Simon Reade interviews Ken Ludwig
SHAKESPEARE IN HOLLYWOOD
by Simon Reade
for Arena Stage Production Journal
The name rang a bell. âHeâs called Ken Ludwig, Simon,â said Adrian Noble, then Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company. âHeâs in Stratford. Big supporter of the RSC in the States. Heâs got some ideas he wants to run past us.â Ken Ludwig? Surely not Lend-Me-A-Tenor-Crazy-For-You Ken Ludwig? What on earth would that master of American screwball comedy want with a classical, Shakespeare ensemble? As Literary Manager at the RSC at the time I was a champion of poetic theatre, pursuing commissions that tended towards political epics. The imp in me surmised that the RSC could well do with upsetting its own applecart; but it is a state subsidised theatre. This Ken Ludwig is the darling of commercial theatre.
Curious, I met the guy.
Well, never judge a writer entirely by his output. Just as Dostoevsky probably wasnât all doom and gloom, wisecracking Ken Ludwigâs got his serious points too. Sure, heâs fun, full-of-beans. But heâs also exceptionally well-read, bright as a button, with an enthusiasm for comedy and music theatre across the centuries. Heâs an expert who kept â who keeps putting me to shame in my lack of appreciation of the popular stage, of the movies. And I donât just mean the cheesy matinees weâd snigger and sneer at today. He can extemporise on the clown in European Renaissance drama, on the wit of the 18th century playwrights, on the inter-War stars of the Silver ScreenâŠ On our first meeting, in the sunshine of Stratford-upon-Avon, he charmed me, he delighted me. And, canny fellow he is, heâd pitch several ideas at me before Iâd even realised heâs started.
Some had been long in gestation: a rewrite of a Regency Tony Lumpkin sequel to She Stoops to Conquer. We read the original and realised why it necessitated a rewrite. It was trash. We decided not to go there. Some ideas had been dreamt up on the hoof: inspired by walking backstage, along the narrow passage where the huge 1930s Royal Shakespeare Theatre collides with the Elizbethan-style Swan Theatre, Ken had seen the actors from contrasting shows co-mingle, mid-performance. What if, in this collision, the modern dress performers get confused with the doublet-and-hosed, take a wrong turning and end up on the wrong stage in the wrong play, mused Ken. We laughed and laughed as he improvised and then had the good grace to admit Michael Frayn had written Noises Off, Alan Ayckbourn House and Garden. Kenâs is still an even wilder idea, but we didnât pursue this either.
We also talked about the whole Shakespeare industry and how the recent movies â from Ken Branagh, via Baz Luhrman, to Shakespeare in Love - had introduced the plays and the man to a whole new generation whoâd rejected the works in the classroom or in the lyric theatre. Shakespeare in Love in particular inspired us. Marc Norman and Tom Stoppardâs marvellous screenplay had illustrated how the Elizabethan Theatre of ruthless producers and jobbing script writers, wasnât a million miles away from the Hollywood studio system.
It was then that Ken mentioned something in passing and we both had that âpingâ, light-bulb moment. A film I should have known about, but didnât â Max Reinhardtâs 1936 movie of A Midsummer Nightâs Dream â was even more amazing in its making than the finished product itself. It was a story which got right to the heart of the commercialisation of art, the opportunism of Hollywood, the use and abuse of the most venerated writer of all time, Shakespeare. It charted the creative quirks of a meister of mittel Europische Kinema, Max Reinhadt. And it had a cast of starlets: Mickey Rooney, Jimmy Cagney. And the more he talked, the more animated he became. Ken explained to me about Will Hays, the daffy self-appointed censor, whose application of the Hays Code to the sexiness and magical realism of Shakespeareâs dream play was an outrage â very funny, but an outrage nonetheless. And there it was, the embryo of a play which embraced the Shakespeare industry, Hollywood exploitation, US cultural imperialism, the clash of ideologies (liberal and philistine, European and American), of dreams versus nightmares with fascism in Germany a distant but significant rumble. I saw a serious play in the making. I guess Ken had the genius to see that its seriousness could be conveyed through an accumulation of farcical mayhem.
Key to that, and what I learnt from Ken as we developed it first with the RSC (who didnât produce it, internal political changes getting in the way) and most recently in a try-out reading at Bristol Old Vic where I am now joint Artistic Director, is this brilliant genre which I believe is peculiar to the American psyche: high-jinx, screwball comedy. British people would never be that zany. Weâre too knowingly cynical. Funny, yes. But donât we just know it. It is a genre specific to the American stage and screen of the mid 20th century. And Ken is the modern master of it, his passion for its vaudevillian high-octane antics fuelling his messianic zeal to recapture its essence for contemporary audiences.
Kenâs passion for Shakespeare (his family, even his personal email address all seem to be named after one Shakespeare character or another) is also evident in his new play. Shakespeare in Hollywood is thus a deeply personal play as much as a popular play. And in the spirit with which I used to commission plays at the RSC itâs also poetic and political and, letâs not be afraid to say it, something of a mini-epic. Yet itâs also got a screw loose, the playwrightâs having a ball. Screwball. Good comedy. Good drama. Good fun.
Simon Reade is joint Artistic Director of Bristol Old Vic where he has adapted Jill Tomlinsonâs The Owl Who Was Afraid of the Dark. He has worked extensively in film and television, for the BBC and Tiger Aspect in particular. He was Literary Manager and Dramaturg at the RSC 1997-2001 where his adaptations included Salman Rushdieâs Midnightâs Children and Ted Hughesâ Tales from Ovid. He was Literary Manager at Londonâs Gate Theatre in the early 1990s.