Interview with Robin Hooper on his irreverent new comedy FOUL PAGES
By Heather Jeffery
Robin Hooper is a natural storyteller. His answers to questions are full of them, with some surprising quirks. It seems his inspiration for writing about Shakespeare in his new play, Foul Pages, might have been a dog.
He was acting in a production of Shakespeare’s AS YOU LIKE IT with his brother who is also an actor. “The director had a dog whom I grew increasingly fond of and he seemed to love being around the actors and they loved him too.” As we all know actors shouldn’t work with animals (they don’t really like being upstaged), but playwrights are told a similar thing, not to write about Shakespeare. However, Hooper was already falling in love with the idea, despite reading that Guardian theatre critic Michael Billington thinks “it is a brave one to do so”. Surely this would be a comment to take seriously but Hooper had other ideas. “It really didn’t take much courage let me assure you, just a certain amount of audacity. It was surprisingly easy to make because I loved the subject matter. I’m not entirely sure if that’s the right frame of mind to write a decent play. We’ll have to see.”
It seems that Ben Elton, writer of BBC television comedy ‘Upstart Crow’ which is all about Shakespeare, is similarly attracted to irreverence. Hooper however, has a different focus, he’s combed the period for the starting point of his play and found 1603 has much to offer. “More than anything an anxious change of monarchy” says Hooper. “Elizabeth the First died in 1603, and James the First of England couldn’t be crowned because of the plague in London. Of course, there were many who didn’t want him to be king.” Whilst Hooper is adament that sticking closely to the facts do not necessarily make a good story, or a good play, he has taken his inspiration from true events. “There were many brilliant people staying at Wilton House, which was lived in by the Countess of Pembroke. She was a complicated and astonishing woman. For me, that was the spark.”
This period of unrest with the added threat of being infected by the plague sums up images of very frightened people. “Where there is fear, there is often violence, secrets and lies … there’s also a terrific need to escape,” says Hooper. “Wilton offered escape and it was often referred to as a kind of Paradise. It is not surprising that we should find James staying there longer than initially intended.” Coupled with the fact that Shakespeare was at the zenith of his creative powers, it is easy to believe the outline for the play:
‘Raleigh’s condemned, Shakespeare’s desperate and the Countess of Pembroke has a plan! It’s 1603, and a new play has been commissioned to seduce the King into a merciful mood.’
Hooper has been in a keen position to understand exactly what goes into a good play, having been Literary Manager of the Royal Court and Paines Plough. He has read a lot of plays and met some wonderful playwrights, but it is the Artistic Directors who have taught him the most. “I gained an insight into how directors approach their programming and material. Some of the best plays that were staged by those companies would often take only a short time to read. The work I enjoyed most had a certain originality I hope. A very famous actor said, ‘style was knowing what kind of play you were in’. I do hope the actors instinctively can discover that in FOUL PAGES.”
Hooper has spent years trying to make each play as interesting as possible and he doesn’t necessarily try and repeat what he achieved in the previous play. “Through my acting I’ve learnt that there are many many different types of plays. But there’s only one thing we all desire. They have to work in performance.”
His director, Matthew Parker describes the play as “a fruity farce full of scandalous secrets, backstage betrayals and lusty liaisons” Although Hooper didn’t write his play as farce he says “Matthew has described it as such and I trust his opinion – I wanted it to be sharp and funny and about my life too”.
Hooper says he will only attend rehearsals at the invitation of the director. “Too many cooks can spoil the broth in making a performance of a play. if Matthew attempts something in his staging which might seem radical, (he might wish to stage a moment which is talked about and not seen) I will see it in rehearsal, and we’ll discuss it further. I’ve had very good working relationships with directors in the past with this understanding. However, when I see it at the First Preview, Matthew has said he will welcome my comments.”
The finished article is something that Hooper is really looking forward to seeing. In fact, he’s planning on seeing the show at least twice. “What I am looking forward to, is watching the actors bring those exceptional people to life. I accept it will not be an easy task. And the second time will be to watch the audience: Are a few staring at the lighting rig? Asleep? Looking at their iPhones? A playwright can learn much from that.”
The modest Hooper is himself, a prolific actor. You may have seen him in the new two-parter of Crown Court for ITV (a revival of the previous hit series, which he also appeared in over forty years ago) or the comedy, Quacks, or the upcoming feature film, The Children Act. However, right now he has other pressing matters.
“I’m spending a lot of time trying to get more plays produced, including work that moves on chronologically from this period (1600s). But I don’t write just so called historical dramas. My new stuff is very much in the present and is about people in my own life and past.”
And his most immediate ambition? “I'm very much looking forward to seeing Foul Pages on stage. I might learn a lot!” says Hooper
The Hope Theatre presents the World premiere of
FOUL PAGES by Robin Hooper
Director: Matthew Parker
The Hope Theatre, Islington, N1 1RL
20 February to 17 March (Tuesdays to Saturdays) 7.45pm
Tickets £15 & £12 concs
Box Office: 0333 666 3366 www.thehopetheatre.com
It’s 1603, the plague is ravaging London, scattering the court to the rural countryside of Wiltshire and delaying the coronation of the soon to be King James I. While actors rehearse, despite backstage squabbles and sexual politics, Shakespeare and the Countess of Pembroke struggle with the rewrites of As You Like It’, which must appeal to the new king’s merciful nature and seduce him into releasing the condemned Sir Walter Raleigh.