnings and that she has to hold herself to account. It’s a comedy about popular culture. I was inspired by the kind of actor Lucy Briers is. I wrote the role that I thought would be right for her. The story itself is inspired by a walk I took along the Thames myself.
The play was first presented as a National Theatre platform in July 2006. How has it changed since then?
I had to make it a little bit shorter then as we only had three-quarters of an hour for the Platform slot. Some material that wasn’t heard at the Platform has been reinstated. And, as there has been about a year between the first showing and now, I’ve made a few changes, but nothing too serious.
This is your first monologue. Do you find it easier or harder writing for a single actor?
In many ways it’s more difficult. You have to make choices about how you bring other voices to life as you only ever hear the voice of the central character. That’s challenging, and constraining at first, but it’s also very liberating because, in an almost prose-like way, you can enter your character’s interior world. It’s a direct dialogue between actor, character and audience. We can hear things to do with the character’s inner life that we might not ordinarily hear. Some Kind of Bliss is a memory piece: we go right into her head. It’s good to have the audience make their own minds up about when she’s putting a mask on, where she’s deluding herself and when it’s real.
What are your future plans?
I’ve written a play in response to Ibsen’s Little Eyolf that I’m doing at the Cottesloe next year, directed by Marianne Elliot. It’s not really a new version. I suppose the best way to describe it is a re-imagining. I’ve taken Ibsen’s play and re-located it so it’s set in England in 1955. It’s called Mrs Affleck. It should in open in autumn 2008. I’m also writing a new play, that I can’t talk much about yet, and I’m working on a musical for the National with Tori Amos, based on George MacDonald’s fairy tale The Light Princess. It’s a long way off yet, but we are working on that, yes.
- Samuel Adamson was speaking to Terri Paddock