Why did you decide to adapt The Underground Man?
It’s an amazing story about a fascinating bloke. I first came across the fifth duke in a Bill Bryson book, Notes From a Small Island, where he mentioned going in the tunnels at Welbeck Abbey. I discovered the underground map, and Andrew Breakwell – the play’s director – and I discussed it and thought it was a really good story. It’s got local resonance and we thought it would work extremely well with the theatre company we’re working with, AJTC, and their two actors.
What was it about the man himself that drew you to this story?
He’s mainly known for the fact that he was an eccentric who built loads of tunnels and a huge underground ballroom underneath Welbeck Abbey – but there was so much more to him. He was a man of great intelligence; he was confronting great changes, both in terms of science and with the certainties of religion being overthrown. In Creswell Crags at that time they were discovering bones of hyenas and bison and lions and realising that these had not been distributed by Noah’s flood, they had actually lived here. He had a huge enquiring mind.
Do you think there was method to his madness?
Building tunnels large enough for a carriage to pass through and an underground ballroom that he never used was eccentric. However, it was also a deliberate act designed to provide employment for the impoverished families on his estate. You can see similar projects and follies around Ladybower, on what used to be the Wentworth estate, that were built during the depression in the twenties with the same intention. He was a recluse. He couldn’t manage personal relationships of any kind, but he had enormous empathy with human suffering and hardships. One of the many contradictions that make him fascinating.
How did you go about adapting the novel for the stage?
The book is written in a diary form, which was a challenge straight away because diaries are about reflection and a play needs action. But it’s a refining process where you work out what characters and incidents earn their place, and what holds things up. I read it until I thought I knew it backwards, and then wrote a huge, sprawling draft in which I tried to include everything that’s in the book, even though I knew a lot of it wouldn’t work. I only had a cast of two [Mick Jasper and Iain Armstrong] – one actor playing the duke, and one playing his valet-cum-butler and all the other characters – and I’d rather see what works rather than make the judgments before I begin. The good thing about writing is that once you’ve started, you can change it. You look at it and think about what will work in terms of the stage, and whether every single character is going to make it there.
It’s been mentioned that live music is going to feature in the play…
We have an accordionist who will be on set the whole time. It’s something else that gives light and shade, and means the focus isn’t always on the two actors. There’s plenty of opportunities where I think it will really enhance and lift what’s happening on stage. AJTC always work with music where they can; I saw a tremendous adaptation a few years ago of On the Black Hill by Bruce Chatwin, and they had a cellist in that. It just adds that extra element that gives it room to breathe, which is good if you only have a cast of two.
You mentioned Andrew Breakwell is the director, how closely have you worked together?
From the word go, very closely. I think this is my seventh project at the Playhouse, and he sponsored my work right from the beginning. We talk about what I’m going to do and then I’ll do a draft, he’ll read it and we‘ll talk some more. Basically, if one of us feels something isn’t working then it probably doesn’t go in. It’s not a battle between writer and director, it’s a collaboration to make the best job we possibly can.
We had five days with the actors in research and development at Welbeck Abbey – at the Harley Gallery as part of the Nottingham Contemporary Grand Tour. That was fantastic because we got to play with the actors and the text and that took away endless amounts of rewriting because you could see straight away what didn’t work. It was also nice being able to write for actors I knew.
Have you done any research into the duke outside of the novel?
Mick has taken a real character in a real environment and he’s fictionalised it. There’s a book about the fifth duke at the Harley Gallery, and it was very fortunate that as part of the Grand Tour they had a lot of stuff to do with him and the tunnels. Although I’ve not been down the tunnels, I’ve seen films of them, and I went round the house and grounds last summer. I’ve seen the door to his bedroom that has two letter boxes in – one for letters that the servants posted in, and one for his responses to be posted out.
Have you had any feedback from Mick on the play?
We met in the science museum where he was working at the time. As soon as I sat down, he said – because he knew what I was thinking, being a writer too – “It’s all right. It’s good.” I was happy with that. He’s seen another draft since then and he likes that. But I will be very nervous when I know he’s in the audience and I’m trying to watch the play rather than his reaction; I hope he likes it because I’ve done it with real love and affection. It’s just a fantastic story.
We hear that it hasn’t been easy to secure funding for the play – do you think that’s reflective of the current climate of theatre?
Absolutely. It’s really difficult. AJTC tried twice to get Arts Council funding, and both times it came back saying it was an excellent bid but that there just wasn’t enough money. There was nothing we could have done to improve the bid. All of this is down to Giles Croft [Nottingham Playhouse’s Artistic Director] and his support. We had a read-through of the second draft with Giles and Tom from their marketing department, and they could see that despite the draft form being messy and flawed, there was something worth doing. From talking to Giles, this is a project he’s had in the back of his mind for a while – it’s reputed that he’s actually danced in the ballroom.
The Underground Man, Nottingham Playhouse, Thursday 22 September - Saturday 8 October 2016, £15/£13.50.
Read more about The 5th Duke of Portland by The Dilettante Society
Nick Wood on Twitter