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10 Questions for Playwright Nicholas Wright | reviews, news & interviews

10 Questions for Playwright Nicholas Wright

10 Questions for Playwright Nicholas Wright

Great war story: on adapting Pat Barker's 'Regeneration' for the theatre

Nicholas Wright: 'It’s enjoyable to write characters who will use the English language well'Portrait by Robert Day. Production photos by Manuel Harlan

This year the nation has been spirited back to 1914. Every aspect of the First World War has been explored - its causes debated, the horrific conditions on the front revisited. And yet there has been less talk of the psychological impact of trench warfare, which is why Nicholas Wright’s new stage adaptation of Regeneration will greatly add to the sum of the centenary coverage.

Pat Barker’s novel was published in 1993 - and filmed in 1997 starring Jonathan Pryce - but more than 20 years on there is still no shrewder or more moving account of shellshock.

Regeneration, the first of a trilogy which concluded with Booker-winning The Ghost Road, gives the trenches a wide berth. It is set in Craiglockhart, a psychiatric asylum in Edinburgh where, among other patients, the poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen received treatment from renowned anthropologist Dr William Rivers. But there is a great deal more to Regeneration that a sort of prequel to Dead Poets Society. The central figure is Rivers, who applied the new-fangled teachings of Sigmund Freud to curing the shellshocked. One of his (fictional) patients is Billy Prior, a working-class officer who has suffered a breakdown on the front and retreated into mutism.

This is all familiar territory to Wright. He has written many plays about historical figures including Van Gogh, Wallis Simpson’s lawyer, the broadcaster James Mossman, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and, most pertinently, the psychoanalyst Melanie Klein. He talks to theartsdesk about the dramatic element to the patient-analyst relationship.

JASPER REES: You've written many of your own plays about factual characters. What lured you to the idea of an adaptation? 

NICHOLAS WRIGHT: It came out of the blue. I was asked if I’d be interested. I didn’t know the books. I hadn’t read any of the trilogy. And I was attracted by the idea immediately. For two reasons. I liked the idea of writing within that period. I just feel comfortable there in the height of the bourgeois culture period. It’s enjoyable to write characters who will use the English language well. It’s more fun to write. You can exert yourself to try and write as well as they would have talked. And I read the book and I liked it very very much.

How much research did you have to do beyond gutting the novel?

I’ve studied it a lot. Obviously I also read all the related literature as well. Sassoon wrote more or less the same thing for the rest of his life. He wrote a series of disguised memoirs or romans à clef and then he wrote an autobiography and by that time he was middle-aged. He never really escaped the First World War. I read all Wilfred’s letters, to his mother mostly, and the verse of course and the biographies of which there are a lot. The thing I found is the book Regeneration is incredibly accurate. Pat Barker has obviously done incredible homework.

And the book is very moving. You could get a lot of things out of it but the thing I mostly got out of it is how institutions always try to the squash the individuality out of people. What’s so fascinating about this book is how in this mental institution the men have their emotions and imaginations grow even in this extremely inhospitable place, and how love grows between people and their ability to write poems grows. I thought that was a real lesson.

How about the curious notion of poets undergoing an early form of psychoanalysis?

I got fascinated by the characters, particularly the man I’d never heard of: Captain Rivers (played by Stephen Boxer, pictured right). My partner was trained as an anthropologist. I know a lot of anthropologists. And they say, "What is Rivers doing in this hospital?" It turns out he is one of the original pioneering anthropologists in England. He was also a pioneering psychoanalyst. And then he died at 51 or 52 on the fringe of becoming a Labour candidate having lived about three lifetimes. He was probably gay, almost certainly celibate and unexpressed.

And then I fell in love with Wilfred Owen who is a wonderful person. What the book does very excitingly is show him discovering his talent, which comes out really over this vast crush he has on Sassoon, because of the poetry. And how he learned his real métier which was writing poetry about the war.

There is only one major fictional character in the story. How does he fit in dramatically?

Billy Prior (played by Jack Monaghan, pictured below) is the one imagined character who didn’t exist. Before Regeneration Pat Barker had always written working-class situations and characters. This was her first and very, very successful go at writing characters who are mostly middle class - or lower middle in Owen’s case. But Prior is working class. He’s very, very well written and I enjoyed finding him and adding my tuppence worth.

Have you included the other two books from The Regeneration Trilogy?

They play a little bit of a role. The trilogy ends with both Wilfred Owen and Billy Prior getting killed. And the fact that Owen got killed seemed to me terribly important because it redounds on Sassoon. Wilfred believed very strongly that there should be a poet in France so that the British public would know what was happening there and so that the men would have somebody to speak for [them]. As far as Owen was concerned that was Sassoon. Sassoon started buggering around on the front line and got shot in the head by friendly fire. He went back to England leaving no poet there. That is one reason why Owen went out because Siegfried Sassoon had come back, leaving Sassoon with a bit of a mountain of guilt at Owen’s death. I wanted that to be part of the story, to make the play complete.

How much freedom to stray outside Regeneration were you given by the author?

I was a little nervous about how Pat Barker would see it. But she was delighted. She said, "I didn’t finish that story because there were two more books to come but I approve that you have gone on in time and completed it." I don’t know the contractual situation if she didn’t like it. She’d have a perfect right to say so and I’d pay attention to whatever she thought.

Is there something inherently dramatic about the patient-psychoanalyst relationship?

I think they’re exactly parallel. The job of most plays, be they Hamlet or Lear or whatever, is for somebody to discover the truth about themselves. And they normally do it with some series of adverse circumstances. The other thing that happens in Regeneration is the countertransference. It wouldn’t be dramatic if it was an impersonal analyst helping the analysand. They both have to be affected by it. It’s an interchange. That’s the drama. It happens in this in two ways. Rivers has two clients that we see in the book and the play: Sassoon, whom Rivers finally encourages to go back to war but in the process of doing that Rivers becomes completely disillusioned by the war. And he helps Billy to discover a painful buried memory but at the same time Rivers isn’t neutral, he’s not impartial, it’s quite clear that he in some unspoken way develops a love for Billy. He’s profoundly moved by him. The countertransference is there. The analyst is not the blank sheet of paper that they claim.

Could you explain your understanding as a dramatist of countertransference?

The transference is the way in which the patient, or the analysand, turns the analyst into important characters in his or her life who have had a traumatic effect on them. Usually a mother or father. And in that way the analyst stands for something in the patient’s eyes. The countertransference is when the patient starts to stand for something in the analyst’s eyes and starts to affect the analyst. It’s very controversial. When Melanie Klein ((played by Claire Higgins in Mrs Klein, pictured above) was asked what to do about countertransference she said, "Just don’t have it." Easy for her to say. Some analysts are affected by their patient. Some use it and others feel it’s incredibly dangerous and destroys their neutrality. But it’s very powerful in the book and in the play.

Have you seen the film version?

I did see the film last year when I got involved. I thought it was all right. I thought it was a bit heritage-y and polite. What I like about the play is it’s a young cast. It’s not predictable. It’s lively and rough, full of very young men going through a lot of hell and a little bit of joy. I found the film a little bit stolid. Jonathan Pryce is very good in it. His wig is a catastrophe.

How can any dramatic commemoration of World War One stand out from the crowd?

I think it can only do it really if it presents characters, people who we completely believe in and live with as they go through their life in the war, whom we empathise with. It has something to say about the war but mostly it has to say about people and creativity and how you express yourself either in love or in your art, your ability to write poems, the very exciting idea of Owen’s marvellous late poems being generated.

  • Regeneration at the Royal & Derngate in Northampton until 20 September then touring York, Edinburgh, Bradford, Nottingham, Cheltenham, Richmond, Wolverhampton, Darlington and Blackpool until 29 November
The job of most plays, be they Hamlet or Lear or whatever, is for somebody to discover the truth about themselves

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