Embrace the Problem: Duncan Macmillan


Originally written for Exeunt.

Duncan Macmillan is remembering a piece of advice from Edward Bond that has stayed with him. “He said this brilliant thing,” the writer and director recalls, “which is that there’s a tendency in some directors to solve the problem. You identify the formal problem or the staging problem or something, and then solve it somehow. And he says good dramatists instinctively know that the problem is all you’ve got, that you should never solve the problem.”

This insight – don’t solve the problem – was something of a starting point for Macmillan and co-adapter Robert Icke’s acclaimed stage version of 1984 for Headlong. George Orwell’s culturally ubiquitous novel is a tangle of contradictions, none of which the pair wanted to unravel. “It seems absurd and a real shame to iron out all the creases,” says Macmillan. “I think there’s something really exciting about going, ‘what do these creases do for the novel, and how do we find a theatrical form in which to communicate those logic bumps?’”

The answer to that question was found in a structure that could simultaneously hold all possible readings of Orwell’s novel – an exemplary instance of doublethink. “There’s a lot in the book that quite deliberately complicates the narrative, and we didn’t want to solve that by undermining it and just opting for one particular reading of it,” Macmillan explains. Every possible interpretation is allowed for.

Central to their complex, cerebral version of the novel is the oft-neglected Appendix, which no previous adaptation has attempted to tackle. Macmillan is adamant about the importance of this seemingly dry, academic postscript, which Orwell himself insisted was integral to the tale. “It’s like telling a really long, convoluted joke and then missing out the punchline and feeling like you understand the joke even though you’ve not heard the punchline yet,” he argues.

What Macmillan and Icke found frustrating about previous adaptations – and what they have studiously avoided – was the tendency to hone the novel down to the narrative of protagonist Winston Smith’s experience, stripping away its philosophical and political content. “There’s a tendency to over-simplify,” Macmillan suggests, going on to insist that “if you present a literal universe on stage, it’s not accurate to the book”.

Instead of opting for a literal narrative, Macmillan and Icke have held onto the subjectivity of the novel, which offers readers intimate access to Winston’s unreliable mind. In doing so, their main reference points have been cinematic – “film can do subjectivity in a way that theatre sometimes struggles with,” Macmillan suggests. He names the likes of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless MindMulholland Drive (“it’s a deliberate puzzle”) and The Shining.
These pop cultural influences are also apt for one of their target audiences. Macmillan relates how both he and Icke remember a moment in their teenage years when their minds were opened to the possibility that theatre might be just as exciting as films and computer games; one of their ambitions in creating this adaptation was to offer the same revelatory experience to a new generation of youngsters. “We really wanted to blow those kids’ minds.”

As 1984 moves to the West End to embark on its third run, Macmillan’s enthusiasm for the show is remarkably undimmed. He doubts that he and Icke will ever be truly finished with the piece; despite reading the book dozens of times, they keep returning to pore over each last line, making tweaks to their adaptation as they go. Macmillan offers a neat Orwellian analogy: “Each edition of the Newspeak dictionary is smaller and smaller, because they’re eliminating words from it, and we’ve sort of been doing a similar thing.”

Throughout the process, Macmillan and Icke have worked in tandem, equally doling out the duties of writing and directing. “Quite early on we realised that the usual boundary line between being a playwright and being a director just wasn’t helpful and that we’d automatically started parking tanks on each other’s lawns,” says Macmillan. Reflecting on his metaphor, he is quick to add, with a laugh, “that makes it sound more oppositional and more aggressive than it actually was”. In fact, the partnership has been amicable and creatively fruitful, directing both theatremakers towards bolder, sharper ideas. “It’s been a huge amount of work,” Macmillan admits, “but two heads – in this case – have been better than one, and it hasn’t been a messy, grey compromise. We’ve always pushed each other to make the idea better.”

Another great collaborator of Macmillan’s is director Katie Mitchell, with whom he is currently working on a new project for the Saltzburg Festival. Macmillan finds Mitchell “really trusting and empowering”, praising the passion of her involvement with every element of a production. “She has such artistic integrity as a theatremaker,” he says, “and political integrity as well. I found that really, really galvanising.”

Thanks to working with Mitchell, Macmillan is now much more confident about making work with political intent, something that he suggests “we can find very hard to do in Britain”. The pair’s latest show, The Forbidden Zone, has an explicitly feminist agenda, setting out to “reposition our understanding of certain women and women’s roles in the First World War”. The project has involved extensive research, highlighting for Macmillan just how difficult it is to unearth female perspectives in a history written by men. “One of the things we wanted to do was rehabilitate the writing from that period, this fascinating writing done by so many women, and also these really extraordinary female figures who haven’t been given the right kind of attention,” Macmillan says.

He and Mitchell also recently worked together on the German premiere of Macmillan’s playLungs, or Atmen, which continues to play in rep at the Schaubuhne in Berlin. Despite the script’s strict instructions that the play should be staged with no set and no lighting or sound changes, Mitchell has placed the two performers in her production on bicycles, powering the lights throughout the show. This simple, eco-friendly concept acts as a constant visual reminder of the high environmental stakes that provide the backdrop for Macmillan’s two-hander, in which a couple agonise at length over whether or not to have a child.

“She’d understood the gesture of what I was trying to communicate and I think she added something really interesting to it,” Macmillan reflects on Mitchell’s directorial interventions. “In Katie’s production you really get a sense of the time pressure and the physical pressure, and you also get a sense of the environmental pressure because the carbon neutrality of that production is so visible and audible at all times.”

Macmillan has worked in yet another way on Every Brilliant Thing, a project with Paines Plough and Pentabus which goes on tour in its latest incarnation next month. The piece began as a story written by Macmillan, in which a child starts a list of everything that is wonderful in the world as a way of coping with their mother’s suicide attempt. As in the story, the list soon took on a life of its own, welcoming contributions from the public and transforming into an installation created by Paul Burgess and Simon Daw. Now, the story and the installation have been incorporated into a show, performed by Jonny Donahoe of Jonny and the Baptists and involving members of the audience each night.

“That began as sort of a necessity of the time pressure and the formal constraints we set ourselves, and has now become an inherent part of the project,” Macmillan explains the audience involvement. “There’s something about seeing real people responding live in the moment rather than actors pretending to be other people that feels very true to the project. It cuts out all the pretending of it and it just becomes very honest and open and responsive.”

Although Macmillan is looking forward to getting back behind his desk and focusing on his own work again, he anticipates that the various collaborations he has been involved with in recent years will continue to have an effect on the way he writes. “I guess I’m bored with certain approaches to making theatre and I’m really looking for people who inspire me and are prepared to work with a writer in different ways,” he says. “I’m not as interested as I once was in just sitting in an office and sending a play away.”