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“I’m as obscure as Pirandello is famous:” An Interview with Playwright Howard Colyer

“I’m as obscure as Pirandello is famous:” An Interview with Playwright Howard Colyer



Howard Colyer

Howard Colyer is the playwright-in-residence at Jack Studio Theatre in the Brockley district of south east London. He has been working with the Theatre since 2009, writing original plays as well as adaptations of foreign language plays. He also draws and paints: he is an artist with the Made In Greenwich Gallery in London.

Howard Colyer’s Naked ran from 12-30 January at the Jack Studio Theatre. An adaptation of Pirandello’s Vestire gli ignudi, which was written and first produced in 1922 at the Teatro Quirino in Rome, Colyer updated the play to 1970s London, opening the first scene with the Clash’s “London Calling.”

PSA editor Michael Subialka and I sat down with Colyer following the January 29th performance of Naked to discuss his take on Pirandello, writing, and YouTube.


Naked at Jack Studio Theatre
Front of the Jack Studio Theatre, Photo: Lisa Tagliaferri


You updated the play, and used a punk aesthetic, why did you make that choice?
“Punk Pirandello” — it’s a nice alliteration, it fits in with the theme of nihilistic thoughts and involved landladies. And, I couldn’t go much later, into the ‘90s for example. In the ‘70s there were still landlines, phones in corridors, newspapers. In that respect the 1970s weren’t that different from Pirandello’s setting; and shifting the play helped underline that its themes are universal, they’re aren’t limited to Rome of the 1920s.

We noticed that your set lighting was reminiscent of the recent Six Characters in Search of an Author production at the Barbican in London.
That was the only time I’ve seen the play done really well. It’s a difficult play, hard to stage. And I prefer to do shadowy plays, works that are more obscure.

We liked the sparse set designed by Sarah June Mills.
Yes, it was good, very good; and it had much of my library on the set, Italian dictionaries —I’ve got a few of those, as well as my copy of Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which I bought in the Blue Dahlia bookshop in Normal, Illinois, which is like Peoria but without the glamor. I was very glad to go to Illinois State University, I had a graduate assistantship and a 4.0 GPA, but I didn’t end up getting an MA in History as I failed to do the thesis. ISU, I’m sorry.


Naked at the Jack Studio Theatre, Photo: Tim Stubbs Hughes


Pirandello’s play Vestire gli ignudi references the Biblical phrase “To clothe the naked,” why did you go with Naked instead?
Biblical phrases don’t sell tickets, particularly when they sound like the title of a sermon: a play called “Naked” does better at the box office.

What can you tell us about the adaptation process?
I keep the book on hand, I like to know what I’m going to ignore. I follow the scenes of the original, but I am not just translating — I am writing a play. I changed the role of the journalist to a woman, which is a better fit for the journalist in the 1970s. And with a male journalist it felt too much like a fox hunt, with everyone after one woman — not that I can speak from experience, I’ve just heard rumours.

What was the most challenging part of the adaptation process?
Probably the long opening scene with Nota and Ersilia, after the landlady first departs. It’s a bit static, so I had to work to get the audience interested. As soon as the journalist arrives the play changes gear, but it’s difficult keeping it interesting during the build-up. This part in Pirandello I thought was dull, because it went on so long, and so I trimmed it back.

Why do you think he wrote it?
I have no idea. He wrote several plays about identity and masks and shifts in personality, in part because of his wife’s madness; but why he wrote this particular play in this way, I don’t know. I’m often not sure with my original work, why I have pursued one idea or image rather than others.


Naked at the Jack Studio Theatre, Photo: Tim Stubbs Hughes


The play has the central metaphor of nakedness, which is also metaphoric in the theatre itself, does the theatrical meta-ness appeal to you?
Yes. It’s essential for Naked to make it work. Sometimes it gets in the way of the drama. In some cases, Pirandello manages to make his plays dramatic. In some they are just ideas. Enrico IV (clunk-clunk-clunk) — I thought about doing, but the exposition is so tedious, it would take a lot of work, doesn’t seem worth it.

But it’s one of the more popular plays.
Enrico IV — it’s a great idea for a play, but to make it work is an awful lot of effort. I was tempted by it, but there are other things I’d like to do.

You’ve adapted quite a few of Pirandello’s plays.
I failed to be a Russian Historian, but I did a season of Russian plays — Gogol’s Marriage, Diary of a Madman, Bulgakov’s Flight, Pushkin’s Boris Godunov (so perhaps ISU will forgive me) — and have also done German plays — Kafka v Kafka, The Trial as a dramatic monologue. I want to do more Italian plays, I’ve spent a lot of time in Italy. Pirandello fits nicely with my preference for adaptations, people have heard of him, but apart from Six Characters in Search of an Author, his work is barely known. I have also done Machiavelli’s Mandrake. I adapted Pirandello’s The Man with a Flower in his Mouth as a monologue like Camus’s La chute and am doing a podcast with Studio Jack Theatre. We hope to cast our pod before May.

How does Pirandello compare to Machiavelli?
Pirandello is not as funny. Machiavelli is much more ribald, our production of Mandrake got more laughs. Machiavelli is much more surprising for audiences who only know him as a commentator.

Why do you put plays on YouTube?
Getting the plays filmed helps me re-work the text after a show, and it keeps a record for others. And also so that small theatres in California see it and then put on their own production, as when the Resurrection Theatre In Sacramento staged my adaptation of Seneca’s Trojan Women after we did it at the Jack.

Pirandello also reworked the text after seeing them on the stage in Paris.
The word has to be made flesh, if you like. Drama is text in the form of actors. As a playwright you don’t really know what you’ve done, while you’re just watching a play in the theatre in your head. You need to get it out of your head.


Cover of Howard Colyer's The Trial, Drawing by Howard Colyer


Colyer’s artwork is currently on view as part of the “Texture and Text” group show through 6 April at the Made in Greenwich Gallery in London. “Celtic Cross,” his solo exhibition, will be on display at the same gallery 4-19 June.

He is planning to stage monologues based on The Trial and Woyzeck in the near future, with the former on at the Jack in August.


Self-portrait by Howard Colyer




Top banner image and portrait photoraph by Tim Stubbs Hughes.
The production was directed by Roberta Zuric.
Full cast list:
ERSILIA DREI, a young woman - Josephine Rattigan
LEWIS NOTA, novelist, middle aged - Declan Cooke
MRS HOOD, landlady, old - Jean Apps
FRANCESCA CANTAVALLE, journalist - Victoria Hamnett
FRANK LAST, ex-naval lieutenant - Piers Hunt
MR GRANT, ex-consul in Bordeaux - Sam Adamson

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