Lorenzaccio

Poster for the premiere of the play in 1896, in which the title role was played by Sarah Bernhardt

Poster for the premiere of the play in 1896, in which the title role was played by Sarah Bernhardt

I’ve written a new adaptation of Alfred de Musset’s 1834 French play, Lorenzaccio. It is on BBC Radio 3 on Sunday 10 March 2019

The play is set in the 1530s and concerns Lorenzo, a member of the Strozzi family, who as a young man was a poet, an idealist, a radical, devoted to the cause of ending tyranny in Florence. But to the despair of his family, he has joined the corrupt court as Duke Alexander’s advisor and has become as vicious and degraded as the rest of them. What happened to the young man with his love of freedom? Is it possible somewhere inside him there is still a plan to overthrow the Duke? The play whirls around the city, taking in warring families, royals and commoners, merchants and murderers, artists and priests, taking us through depravity and heroism, public pageants and private despair. 

Our pitch to the BBC was that Lorenzacciois the best play you’ve never heard of. It’s possible that you haveheard of the play, but most people I’ve mentioned it to, even some theatre makers and academics, have looked blankly at me. If I asked that question in France, they’d look at me like I’d just asked if they’d heard of King Lear. It’s one of the great plays of the French repertoire.

The last time the play was professionally revived on a British stage was in a little-loved version by John Fowles (why John Fowles?) at the National Tneatre 36 years ago. The RSC did a version, rewritten as The Lorenzaccio Story, in 1977. It was produced on Radio 3 in the exact same slot as mine, 17 years ago, with Ranjit Bolt providing the translation, though I’ve never heard that version. Otherwise it’s barely ever done in the UK.

The reasons are many. In part, I think, Britain has a rather timid attitude to foreign drama, unless it’s by Ibsen or Chekhov. More interestingly, Lorenzacciocomes from the Romantic period, a moment in French theatre where a younger generation rejected 200 years of the legitimate stage’s determination to write plays closely modelled on the way they thought the Greek’s wrote plays. Instead, they said, of the Greek’s supposed purity and singularity of tone, we should look to the messy, sprawling vigour of Shakespeare. And so you find in the work of Musset and his contemporaries clear Shakespearean echoes. That was to the benefit of that theatre but didn’t enhance the French Romantics’ chance of British productions? Why should we waste time on French writers doing ersatz Shakespeare when we have the real thing?

In fact, it’s easy to overstate the Shakespearean echoes of Musset’s play. It is known as the ‘French Hamlet’ mostly because Lorenzo, its protagonist, is a young man unsure of his identity and resolve to commit an act of revenge against the head of a royal palace. In fact, it’s a more general influence, in the large number of intertwined stories and characters, the historical setting, the mixture of comic and tragic tones, the epic landscape that brings us the powerful and the powerless. But Musset does not write in verse, let alone iambic pentameter. There are poetic expressions but this is a prose play. Musset’s setting (C16 Florence) is not one Shakespeare went near. Most importantly, his characters are not like Shakespeare, being creature less of the Florentine sixteenth century or the Shakespearean seventeenth, and much more creatures of the turbulent 1830s.

Like much of French Romanticism, Lorenzaccio was written in the aftermath of the July Revolution that overthrew one monarchy in favour of a new constitutionally-bound royal house. The heightened Republican sentiments, the disappointments and betrayals, the renewed sense of popular revolutionary fervour, alongside a deep pessimism about the possibility of radical change rumbled away in Hugo’s Hernani(on stage and in the auditorium), runs through works like Stendhal’s The Scarlet and Blackand re-emerges in Hugo’s Les Misérables30 years later. And it’s absolutely there in Lorenzaccio, which – SPOILER ALERT – begins in a ferment of corruption, moral revulision and popular revolt and builds to an act of regicide, but then turns into something quite unShakespearean in its pessimism and bathos.

I came across this play thirty years ago, almost exactly, when I was an undergraduate student and studying Naturalism. I was intrigued by the sniping of the Naturalists towards the Romantic drama of an earlier generation and wondered why these writers should have been so contemptuous of that work. The late Ted Braun was the course tutor and he suggested a few plays: everything by Büchner, Boris Godunovby Pushkin, and Lorenzaccioby Musset. As I recall there was no translation of Lorenzaccioin Bristol University’s library and Ted arranged for me to visit the translator Donald Watson who then lived (and maybe still does?) on a crescent in Clifton and who had done a translation for the students several years before. Donald Watson was also Ionesco’s main translator so an important figure in the transmission of French theatre and he couldn’t have been more helpful, lending me his typescript, talking to me about the play, and also inviting me to live in his flat (but that’s another story). I found these plays intoxicatingly exciting – raging, violent, philosophical, angular – and none more so than Lorenzaccio. I’ve always wanted to see it on stage but never have. I started translating it in the early 90s in collaboration with David Greig (before he was famous), though other things got in the way. I’ve mentioned it a few times to various directors though either they’ve not got the play or balked at the play’s scale: it has fifty characters and a full running time of something like 5 hours.

So my producer, Polly Thomas, and I pitched it to Radio 3 for their Sunday night slot; more or less the only slot on BBC Radio where you can do a full-length play. Matthew Dodd commissioned it, to his eternal credit, and now it’s on. It’s been a thirty-year dream project.

Of course, when I say full-length, the Sunday Drama slot is only 90 minutes and while you can double to some extent, you’re lucky if you get a cast of more than half a dozen (we have nine, which is positively epic by most radio standards), so the play needed to be reworked quite extensively to fill the slot. One possibility would have been to lift out a single slice of the play, following a couple of characters and turning it from a gorgeous sprawling epic into a chamber play. For me, that would miss the beauty of the play’s ambition and its social imagination. So I’ve tried to represent the whole play in all of its grandeur and scale but taking a sharp line through the action.

One other key decision that Polly and I made was to do something that is so common on stage as to be unexceptional but is not something I’ve heard much on the radio; that is, to do a modern-dress production. What I mean by that is to keep the play’s sixteenth-century setting, characters, story and language but to create a sound world that is twenty-first century. So the characters refer to each other as Duke and Cardinal and Marquess, but we’re hearing phones and cards swiping people through electronic doors and television reports, etc. The distinction is a little blurred in the original; Musset’s French is perfectly contemporary and there is no linguistic attempt to make it sound like a Renaissance play – it is, as I’ve said, a play with its focus very much on the present. (This, I might say, is where I think the Naturalists didn’t get, or refused to get, Romanticism in the theatre; I’m sure it might be true that by the 1870s, Romanticism was past its best, but by dismissing it all as medievalist claptrap, they seem to me deliberately to have ignored that the movement was renewing theatre by using the past to intervene in the present.) For several scenes, I’ve had to find a contemporary equivalent and I’m very pleased with a lot of the transpositions: a would-be murderer’s soliloquy has become a martyrdom video; courtiers discussing the succession of the throne have become spin doctors strategizing about a press release. And so on.

I’ve made a number of other interventions in the play. A key one is that the play is very male and I think the play could be opened up interestingly by including more female voices. So the key role of Lorenzo’s father, Philip, has become Lorenzo’s mother. Beautifully played by the wonderful Tanya Moodie (who was actually in another play of mine), it enriches some of the more earnest stretches of the play by giving the relationship a warmer, less purely ideological quality. (I’m not saying women are emotional rather than ideological, but there is a wonderful mixture of warmth and principle in Tanya’s voice that picked up what I tried to do with the character so well.)

To reduce a five-hour play to ninety minutes is not just a matter of cutting. Scenes have had to be restructured and sometimes combined. While initially, I wanted the language to all be recognisably ‘old’ (to contrast with the contemporary sound picture), in fact I’ve gone for a blurring of styles that is both old and new, allowing for a contemporary comic feel but also making space for Musset’s own metaphorical richness. I worked from the French and identified key sections I wanted to preserve and wrote my own scenes around them. So in terms of text, it’s probably as much me as Musset, but I was very much guided by wanting to convey the joys of Musset’s play, not to provide a response to it or a deconstruction of it. You’ll have to decide whether it was successful.

If you’re a theatre director of an artistic director of a theatre: I want to do a version of this play for the stage. Get in touch.

The cast: Ashley Zhangazha plays the Duke; Tom Hughes plays Lorenzo; Tanya Moodie plays Philippa; Nadia Albina plays Louisa; Toby Jones plays the Cardinal; Fenella Woolgar plays the Marquess; Shaun Mason plays Tebaldeo; Danny Kirrane plays Venturi; Kevin Mains plays Bindo; all other characters are played by members of the cast. The production is directed by Polly Thomas and the sound designer is Eloise Whitmore. It’s a Naked Production for the BBC.