“I don't think I've ever seen a farce before,” claims playwright Owen
McCafferty. “It was an eye-opener for me, because everyone around me
was laughing, and I just didn't get it.”
McCafferty is talking about his visit to the Lyric Theatre, Belfast,
the night before, when he watched Kenneth Branagh and Rob Bryden mug
their way through The Painkiller. Adapted and directed by Sean Foley,
one half of The Right Size, The Painkiller is a version of a work by
French screen-writer/director Francis Veber, who originally filmed it
in1973 as L'emmerdeur, or A Pain in the Ass. Notable for the casting of
Belgian torch singer Jacques Brel in the lead role, L'emmerdeur has
since been remade twice, once by Billy Wilder. For McCafferty, at
least, Foley's version seems to have lost something in translation.
“Irish writers don't tend to go down that route,” he says of what now
in his eyes look like some very English japes.
McCafferty certainly hasn't, as his version of J.P.Miller's Days of
Wine and Roses made clear when it first appeared at the Donmar
Warehouse in 2005 prior to a west end transfer. This new co-production
by Glasgow's Tron Theatre and the already cinematically inclined
Theatre Jezebel sticks with McCafferty's reimagining of Blake Edwards'
1962 drink-sodden big-screen vehicle for Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick.
Here, McCafferty relocates the action from the fast-moving American PR
world to 1960s London, where two Belfast emigres take flight, before
lapsing into a downward spiral of alcoholism. The Henry Mancini-scored
film had already been liberal in its adaptation of the original John
Frankenheimer-directed TV play starring Cliff Robertson and Piper
Laurie four years before. This allowed McCafferty considerable license
in his approach.
“I'd always liked the movie," he says, “but writing it was the
strangest journey. At the time I'd never done an adaptation, and when I
started it I set it in San Francisco, and tried to follow the original
story as much as I could. But was halfway through writing it, and it
was crap. I couldn't hear the voices in it, and I just thought either
don't do it, or find another way, or an equivalent way of doing it.”
Shifting the action closer to home opened up a world of possibilities.
“We're always told about this myth of the swinging sixties,” McCafferty
explains. “Well, that didn't happen for everybody. I thought about the
people who were coming from Ireland to London at that time, and in
terms of writing the play it made the picture slightly bigger. The
important thing was to keep the play's essence, but doing it the way I
did meant it wasn't just about alcoholism, but also made it a bit about
the Irish experience. There's huge connections between England and
Ireland, and a huge amount of people went over, so there's several
generations there now.
“At the start of the play, London is this wonderful experience, and if
they weren't alcoholics they'd still be there. Nut at the end it's
horrendous, because one of them is leaving the other one behind. Cities
do that to people. They can be lonely places.”
This may explain why McCafferty's version of Days of Wine and Roses has
been successfully produced throughout Europe, South America and beyond.
Audiences in Spain, Argentina, Chile and Finland have all found
something in the play to relate to.
“There's two things, “ McCafferty observes. “There's something about
the immigrant thing, and there's something about love and addiction.
These things are universal. All these countries have their problems
with alcohol, but it doesn't seem to cause the trouble in these places
that it does in Ireland and Scotland. The way the story's told in the
play, you find out there's different types of alcoholism. One is
social, and one is almost genetic. His alcoholism is to do with his
work, and he can stop. With her, at the start of the play she doesn't
drink at all, but as soon as she takes a drink, you know she's doomed.”
As well as the play's human tragedy, as McCafferty sees it, there's
something about the play's name that also holds an appeal.
“Even if people haven't seen the movie, they'll know the phrase. I'm
doing a verbatim piece next year for the hundredth anniversary of the
sinking of the Titanic, and as soon as people hear the word 'titanic'
they know about it, or they think they know about it.”
J.P. Miller took the title of his original play from a line in Vitae
Summa Brevis Spem Nos Vetet Incohare Longam, an 1896 poem by English
writer Ernest Dowson. Miller's appropriation might well have put the
phrase into popular parlance, but despite its acclaim elsewhere,
McCafferty's version has yet to break America. Miller's own stage
version of the play opened briefly in New York in 2003, two years after
its author's death. While there was talk of a U.S. transfer of the
Donmar production, once McCafferty relocated the play, producers lost
interest. Miller's widow and daughter did attend the London opening,
“It was a weird experience, because half of me was really concerned
about it, and half of me couldn't care less, because I'd done it. But
it was delightful meeting them, because it made it very human, and this
sounds wanky, but there's no other way of saying it, but it was like a
baton had been passed. You become aware of your responsibility from one
playwright to another. If Miller were alive and watched my version of
the play, he would recognise it, but it would be different. He'd have
to recognise it, or else there's no point.”
For McCafferty, Days of Wine and Roses is a love story as much as
“It's very difficult to write about love now. Mainly people want to
watch plays about what's going on in society, so with Days of Wine and
Roses, you're looking at something that's a problem, but when people go
to see it, it's a love story. So if it's difficult to sell something
solely on the strength of a relationship, Days of Wine and Roses does
it through other means.
“Every time it's been on, people, especially women, always come up to
me and say, that's my husband up there. Everyone knows someone like
that, which is a sadness in itself, but the play's quite raw. There are
certain things said in that play looking at the rawness of
relationships, and that hits home in a way that's very painful indeed.”
Days of Wine and Roses, Tron Theatre, Glasgow, October 14th-29th
The Herald, October 11th 2011