The National Theatre production was a smash-hit in London and New York and earned James Corden the Tony Award for Best Actor. This weekend, NT Live brings it back to Sydney cinemas. Time Out Sydney speaks to playwright Richard Bean
To write a populist, accessible comedy to broaden the audience to theatre, to break the idea that theatre is boring and stuffy and only for people who behaved well at school.
You based the play on Carlo Goldoni's 1745 classic Harlequin Servant of Two Masters. Were you trying to be faithful to Goldoni?
No, not particularly. I had to create an evening at the National so three acts were not possible; it had to be two acts and less than three hours. I've been pretty faithful to the plot and the characters. Some
of the lazzi [set piece comic routines of Commedia dell'arte] I cut or rewrote.
What did you add?
I introduced a new character, the old waiter Alfie. And the idea that Australia is awash with opera.
But you transposed the action from Venice to swinging Brighton. Was there something you wanted to convey or record about England or the sixties?
No, I was alive then, and in the seventies it wasn't much different. Pubs didn't do food, the idea of service was strange, food was terrible, so Lloyd's restaurant in a pub [where much of the action takes place] is really quite extraordinary.
Both your play and Goldoni's rely on skills of the actor playing the serving man. Critics and audiences loved your man, played by James Corden. What were you aiming for?
The idea is to present to the audience a lovable idiot. He is partly a stupid version of our own selves. Rather like Norman Wisdom, we like him, we want his scams to work we're on his side. He's innocent and yet up against the world and he's only got us to help.
This production has as director one of the most eminent in Britain, the NT's artistic director Nicholas Hytner. Can you tell us about something that he did particularly well?
Nick has many skills and it starts with dramaturgy. He got me to rewrite a couple of scenes and truncate certain other scenes. His is just an uncanny eye and ear for being bored. He gets bored quicker than anyone I know and he will not allow it. The entertainments during the scene changes are entirely Nick's idea and show his total commitment to entertaining the public.
The play contains several references to Australia, which to the characters seems perhaps even more exotic than Majorca.
This is a rather surreal element of the play which I love, and audiences over here love. The idea that Australia is played out to an opera soundtrack is rather fantastical but every character in the play believes
this to be true. They also all think Australia is an awful place, a terrible place, worse than death, rather harking back to penal colony perceptions. I don't know how Australians will react to that.