Tuesday, 27 August 2013

“How do you tell the truth about someone?”, aka how Stuart: A Life Backwards crept on to the stage

This is a good four weeks out of date, but then the kids' summer holiday in its entirety involves frantically chasing my tail. It was commissioned by and intended for publication in the Guardian's theatre pages, to coincide with Stuart: A Life Backwards opening at the Underbelly during the Edinburgh fringe, but then Will Adamsdale (who plays Alexander Masters in the production) did something to his back during rehearsals, and by the time the show was back on and the piece came back to me for rewrites I was on holiday and had forgotten to bring my computer (I felt its absence as melodramatically as if it were a lost limb). So I hit the spike. Usually I'd just throw the original version up here, but my editor called me out on a journalistic failure and further piqued my pride by wanting me to put the quote that I had at the end at the top. So I've half-rewritten it and now it's a jerky, jolty, funny little piece of perversely anti-commercial arts writing that would make everyone on the arts desk shake their heads in dismay. Exactly what having a blog is for, then.

I didn't get to see Stuart in Edinburgh but Lyn Gardner did and liked it very much. It's touring this autumn, to Watford and Sheffield – but if you haven't read the book yet, I recommend you do that first. I read it in a two-day blitz not quite in time for talking to Jack Thorne but before interviewing Alexander Masters; that was five weeks ago and I'm still nursing the wound.


Alexander Masters had already completed two degrees, in physics and maths, abandoned a PhD in the philosophy of quantum mechanics, and tentatively begun a career in journalism while working as an assistant in a hostel for homeless people, when he accidentally added biographer to his haphazard CV. His first subject was a violent, drug-addicted, spikily engaging homeless man called Stuart Shorter, whose chaotic existence seemed to defy all logical conventions of biographical writing. His second was a mathematical genius obsessed with bus timetables. He's now working on a third book, inspired by 147 diaries by an anonymous writer, which Masters found in a skip.

He's clearly quite a character, but one who prefers to maintain control over his own story. “I don't mind writing books about other people, but I don't want someone doing it to me,” he says. Which has been a bit of a problem, because his celebrated first book, Stuart: A Life Backwards, has been turned into a play and Masters is one of the lead characters. Speaking in the run-up to its debut at the Edinburgh fringe festival, he readily admits that: “The whole thing panics me.”

Stuart Shorter's story has already been dramatised once, but for TV: the film, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hardy, was screened in 2007 and Masters himself wrote the script. At the time, Masters harboured a quiet ambition to stage it, too, but was put off when people repeatedly assured him: “Oh no, you couldn't possibly turn this into a play.” Their problem, it seems, lay in the way the book zigzags through time, moving both forward through the story of Masters' unexpected friendship with the homeless man, and backwards through Shorter's prison spells and tumultuous teenage years to the childhood trauma that devastated his existence. Masters had already conquered this fragmented chronology in the book, and felt he knew exactly how stage it: by taking us inside Shorter's head. He came up with the idea of setting the story entirely in Shorter's poky rehabilitation council flat, animating the furniture in some way so that it would seem to speak to Stuart directly. “I got all carried away,” he says cheerfully. “But no one else was keen.”

One of the people who felt Stuart couldn't be staged was Jack Thorne, a writer who splits his time between TV (he's worked on episodes of Skins, wrote The Fades, and collaborated with Shane Meadows' on This Is England '86 and '88) and theatre (including a translation of Durenmatt's The Physicists, an adaptation of the vampire story Let the Right One In, and Mydidae, a two-hander set in a bathroom). Yet it's Thorne who has collaborated with director Mark Rosenblatt on the adaptation touring Britain this autumn. Thorne has loved the book passionately since he read it – in a pre-publication unproofed copy – in 2005, but believed its natural second home was on screen. “There's quite a lot of story to get through, and it's a lot easier to be faithful to the book when you're doing stuff for film,” he says. But when Rosenblatt – another long-term aficionado – invited him to write the play text, “I couldn't let anyone else do it: I had to have a pop.”

It's taken five years to get from that invitation to production. Partly the delay was down to money, says Thorne: unlike Masters, he has opted for a six-person cast, hard to finance in the current funding climate. But it also reflects Thorne's long quest to find a suitable structure for the play – a problem Masters himself experienced when writing the book. Masters devotes an entire chapter to confessing how worthy and tedious his first draft was: Shorter himself rubbished it, and advised Masters to write it backwards – contrary to the usual structure of biographies – to give it the pace and intrigue of a detective story.

What Thorne was resisting was the traditional arc of stage stories: conflict, dialogue, resolution. “I didn't want it to be too linear. There's a way of staging it that has Alexander not understanding Stuart in the first act – but actually, he likes Stuart from the beginning. It's not The Odd Couple: it's a love note to a very complicated man.”

Although he felt acutely the responsibility to honour the book, Thorne was reluctant to engage with Masters, or anyone else related to or acquainted with Shorter, while working on the adaptation. “I've written a couple of real people before and find it very, very difficult if I've met them,” he says. “I feel I can't tell their true story. It's quite hard to explain without sounding like an idiot, but I don't hear their voice more clearly, I hear their voice less clearly.” On Stuart as on previous TV biopics that he's written, Thorne relied on the people he was working with to liaise with the subjects of the story, while he absorbed himself in the parallel fiction that he was creating. “Mark was brilliant and totally understood my problem. He was talking to Alexander a lot, people were talking to Stuart's family. The fact that I didn't meet them makes me sound as if I didn't care, but it wasn't a matter of not caring, it was a matter of asking, how do I tell this story best? I personally would find it very difficult to write some of the very dark things involving Stuart's family having met them.” Eventually, this problem became key to the script he was writing: “It's what the play's all about: how do you tell the truth about someone? It's something I struggle with quite a lot.”

The trouble is, Thorne's solutions to the problem of truth-telling are so contrary to Masters', and the two men's modus operandi are so at variance, that initially there was some tension between them. “I was never quite sure what he didn't want to be led astray by,” Masters says tartly. “I didn't mind him not talking to me, but if you're going to write about someone like Stuart, you have to meet the people involved.” Masters admits he “kicked up a hell of a fuss” after reading a first draft, in which Thorne explicitly dealt with the childhood abuse that damaged Shorter's life, because: “You cannot write that sort of stuff without seeing the nearest person involved.” Thorne's willingness to address the issues that Masters raised, however, soon assuaged the biographer: “From being cross with him, I ended up having lots of respect for him.”

That respect is mutual: when Thorne talks about Masters, it's about the only time in our conversation when he doesn't nervously interject a rapid “d'you-know-what-I-mean” every few words. To Thorne, Masters is an outsider: someone who didn't settle well into social life at university, spent years searching for his place in the world, and feels a deep affinity with others who don't quite fit the profile of normal. And Thorne comes across as another outsider: friendly but shy; a jittery, self-deprecating speaker; a solitary soul in a garrulous profession. He finds attending rehearsals hellish. Although a committed member of the Labour party who once dreamed of becoming a politician, he is wary of speaking out, “wary of political acts. I'd love to be able to stand up and say: this is what I believe.” Previously, when he's written about politics, for instance in his play 2 May 1997, set on the night of Labour's first election win in almost two decades, he's done so – to quote Michael Billington – “obliquely”. Thorne is trying to change that, in that he's working on a big, more directly political piece, “but it's hard. You feel like you're embarrassing yourself.”

Ask Thorne what the point is of turning a story that is already a successful book and film into a play, and it's the politics he turns to. “By its nature, theatre is a discussion. There's a lot about Stuart that we don't understand: for me, there's a discussion there to be had.” Not only that, he says, but cuts to welfare benefits means that: “The number of homeless people has gone up and up and up. Shelters are closing. It's getting even more crucial to hear Stuart's story.”

Masters agrees, but also points to two specific themes in Shorter's life that have universal resonance: “Loss. The fear that you have not made your life into something that it could have been, that you have lost all your opportunities, that it has been a waste. And the sense of injustice that Stuart battled with, that affects so many people and so many situations.” This is what makes Stuart's story connect so powerfully with people, he thinks. “It isn't a book or a film or a play about a homeless person: it's about these themes that Stuart characterised to an extreme.”

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