We caught up with Vice Versa writer Phil Porter for insights into the play and the rehearsal rooms.
Vice Versa – or, The Decline and Fall of General Braggadocio at the Hands of his Canny Servant Dexter and Terence the Monkey – is a farcical comedy which will be directed by Janice Honeyman (who directed Antony Sher in the Baxter Theatre’s 2009 production of The Tempest in association with the RSC).
We met up with writer Phil Porter to discuss his time with us and his creative process when it comes to rehearsals.
Vice Versa has been described as being lovingly ripped off from the work of Plautus – what does that mean?
It means this is very much a new play but borrows considerably from the works of Plautus, the great comic playwright who wrote for Roman audiences some 2,200 years ago. Vice Versa is loosely based on Plautus’ Miles Gloriosus, the story of a boastful soldier who gets his comeuppance at the hands of his neighbour, his servant, and a woman who he’s kidnapped; I hope Vice Versa captures the fabulous comic mischief which Plautus implemented in his own work.
What have you been working on since we last saw you in 2014 with The Christmas Truce?
Vice Versa! I’ve also been working on an adaptation of Moliere’s The Miser with Sean Foley (with whom I adapted A Mad World, My Masters). I also wrote a play about drugs and cycling called The Man with the Hammer which was on at Theatre Royal Plymouth earlier this year. The actors performed the entire play whilst pedalling frantically on stationary bikes – exhausting for them but enjoyable for me!
I’ve been developing a new project with Soho Theatre called Rescue Fantasy, a futuristic musical about love and virtual reality. And, I’ve also started work on a new play for the RSC…
You’ve written The Christmas Truce and A Mad World, My Masters for the RSC. How does this play compare?
It’s definitely similar to A Mad World, My Masters as comedy is at the forefront; The Christmas Truce contained a few jokes too, but only as a counterpoint to the bigger tragedy.
Vice Versa and A Mad World, My Masters both bring together characters from the highest and lowest echelons of society, in order to paint a mischievous, satirical and farcical picture of the human condition. But the writing process for Vice Versa has been completely different. A Mad World, My Masters was an existing play, so we always had the option of leaving a line or scene unchanged if we wanted – with Vice Versa although I had had Plautus’ body of work as a template every word is essentially freshly minted.
What do you enjoy about working with the RSC?
Many things! To name a few: I love the theatres themselves. There’s great magic in their architecture which makes a special event out of every performance; the RSC attracts the very best people in every role, so I know what I write has the best chance of succeeding on the stage.
I also enjoy a good relationship with your Literary Department who always bring out the best in me. I like spending my time in Stratford-upon-Avon because I grew up quite close, so it feels a bit like coming home. I’ve been around for a few years now on and off, but I still feel a real jolt of excitement at being allowed backstage or onstage.
How involved do you like to be in the rehearsal process?
I like to be involved all the way through. Not because I’m a control freak – I’m delighted to sit quietly and let other people make decisions – but because writing is quite a lonely practice. When rehearsals come around I’m keen to be part of the team and make a few new friends.
I feel secure and capable in the hands of Vice Versa director, Janice Honeyman a fabulous South African director with many years of experience directing comedy. I will probably spend the first couple of weeks in rehearsal, then give them a bit of space after that – not because I don’t want to be there savouring every minute, but sometimes it’s good for people to explore the script without the opportunity to ask the writer how they imagined a particular line.
Do you have any tips for aspiring writers?
My tip for aspiring writers would be to go to the theatre and then, whilst that sense of what it’s like to sit in the audience is still at its most immediate, go home and spend the next few hours writing.
Do you ever suffer from writers’ block?
I’m not sure I’ve ever had writers’ block exactly, but I do know what it feels like to be defeated by a play; and what it feels like to be unable to start, continue and finish writing it. In a situation like that, I try to remind myself that even writing something bad that I will never use is more useful than writing nothing at all.
This article originally featured in Issue 6 of our newspaper, Radical Mischief.