One night with Simon Russell Beale and a switch
The transition from short stories to stage writing was some time coming but happened at the flick of a switch. Colyer explains: "One night at the National I saw A Slight Ache, the Lyttelton it was, with Simon Russell Beale.
"I thought 'I've written a short story like this about a man in a garden—I could adapt that for the stage'. It was that moment when Simon Russell Beale set the switch in my head that made me a playwright. Since I started on that adaptation of my short story, I've never stopped writing for the stage. I hope he never switches it off again, no!"
These days the closest he comes to writing short stories is penning dramatic monologues but I associate him strongly with translated plays rather than new works even though it was his two–hander Homework that I saw first.
He enjoys working on both original texts as well as translations of classics and is something of a linguist. He says he can "get by in German and Italian and read Russian at a snail's pace" but I suspect there is more to it than this humble response. Either that or he's a language geek.
For his adaptation of Seneca's Trojan Women he worked through the original text armed with a dictionary as well as then working with translations. He hopes to also develop his adaptation of Seneca's Agamemnon from notebook to finished text. But why do it? I have to ask. There are other 500-year-old plays (ref Mandrake), you don't have to do one in a foreign language.
"You don't have to but it seems more interesting. I find it more rewarding… there is more scope for the adapter with a translation as well and I've got more to do when I'm translating and adapting."
Colyer's translation of Kafka's Letter to My Father (Brief an den Vater) is favoured with on–going sales "to [his] persistent astonishment" which he modestly attributes to it being reviewed on BBC Radio 4's A Good Read.
His later adaptation of the Letter for the stage, Kafka v Kafka, offered him the additional stretch because of the need to transmute an un–dramatic text to a stageable work, a process he describes as sometimes "wrenching and transforming" but enjoyable. "It is challenging because you’ve got to decide how far you can take it and still be true to the original and that’s also a question with a play that’s being adapted."
And Colyer is comfortable with remodelling existing plays—Mandrake is one of several of his works described as 'freely adapted'.
"The principle in my mind for this play was to make changes to keep it the same. To keep it as humorous as the original would have been required changes to the structure, changes to the language. Comedy is different in Italian than in English and different over five hundred years.
"I don't think I've done any disservice to Machiavelli. To produce an unfunny play would not be to his advantage at all, and if someone did one of my plays—which I cannot possibly imagine— in five hundred years' time he's welcome to do whatever he wants!"
Next for Howard Colyer is a trio of original short plays under the banner title Never Have I See Mount Fuji which will be staged at The Jack later in the summer. He hopes that his adaptation of Mikhaíl Bulgakov's Flight will come after that.
Under the opposition of Stalin, the play was never produced in Bulgakov's lifetime. It tells the story of a group of Russian refugees fleeing into Turkey and Europe as the Civil War comes to a close and when it had a reading at The New Diorama its parallels with modern–day Syria were apparent.
"But also it’s a good story," says Colyer. "I did a fair amount of work to trim it down, and we intend to do it without an interval; hopefully it will be about 100 minutes—you’ve got to think about bladder range, haven’t you? If you can take people into the world of the theatre… and take it straight through then I think you are doing the right thing."
And who knows what might happen one night between the auditorium and the toilet?
Mandrake by Niccoló Machiavelli translated and adapted by Howard Colyer plays The Jack Studio Theatre until 15 June. For further information and booking visit the Brockley Jack web site.
Never Have I See Mount Fuji is an evening of three short plays by Howard Colyer. Never Have I Seen Mount Fuji directed by Sarah Marr (a love affair), Conference Call directed by Scott Le Crass (a ghost story) and Nothing Else Ever directed by Anne MacDonald (a confession). It plays The Jack Studio Theatre from 27 August to 7 September with a running time of approximately 70 minutes. Booking opens shortly.