1) What inspired this story?
Two things. The first inspiration came from Sarah Tipple who, in 2011, asked whether I’d be interested in adapting Gogol’s Diary of a Madman for the Gate Theatre, back then under Natalie and Carrie’s reign. We did a week’s workshop and it was fun playing around and devising but I didn’t feel particularly connected to the story, so put it on the backburner for a long, long time.
In 2015, I bumped into Chris and he asked me what had happened to that project, and I found that the idea had kept slow-cooking in the back of my mind and that I was beginning to conflate the Gogol with a personal experience I’d had whilst an undergraduate in Edinburgh. Several members of a close friend’s family had been grappling with their mental health for a good deal of their adult lives and I wondered whether Gogol’s story could be used as lens through which to focus upon those particular challenges. I spent a lot of time with that family in South Queensferry so…those are (some of) the roots.
2) ?Tell us about your characters…
My play wraps around one summer in the lives of the Sheeran family. The father figure, Pop, has the famously Sisyphean challenge of painting the Forth Rail Bridge, a task that’s occupied him for his whole life, as it did his father, and his father, etc. Pop’s son, Henry, is entirely absent from the story and so to plug that gap Pop has employed an apprentice, Matthew, an English graduate student studying material science at Edinburgh University. Pop’s wife, Mavra, has invited Matt to live with the Sheeran family for the Summer, and when Matt begins a relationship with Mavra and Pop’s daughter, Sophie, the family’s psychological infrastructure begins to unstitch.
The family’s also joined by Sophie’s best friend, Mel who is both a classmate at her school and the daughter of one of Pop’s oldest friends. All of the characters are present in the Gogol, although the way they’re related to one another’s changed for the purposes of my story (Sophie, in the Gogol, is his boss’s daughter, for example, and Mavra’s his housemaid, but all of that feels dreadfully out of date).
3) There is a lot of detail when it comes to South Queensferry and other Scottish landmarks. How did you approach your research for the play?
I know South Queensferry well and spent a lot of there whilst living in Edinburgh. Furthermore, my mother’s family’s from Fife so a lot of the stories and attitude touched upon in the play’s pretty close to home. That said, I’ve not been particularly slavish to the truth – the Queensferry I present is very much one that best serves the story rather than some documented reality.
The part of the play that’s taken the most research has been uncovering some of the traditional stories specific to the Firth of Forth. Some years ago I’d heard a radio broadcast about ‘dreg songs’ – old folk songs that fishermen would sing to keep their strokes in sync whilst pulling against the tides and currents on the Forth. I really wanted to make sure that I found an example of those original songs but hardly any are written down. I was lost on that front until I found an American historian, James Madison Carpenter, had collected some of that folklore in the 1930s and stored them in the National Library of Scotland. That was a critical piece of the puzzle.
4) Were there any particular challenges in writing the piece?
Many! This is the first adaptation I’ve attempted – I’ve discovered that’s a pretty huge challenge in its own right. You want to remain faithful to the original but at the same time you want to reconstruct something that’s both fitting for an audience now and pertinent in some way to the state of the world. So, in terms of the style and content I’ve moved pretty far away from the Gogol.
Adapting the form has presented another huge challenge – as his title suggests Gogol’s original’s a first-person present-tense narrative where the structure of the piece warps in direct proportion to the protagonist’s state of mind. Though breaking out from that first-person narrative, I’ve tried to keep a sense of that gradually warping structure. Twenty scenes reflect the twenty diary entries, and, though they’re not specifically in the same order as Gogol’s I’ve tried to keep as many of the same events in place as I can (a clerical worker tasked with an endless job becomes the Forth Rail Bridge painter, an obsession with sharpening pencils becomes an obsession with cleaning paint brushes, going to the theatre becomes going to the Fringe, breaking into Sophie’s friend’s house to get at her dog’s letters remains almost the same, and for that matter talking dogs remain too, although rather than Medji it’s now Greyfriar’s Bobby).
Lastly, in tune with the Gogol I wanted to make sure that the play’s antagonist was inside the protagonist’s head rather than externalised in one of the surrounding characters. I found that challenging as you run the risk of disarming anyone who’s not Pop of any narrative friction. I hope each of the characters earn their place in the tale…I guess I’ll find out.
5) What would you like audiences to take from it?
I hope it’s a story that resonates with an audience. I hope they feel moved and understanding of Pop’s struggle. Furthermore, whilst it’s a long way from the Gogol I hope it inspires them to dip into his work and read the original novella: it’s great stuff.
Catch the previews of Diary of a Madman at the Gate Theatre, 28th – 30th July.