A quasi-mythology has spread its creepers around Patrick Marber, tall tales and half-truths shrouding the comedian-turned-playwright. Like Chris Morris, whom Marber confronted as hapless correspondent Peter O’Hanraha-hanrahan in The Day Today and who is said to have filled a newsroom with helium live on air (though recent Chris Morris retrospective Raw Meat Radio claimed that Morris was the originator of his own myths), similarly rumours abound about Marber: that he lost £10,000 in one night at the height of a gambling addiction in his university years (“yeah that’s bollocks, it just got invented in the Observer”) and supposed rifts between him and erstwhile colleague Stewart Lee that prompted Lee to say nasty things with remarkable frequency and consistency, including: “time will show Marber to be a dishonest opportunist and a liar”. As much as I love Stewart Lee, time hasn’t shown that. Instead, it’s shown a playwright who can capture character within a single witty line, who can explore male friendships with frankness and ferocity, and whose ability to flit between genres and media could make any writer envious.
It’s a Sunday morning and we both sound a bit tired. Patrick Marber has good reason to be. After half a decade of writer’s block he’s gone and done the old bus trick: two and a half new plays have come at once – all at the National Theatre. The Red Lion is playing in the Dorfman, Farquhar’s The Beaux’ Stratagem which he “did quite a lot of work on” (though it’s hard to find trace of a credit) is in the Olivier and when I speak to him there is a week left of rehearsals for Three Days In The Country to open in the Lyttelton. “You take your slots when you can,” is his understated explanation. Especially when you get three, I suggest. A pause. “Mmm.”
Three Days In The Country is his “edited, distilled version” of Turgenev’s 1855 play A Month In The Country. It’s about people falling in and out of love in a big house in the Russian countryside. He began to adapt it at the request of Sonia Friedman, conscious that he wanted to steer away from notable versions by Isaiah Berlin, which played at the National in 1981, and Brian Friel. For one thing, the title’s changed. “I felt my version had strayed as far away from the play as my version of Miss Julie, which I called After Miss Julie,” he explains. “I felt it needed an equivalent acknowledgment that you weren’t going to see a straight version. Also, put very simply, my version is shorter than the original.”
These days, Marber is as known for his adaptations – both stage and screen – as he is for his original plays. He wrote the screenplay for the 2006 film Notes On A Scandal, adapted from Zoe Heller’s novel, and was called upon last year to make the screenplay of Fifty Shades Of Grey not shit. Alas, we’ll never know if he was successful: EL James scrubbed all trace of his input from the final version, which was indeed very shit. He’s ambivalent about the process of adapting: “I liken it to piracy, that you plunder and take what you want, and ignore the rest. It’s an ugly business. I’ve sort of got used to the guilt.”
Maybe that’s because it’s something he’s experienced from the other side. “Having watched my work get translated and seen how radically different one of my plays is in Barcelona or Milan or whatever country, everything is a version. Even when people have tried to be faithful they can’t be. The idea of this completely lucid, faithful version of a play in another language, I don’t think it’s possible.”
Fifty Shades aside, most of Marber’s adaptations have been of seriously hefty bits of literature: Turgenev and Farquhar, also Moliere with his Don Juan In Soho and Strindberg with After Miss Julie. But he insists “I don’t think of myself as an intellectual writer. I don’t seek them out, they came to me. I think they all think I’m cleverer than I actually am. And that I can cope with this shit.”
In conversation he sounds like a typical writer: half of the time speaking with confidence and pride, the other half doubt and deprecation. I’m not sure how much I buy his claim that he “always feel(s) inadequate and stupid.” When we start talking about A Month In The Country as a proto-Chekhovian Russian comedy of manners, and about Stanislavsky’s production, Marber’s research and contextual knowledge is evident. “It feels a little Chekhovian. But it pre-dates Chekhov considerably. Possibly more extremes of high comedy than Chekhov. Perhaps more absurdity in places.” Then, with a chuckle he gives up. “Oh I don’t know. I’m the worst person to talk about this. I know that sounds disingenuous, but I’m still finding out what it is in rehearsals.”
It’s similarly difficult to work out quite who Patrick Marber is. His life has been scrutinised and the facts are there, even if he claims ‘bollocks’ of some of them, while any sense of the man is elusive. But the narrative of Patrick Marber in all the profiles and interviews falls into two parts: pre- and post-playwright; the comedy days and the theatre days. Marber was a huge part of that cultish satirical comedy scene – Lee, Herring, Iannucci, Morris, Baynham, Schneider, Coogan – collectively creating On The Hour, Alan Partridge and everything that grew from that. But with his first play Dealer’s Choice, which he started writing in 1993, he left it all behind. He’s not entirely sure about the distinction. “I certainly don’t feel I’ve abandoned comedy.” He may not feel it, but it’s how it appears on the outside. There’s a show on Radio 4 called Bunk Bed which consists of Marber and Peter Curran lying in the darkness and chatting. It’s quite funny, in a gentle and dreamlike way. And Mark Gatiss, one of the legendary creators of The League of Gentlemen, “a guy I absolutely revere as a comic writer and performer” is in Three Days In The Country. “He does wonderful comic and serious things in this production.”
In fact, he insists that the play is partly comic. “It belongs to a genre of plays that you might call serious comedy, and Chekhov wrote serious comedies, and this play by Turgenev is very much a serious comedy.” But his wholesale transition from one world to the other seems to be less about genre than about process: it was the lack of control that frustrated him during the On The Hour days. “To be able to write and direct my own material was such a liberation from having worked as part of a team in my comedy work. The pleasure of having the control was enormous.”
If control was the aim then it’s strange, I suggest, that he started getting involved as a screenwriter too. In the film industry, control is always being taken away from people – especially writers. “Yes, at the beginning of the film project it’s just you and the producer, and you feel very important, and then once you’ve delivered your script you feel your profound unimportance. That’s ok. I’ve got used to it. That’s the deal.”
There’s a long pause, one of many during our conversation, and I’m not sure whether he’s thinking or he’s waiting for me to speak. I start to ask a question and he politely cuts me off. “But I would say in theatre it doesn’t really feel like full control because in the end it’s about the actors. The job is to get them to a place where they own the play, not me. It’s a hard thing to describe, but I want them to own the words, not feel that they’ve been rented to them.”
So what does he prefer to be doing: directing, writing or acting? “It really varies. I like the company of a rehearsal room and I like the solitude of my desk. I seem to need both to feel balanced.” I ask if that need for variety is the same impulse that guides him towards writing for different media. “Yes. I’m restless. I get bored quickly.”
Where does he feel most comfortable then? “I feel I belong more in the theatre world, I feel happier and safer in this world. I went through a period of thinking I don’t want my voice to be heard. And then I thought oh sod it, I’ll speak up again. Because that’s my job, and I didn’t want to do any other job.” With that, his son gets back from a school trip, the conversation’s over and normal Sunday service resumes.
Three Days in the Country plays from 21 July in the Lyttleton, The Beaux’ Stratagem continues in the Olivier until 20th September and The Red Lion continues in the Dorfman until 30th September at the National Theatre.