Arts Spolight: Michael Lesslie - the boy can't help it

Michael Lesslie has directed Derek Jacobi, been up for a Bafta and has a play on in the West End oh, and he's 23. No wonder this precocious young writer has ruffled a few feathers in the theatrical establishment
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Here's how young dramatists are supposed to emerge: first, they join a young writers' scheme at their local theatre, where their work is shepherded through readings, rewrites and workshops. Then comes their first original play their calling card, their bold declaration of youthful, iconoclastic intent. They then plug away for a decade or so, writing committed plays for subsidised theatres, before finally following the money, via film adaptations, for the West End, all the way to TV and Tinseltown.

Michael Lesslie's career is the wrong way around. Barely into his twenties, he has been nominated for a screenwriting Bafta, written a short film that stars thesp royalty Michael Sheen and Derek Jacobi, and penned a feature for Colin Firth. His stage adaptation of the 1994 US film Swimming with Sharks is being staged in the West End, starring Christian Slater, and he's had another play commissioned by a major commercial producer. It has been an auspicious year for Lesslie, and 2008 promises to be even more so. But what he has yet to achieve is what most playwrights start with: a first original play, a calling card, a bold declaration... etc. "But I don't feel a burning desire to go and put my message across," says the sorted 23-year-old. "That would be self-indulgent."

Besides, he barely has the time. "All these opportunities keep coming up." This clearly is a man who's going places if, indeed, he hasn't already arrived. In person, Lesslie is prodigiously erudite and at ease with himself. One looks in vain for any of the hallmarks of youth, save tireless energy and the type of self-possession that age whacks out of people. "I had a girlfriend," he recalls, "who once turned round to me and said, 'You just never get self-doubt, do you?' Which is bollocks. I get it all the time. But I don't like to indulge it. I just think nothing's ever going to get done unless you get your work out there."

Which is what Lesslie does. "I can just write and write and write," he says, "and send it out and send it out and send it out." He's done so since he was 16, when he sent a play to the National Theatre and was invited to join its team of script-readers. He got the work out there again at Oxford University, when his visiting lecturer, the playwright Patrick Marber, asked any aspiring dramatists in the class to pop their scripts into his pigeonhole. "I didn't have anything to hand in, but I thought, 'This is a chance, you don't meet Marber every day.' So I wrote furiously."

Marber liked Lesslie, if not his play ("He said, 'Firstly, you're a writer. Secondly, this is shit'"), and took him under his wing. At the same time, Lesslie was exploiting his relationship with the film producer Amanda Boyle ("We'd known each other through a schoolfriend or something," says Lesslie, who is a little sheepish about having attended Harrow). Boyle had seen a play Lesslie staged on the Edinburgh Fringe, and asked him to "do a bit of rewriting" on a short film called Heavy Metal Drummer. "I ended up getting a co-writing credit," he says cheerfully, "and it got nominated for a Bafta."

A charmed life? It gets more so. ("I'm trying to think of failures to tell you," he ventures. "People like failures.") After the Bafta nod, Lesslie was approached by West End producers Nick Frankfort and Tobias Round, formerly of the Donmar Warehouse where Lesslie had worked as an intern while still at school. Frankfort and Round invited him to adapt the screenplay of the 1994 Kevin Spacey movie Swimming with Sharks for the stage. "It was incredibly generous of them," says Lesslie, "because I was still a whippersnapper." The results can now be seen at London's Vaudeville Theatre, where Slater plays mogul-cum-monster Buddy Ackerman in the slick satirical thriller.

Lesslie discusses this life-changing break with his usual practical good sense. Doing adaptations has been "a narratological education", he says. "You have to ask: how do I structure a play? How do I tell this story? Addressing those questions was helpful." Yes, he was galled by some harsh reviews ("That was a tough lesson") and the low status of the writer in rehearsals ("It's a strange balance to learn, between deferring and standing up for yourself"). But essentially, making West End theatre isn't so different from goofing around on the fringe. "You're still in a dingy rehearsal room with cups of tea and everyone wiping their nose. Except it's Christian Slater and Helen Baxendale with the tea rather than your schoolmates."

That might faze some young writers as might, say, a commission to adapt a Booker-nominated novel, Brian Moore's Lies of Silence, into a movie starring Colin Firth. (The film shoots in 2008.) But Lesslie hasn't let success go to his head. "I'm very aware of my luck," he says. But it's not just luck, it's hard work and a lack self-indulgence. "One thing that drove me crazy at uni were those people who wanted to be writers, but they only ever wrote

when the muse struck them. I've always seen it as more of a job. You get up and write."

Not that this tyro writer-for-hire has no personal artistic vision: his short film Airlock, or How to Say Goodbye in Space (the one with Sheen and Jacobi) will be touring festivals next year, and he's also seeking a home for the play he developed with Marber called Face Up, Face Down, "it's about right-wing attitudes in working-class Leicester". What's more, Frankfort and Round's company, CMP, has commissioned a play, "a contemporary, unironic ghost story", for which Lesslie cites The Woman in Black and the spooky stageplays of Conor McPherson as inspirations.

But honouring his muse is lower down Lesslie's priorities than "telling stories". "And as for brooding over my big statement," he says, "the [Pulitzer-winning] poet Elizabeth Bishop would just describe things and trust that her description would be personal by its nature. There's a degree of that in my work. Bits of me went into Swimming with Sharks. I feel very personal about it."

It's a grown-up attitude, which adds to the sense that Lesslie has bypassed the punky phase of artist development. "My education," he says, "has come from Marber, from reading Pinter and from Aristotle's Poetics. So in terms of where I've grounded myself, it's in tradition, and certainly not iconoclastic. If you're going to deviate from a grammar, it's best to know that grammar inside-out first."

Presumably, if you're a Harrovian Oxford graduate, there's no point pretending to be anti-establishment. That worries Lesslie if there's a cloud on his horizon, it's the thought that he might end up paying the price for his privileged life to this point. "I'm not sure whether my having gone commercial and being a middle-class bloke might hamper me getting a first original play on. Especially if it has 'hard-hitting, socio-political content'." Indeed, a young writer who's succeeded off his own bat confuses people in theatre.

"I had a meeting with one theatre where they said, 'We like your play, but you're going to find it hard to get it staged' because no one theatre feels like it can appropriate me. No one's nurtured me." Subsidised theatre looks after its own, which is "frustrating", says Lesslie. "It should be: if you like the play, put it on."

But, if need be, Lesslie is prepared to do things his way. "After Swimming with Sharks, I asked my agent 'What happens next?' And she turned to me and said, 'To be honest, I don't know. Because we haven't seen [a playwriting career] done this way before.'" So Lesslie is busy providing his own answer.

"I'm planning a few new plays and a couple of films. And I write pretty quickly, so I'm hoping to get one of the plays done over Christmas." These breathtaking commitments are made with the nonchalance of a young man whose obstacles, so far, have been hypothetical. "It's mad to be given all these chances," he admits, "but I'm not about to throw them back in anybody's face." *

'Swimming with Sharks' is at the Vaudeville Theatre, Strand, London WC2 (0870 890 0511) until 19 January

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