Playwright Tamsin Oglesby talks about hawks, dragonflies and adapting The Mouse and His Child for the stage.
How did the adaptation come about?
The RSC asked me to find something that I would like to adapt for a family show. So that included the whole canon of children's literature - a scary task.
I read Russell Hoban's The Mouse and His Child as a child, but forgot how much I'd loved it till my goddaughter reminded me that I'd given it to her, saying it was one of my favourite books.
I re-read it to my seven-year-old daughter. I was enjoying it all over again, then I looked down and she was asleep. That was a key to me choosing it. I knew why she'd fallen asleep. There was too much talking and philosophising for her to take in. I knew that if she could actually see these creatures who are trying to fight for their lives, she'd get all the comedy, the tragedy and the spirit of it and it would all make sense.
What is the story?
It's about a clockwork mouse and his child who are bought from a toy shop then discarded. They then embark on a journey to return to the toy shop and in the process discover who they are, and the worst and best that humankind is capable of. Because, although it's about clockwork creatures and animals it's fundamentally about the human spirit.
What I think makes it so theatrical is that, very often in books like Alice in Wonderland and Pinnochio, you have a central character whose questions are internalised. This can pose a problem dramatically. What makes this story so brilliant is that it's about a mouse and his child, two halves of the same character in a way, so the questions are externalised and the relationship they go through actually is the story too. We have a constant dialogue going between our protagonists which is a theatrical gift.
How involved are you in the rehearsal process?
I'm in the rehearsal room as much as I want, or am wanted, and there is a properly playful spirit which provokes all of us to invent and strengthen the story all the time. It's a joy.
Are you making many changes to the text in the rehearsal room?
There are some small changes so far – some cuts and some elongations - and I'm sure there'll be more. The story is pretty much intact. Paul Hunter (the director) and I are happy with the stages of the story telling, but discovering things that need pointing up or down or cutting along the way.
How are you finding rehearsals?
I'm really loving it. It is what I imagined, as we had already done two research and development sessions . There is a healthy dialogue about how to do various things - for example, about improvising scenes, the number of shrews you need in an army, how to get a hawk to descend from nowhere, or create a dragonfly from a piece of sackcloth and orange tights, you know the kind of thing! It's magic really.
I think the key to it is that there are only two or possibly three humans in it, and the world is inhabited by clockwork toys and animals so what's really important is how they relate to each other as characters. It is a mouse and his child, but the important thing is that it's a dad and his child. It's about the father child relationship at its core.
What kind of audience are you expecting ?
It's for everyone. It's not in the slightest bit patronising. Someone said, if Beckett had written a children's book – this would have been it. It's really very bracing and it should be frightening at times and it should be very funny too. Those things cross generational barriers.
Have you met Russell Hoban?
I sadly never actually got to meet him before he died. I spoke to him on the phone and he'd only managed to read the first eight pages of the script. It was hard for him because his eyesight was going, but he had some lovely things to say about it up to that point. I asked him if he wanted us to come and read the play to him – and he said yes, but it sadly never happened.
Are you a fan of his work?
Yes. He has a uniquely bracing voice and his vision is extraordinary. Riddley Walker is one of my favourites, a seminal book I read when I was fifteen.
What other work have you done?
I've only done one adaptation before. The last play I had produced was Really Old, Like Forty Five for the National Theatre, and at the moment I have another play called Future Conditional in the pipeline, which the director Matthew Warchus and I are hoping to get on soon. Another play, Ephebiphobia is being premiered in Linz in Austria of all places and I'm currently writing a screenplay.
Do you have any connections with the Midlands?
My daughter was born in Stratford-upon-Avon when my husband Stephen (actor Stephen Boxer) was working for the RSC, so I've lived in and around the town twice so it's been a kind of second home – and, hopefully will be a kind second home!