Play Talk: Duncan Macmillan on writing impossible adaptations and theatre as a workout for the imagination

Jessie Thompson
Writing life: Duncan Macmillan has adapted Paul Auster's City of Glass for the stage: Jonathan Keenan

Be it his blistering study of a woman trying to get through rehab (People Places and Things, with a star turn from Denise Gough), his one-man show about a son trying to support his mother with depression (Every Brilliant Thing, created with Jonny Donahoe), or his multimedia extravaganza collaboration with 59 Productions on The Forbidden Zone, Duncan Macmillan is a writer unafraid of a challenge. He teams up 59 Productions again for a stage adaptation of City of Glass by Paul Auster, opening at the Lyric Hammersmith this week.

What was the first play to make you want to write plays?

I'd seen a lot of classic plays and I think I’d assumed that all playwrights were dead. It wasn’t until I saw Blasted in the mid-90s that I realised that people still wrote plays. After that I started watching and reading as much new work as I could. I think Far Away by Caryl Churchill is the play that made me want to try writing – I hadn’t seen it produced but it was so complete on the page, I wanted to try to do that. That’s what I still aspire to.

What’s the hardest play you’ve ever written?

They've all been a challenge in different ways. On the first morning of rehearsal for The Forbidden Zone we decided to scrap the text I’d written and start again. The play was based on research and incorporated texts from about thirty different sources, the story crossed continents and time-zones and was written in five different languages. It was a ‘live film’ with an enormous production team and if I wrote too slowly the whole thing would grind to a halt. Members of the Schaubühne company had to fly-off every other day to perform a different play in a different city so we had to work around an ever-changing ensemble. And during rehearsals I became a father. So that was a challenging one.

Which brought you the most joy?

I really enjoy watching Jonny Donahoe perform Every Brilliant Thing, Denise Gough in People, Places and Things and Jenny König and Christoph Gawenda in Atmen.

Which playwrights have influenced you the most?

Caryl Churchill, Wallace Shawn, Robert Holman, Martin Crimp, Arthur Miller, Beckett, Brecht, Chekhov, Shakespeare, as well as the work of Katie Mitchell, Complicite and Pina Bausch. Perhaps more than reading and watching plays, I’ve been influenced by conversations and friendships with writers like Mike Bartlett, Simon Stephens and Annie Baker. Playwrights are, in my experience, generous, thoughtful and fun people to be around.

What is your favourite scene from any play?

The 'seasons' sequence from Tanztheater Wuppertal's Nelken. The opening scene of Rafts and Dreams. Prior and Harper’s meeting in Angels in America while he’s dreaming and she’s hallucinating. The ‘thermometer scene’ in The Cherry Orchard. The ‘ladder’ scene in Annie Baker’s The Aliens. The closing monologues of Uncle Vanya and Far Away.

What’s been the biggest surprise to you since you’ve had your writing performed by actors?

However much I've worked on a play before rehearsal, I'll still need to cut and rewrite almost everything.

And the hardest lesson you’ve had to learn?

Dramatic writing is fundamentally about characters making decisions under time pressure with consequences. If you don't have that none of the other stuff you want to write about matters.

What do you think is the best thing about theatre? And the worst?

At its best it’s a workout for our imaginations and our compassion, and it happens collectively which is increasingly rare and important. At its worst it’s boring, indulgent, smug and irrelevant.

What’s your best piece of advice for writers who are starting out?

Write loads. Watch loads. Read loads. Focus on making the work good. Everything else is beyond your control.

Why did you write City of Glass?

I was on a train back from Salzburg with Leo Warner after we’d opened The Forbidden Zone. He asked if I wanted to work on something else with him and suggested City of Glass - the first book in Paul Auster's New York Trilogy. I loved Auster's work and was keen to work with Leo again so I said yes before re-reading it. Going back to that book as a father gave it a new context. It also seemed entirely impossible to adapt so I couldn’t resist trying.

What’s the best play you’ve seen this year?

I loved Escaped Alone and The Children at the Court. I loved Robert Icke’s productions of Mary Stuart and Hamlet at the Almeida. And Beware of Pity at the Barbican.

What’s your favourite place to watch theatre in London?

The Royal Court, both upstairs and down. The Barbican.

If the Prime Minister said they were abolishing the theatre tomorrow, what would you do?

When I was asked this question a couple of years ago I think I gave quite a glib answer. The freedom (and funding) afforded to writers is an indication of the health of a country’s democracy. Throughout the world, writers, journalists and artists are threatened, censored, exiled, imprisoned, tortured and executed. In the UK we have a comparatively high degree of freedom. We need to defend that freedom, to speak for those who can’t and to make work which doesn’t just maintain the status quo.

City of Glass runs at the Lyric Hammersmith from 21 April to 20 May;,