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Chris Hannan

Chris Hannan’s plays have always had an understated air of
swashbuckling about them. Ever since his early work in the mid 1980s at
the Traverse Theatre, seemingly domestic works such as Elizabeth Gordon
Quinn and The Orphan’s Comedy became heroic tragic-comic epics where
characters and plots collided in increasingly absurd abandon. Hannan’s
sense of linguistic playfulness and contemporary mythology continued
throughout works such as The Evil-Doers and The Baby, right up to the
Glasgow-set Shining Souls.

It shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise, then, to find Hannan
turning to The Three Musketeers, Alexandre Dumas’ ultimate historical
romp that has been adapted on screens great and small a multitude of
times. The tale of the hapless seventeenth century trio’s three-man war
against corruption in high places has seen the likes of Douglas
Fairbanks and Gene Kelly don doublet, hose and flashing blades for
assorted tellings of the yarn. A cartoon serial version was used as a
feature in The Banana Splits, Hanna-Barbera’s groovy early 1970s look
at a similarly bumbling gang of misfits. For his very free version of
the saga that opened at Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre this weekend in a
co-production with the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry and English Touring
Theatre, Hannan has looked to the essence if not the story of Richard
Lester’s archly constructed mid 1970s slapstick takes on Dumas’
original yarn.

“The novels are wonderful”, says Hannan, now living in Coventry having
moved from his native Glasgow several years ago, “and you have to
remember that there’s not just one, so you see all these characters
grow old in a way that they become completely mythic. There’s a larger
than life element to them as well which you get from the films. The
main thing everybody knows about the Three Musketeers is ‘all for one
and one for all’, which is all about friendship and unity, so if you’re
going to do it on stage there has to be a zest about them. The Richard
Lester films have all of that. There’s a real spirit to them. There’s
fantastic fighting, and fantastic fighting in character. There’s a real
comedy about it as well, and it’s that kind of spirit I wanted to try
and capture with this one.”

Writing for a younger audience is something Hannan is clearly relishing
as he attempts to captivate grown-ups just as much without patronising
either party.

“ One of things we spoke about right at the beginning was the way
children watch Dr Who,” Hannan explains, “and about how they might not
know what all the words mean, but are mesmerised by it. You might have
an eight year old boy in as well as a thirteen year old girl, so you
have to do something that appeals to both of them as well as the mums
and dads. Again, like Dr Who, there has to be something aspirational
about it that can captivate.”

Just as Porthos, Aramus and Athos reconvene once more in the play, The
Three Musketeers and the Princess of Spain finds Hannan himself
returning to the rough and tumble of writing for theatre somewhat
remarkably for the first time in fourteen years when Shining Souls
premiered at the Traverse. Not that Hannan has been in any way idle.
Over the last few years he’s gathered a series of TV credits for the
likes of Prime Suspect 5, while several projects of his own remain
unmade. Much of Hannan’s time too was spent with his long-awaited
female-led wild-west novel, Missy, which finally saw the light of day
in 2008. Added to major revivals of Shining Souls at Glasgow’s Tron
Theatre and an updated version of Elizabeth Gordon Quinn toured by the
National Theatre of Scotland, and it’s hard to believe Hannan has been
away from theatre as long as he has. With such an impressive back
catalogue, and having just been appointed as Senior Playwright in
Residence at the Traverse, it’s hard to fathom too why he walked away
from it in the first place.

“Because I was trying to earn money in other ways,” Hannan states
flatly. “I took the huff with theatre because it was paid so badly,
then I was commissioned to write several TV series that weren’t made,
then I did the novel, but came back to theatre for the fun of it.
Things have hugely improved, so I’m much happier now, and it’s just
giving me a real buzz being in the rehearsal room with actors who’ve
been in the west end and all these brilliant singers and stage
fighters.”

One suspects too that Hannan’s new found zeal for rehearsal room fun
and games has come in part from feeling stir crazy while holed up alone
writing Missy.

“Don’t,” he mourns. “Don’t don’t, don’t. It was madness. You’re not
entirely on your own, because you get feedback off editors, but it’s
not anything like being in rehearsals working with a choreographer or a
fight director.”

Now that Hannan has leapt into the fray once more, it looks like The
Three Musketeers and the Princess of Spain won’t be his last foray for
the stage. A play commissioned for the Globe with the current working
title of God of Soho has already received a public reading at the
Traverse, while Hannan is also under commission from the National
Theatre of Scotland to pen nothing short of a full-blown musical.

Of God of Soho, Hannan says that “It’s about sex, I guess, and all the
things you make a fetish of, including fame. T’s kind of going to be a
magical realist thing. There’s angels in it, Londoners, celebrities and
hundreds of people. It’s become a completely different play since the
reading, but is still a work in progress that needs fleshed out and
expanded. But writing for the Globe is really exciting,” Hannan says of
the Southwark based reconstruction of the Shakespearian open-air
in-the-round theatre. “It’s an incredibly exciting space, but also a
really frightening size. It holds fifteen hundred people, and that
feels like an awful lot.”

As for his NTS piece, Hannan is at an early stage, but his preparations
include getting stuck into the classics.

“My Fair Lady, Guys and Dolls, all that stuff. I‘m reading Stephen
Sondheim’s new book as well. But I think there’s a continuity in what I
do. Writing for the Globe, I think I’m drawing on The Evil Do-ers and
Shining Souls, that strand of work. What I learned about Shining Souls
was that this domestic language, this Glaswegian for want of a better
word, it became quite ritualistic and quite Greek, so you can bring
gods into the things as swell as the more realistic elements. Once you
go beyond the realistic you can use caricature and do anything you want
to. There’s this thing about new writing where there’s this idea that
we’ve got to be writing things that are dark and challenging all the
time, and our imaginations have sometimes been forced down that alley.
Well, I might not necessarily feel I want to be dark and challenging
sometimes, and there’s no reason I should have to feel like I should.”

In truth, there has always been light and shade in Hannan’s work that
explores matters metaphysical even as his characters trade in
street-smart banter. Hannan’s motivations too seem to stem from a
similarly ambiguous place.

“I feel very under-achieved,” he says, “and I still feel very hungry to
create something really good. Maybe I haven’t quite expressed what I
want to express.”

Such noble aims come through in Hannan’s version of The Three
Musketeers.

“These three musketeers are a bit past it and are deeply flawed human
beings,” Hannan says, “but at the same time are totally determined to
save France. Kids watching them like these adults who are complete
failures, because there’s something there as well about how they may be
hopeless adults, but they also still stand for something better than
themselves.”

The Three Musketeers and the Princess of Spain, Traverse Theatre until
December 24th, various times.
www.traverse.co.uk

The Herald, December 7th 2010

ends

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