Benighted: An interview with playwright Duncan Gates
A graduate of the Royal Court Writers Programme and RADA, playwright Duncan Gates’s numerous works include People’s Day, Two Steps Forward, Twitch, Passenger Incident, Earplugs and his adaptation Werther’s Sorrows (from Goethe’s Die Leiden des Jungen Werthers). He has been longlisted for the Bruntwood Prize and the Verity Bargate Award (for Arkansas).
Duncan’s new play Benighted, adapted from JB Priestley’s first novel, opens at the Old Red Lion Theatre on 6th December. A remarkable classic thriller, the story has inspired many others. We had the chance to speak with Duncan about his thoughts on his work, JB Priestley and his intriguing new play.
Why did you choose to adapt JB Priestley’s Benighted? What impresses you about it?
It’s such a fun and abstract text that flits past so many themes. It’s like a little phantom in itself, full of hints of An Inspector Calls, Dangerous Corner and many more, before those ideas were fully formed in Priestley’s head.
How do your personal views and experiences affect your choice of material? You have said that you want to help inspire people. Is this a motivator?
Writers need to write about what they’re interested in, not what they think they should be interested in. I think of it like the Olympics, where everyone has their own personal event that is “making their art”. If a 100m runner enters the shot-put, they’ll be terrible at it. Similarly, if you love an artist and go all out to emulate them, you’re setting yourself up to fail because they’re probably better at their art than you are. It’s about a million different personal bests, rather than a handful of set “fashionable” disciplines.
Do you have a particular affinity for JB Priestley’s style or his philosophy?
I like to think that his style and mine are similar, in that we both seem to enjoy writing pieces that change their nature as you experience them. What starts as a genre piece might morph into a character study, or a spy story that turns into a rom-com. I find it interesting to use the language of one form to express a different one, and Priestley had a unique adeptness for conveying profound messages in an offbeat, wrong-footing form. What’s not to love about getting politically furious using time travel?
Priestley’s son Tom said of his father’s work: “Benighted was totally unlike [my father’s] first novel Adam in Moonshine, and indeed unlike anything he wrote later. It will be fascinating to see how it now translates for the stage, a new and very different medium.” Is this statement galvanising or daunting for you?
Galvanising, always. I want to do right by the original text and show it in its best light. Obviously, there’s a certain amount of my own ego in presenting it differently, but Benighted reads oddly like a play text in the same way that John Steinbeck does, for example. Plus, the way it knowingly uses genre conventions makes it a more natural conversion than others.
I think An Inspector Calls is relevant to today’s world, timeless really. Benighted inspired the Rocky Horror Picture Show. Do you think it translates well to 2016?
Absolutely. If it’s about any one thing, it’s about not understanding your place in the world. There’s no more eternal existential struggle than that.
Are you a mystery, horror and suspense buff?
Yes, yes I am! I love the genre because it lets you step away from your context, and that makes you more receptive to all sorts of things that otherwise fade into the background hum. It’s why the best genre (of all kinds) is extremely socially progressive – the audience can more easily process the situation and identify themselves within it. They then start asking themselves awkward questions like “Yeah, but would I actually be heroic?”.
Tell us about your choice of Stephen Whitson to direct Benighted.
Stephen’s perfect for this kind of thing because he’s super-ambitious but also loves finding solutions, both practical and philosophical. I met him through the producer though, so I can take precisely none of the credit for this.
What about adapting a novel to the stage most inspires you?
A good adaptation (or just any play, really) should make an effort to do something different or interesting. One of my previous adaptations was Werther’s Sorrows at the 2012 Edinburgh Fringe, which was a great experience in making a first-person narrative dramatically “active”. If you can’t find a language to suit the form of what you’re adapting, you’re doing everyone a disservice. I struggle writing prose so I’m always full of admiration for those who can handle it, but you can’t ever forget that a novel and a play are not the same thing, and shouldn’t be trying to achieve the same things in the same way.
Had you not been a writer, what other profession would have interested you?
I did a law degree, and my primary school teachers said I’d make a good barrister. Is “pompous asshole” a profession?
Is there a particular book you have always wanted to adapt to the stage?
Dick King Smith’s farmyard epic The Fox-busters. It’s like The World at War for foxes and chickens.
If you could work with any actor in the world who would you choose?
Lucy Ellinson. I was fortunate enough to work with her on one of my first ever writing courses, but once is never enough.
Do you have any future projects you’d like to discuss?
I’ve got a Bruntwood/Verity Bargate-longlisted postmodern thriller about loneliness, seances and urban birdwatching, which I hope might start to get off the ground soon. Obviously.
Thank you for taking the time to talk with us.
Benighted is at the Old Red Lion Theatre from 6th December 2016 until 1st January 2017, for further information or to book visit here.
Check back here for our review.
Read the A Younger Theatre review of Werther’s Sorrows here.