Colin Teevan: A little bit of monkey business

He adapted Tantalus; its author went ape. Undeterred, he has now taken on the Chinese classic Monkey. Paul Taylor meets a maverick creator of theatrical magic
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The Independent Culture

To illustrate the precepts of Buddhism in a children's show might be thought an uphill task at the best of times. How on earth, though, do you convince your tots that "true fullness is emptiness" at a Christmas entertainment? One can imagine the interval conversation. "No darling, you can't have a choc ice. You're full already. Oh, yes, you are. Well, by being empty, of course – haven't you been listening?"

But in a renowned succession of seasonal hits, the Young Vic has made a habit of whisking children's imaginations off into unfamiliar territory and of introducing them to a new, thrillingly inventive theatrical vocabulary. Tonight sees the opening of Monkey, which is based on the 2,000-page, 16th-century novel by Wu Cheng'en. It's about the adventures of a seventh-century monk who, accompanied by the irrepressible simian demigod of the title, travels from China to India in search of the Buddhist sutras. The author of this new theatrical adaptation is Colin Teevan, the young Dublin-born, now Belfast-based playwright and academic who, in the past two years, has himself negotiated a pretty hazardous journey, beset not by monsters and demons but by furiously irate authors and sabre-toothed English critics.

Teevan was the dramaturg on Tantalus, the epic Trojan War play-cycle and $10m marathon that caused an equally epic and bloody bust-up between two giants of the English theatre: John Barton, who had spent the best part of 20 years writing the piece; and his old friend and collaborator Peter Hall, who directed the show over a lengthy rehearsal period in Denver, Colorado. It was Hall who brought Teevan over from Belfast to execute the cuts and the rewrites which angered Barton so much that he disowned the resulting well reviewed production. He remains incensed.

Then, before Teevan had time to loosen his flak jacket, the English reviewers were firing exploding bullets in his direction because of The Walls, a drama whose Dublin characters are aware that the theatrical fourth-wall of their house is missing and that an audience is watching them. The demolition job on stage (as the rest of the walls disappeared) was swiftly followed by a demolition job in the press. "Another play at the National Theatre and another dud," declared one critic briskly.

Though he understandably blanches when you mention those notices, this engaging, humorously intelligent man looks not the least bit battle-scarred when we meet at the Young Vic to talk about the adventures of Monkey and the misadventures in an adaptor's life. Directed by Mick Gordon, with whom he has a long-standing association, the show is billed as both a rumbustious travel epic and a spiritual quest. Teevan laughs when he recalls how David Lan (the Young Vic's learned artistic director, who came up with the project) thought it was "a very risky idea, because nobody had heard of the original book apart from himself". He was unaware of the lowbrow spin-off – the cult Eighties TV series, also called Monkey – "a very kitsch, very cheap Japanese show with very bad post-syncing and extremely knowing about how cheap and tacky it is". The demons that the screen hero and his chums had to fight off tended to take the shape of nubile maidens. So the piece scores a double-whammy at the box-office – attracting not just parents who were fans with their kids, but groups of unaccompanied adults out for a nostalgia evening.

The show is apparently awash with "Wushi", an oriental martial art. I suggest that they should include a character called Wushi Washee. Monkey is action-packed, and Teevan has had fun writing stage directions such as "A mountain falls on Monkey", "They eat the three guards and fall asleep" and "China in full-blown turmoil". These, we agree, are at the opposite end of the spectrum from the microscopic demands of Beckett's "window imperceptibly ajar".

Harder to pull off theatrically is the Buddhist wisdom. This religion, argues Teevan "is in many ways the most unyielding to drama". Why? "Because it doesn't operate on a binary opposition of good and bad. One has one's nature and one cannot escape it – the tension comes from acting against or with that nature." As it journeys to the paradoxical wisdom that you can only be true to yourself by forgetting yourself, and that true fullness is emptiness, the novel is like a self-help guide to selflessness. How do you put that on the stage? "Well, we're trying to play around with the idea of emptiness and fullness by showing how theatre is created out of nothing. At the start, Monkey [played by the irresistibly charming Elliot Levey] is like a child, all ego, and his journey is learning how to use his ego selflessly. At which point there is no longer a need for drama" – the illusions vanishing, I take it, leaving a bare stage.

Teevan is keen to stress that the show is not an attempt to reproduce either the novel or the television series, and that there has been a lot of collaborative give and take in the rehearsal room. This leads us to talk about how free it's permissible to be with an adaptation, and about the degree to which an individual can assert intellectual property rights to a theatre piece.

Which leads us, in turn, to the sensitive topic of Tantalus. Called out to Denver for five weeks, Teevan ended up staying five months, fixing a huge script that was deemed to be, in parts, too literary and to lack a proper ending. Aside from the aesthetic considerations, I wondered how he felt morally about his role. Having spent two decades on this project, didn't John Barton have the right to fail on his own terms – if failure did, indeed, loom? Clearly, Teevan was in an extremely difficult position. (At the English premiere in Salford, he was loudly accused during one of the intervals of being a "butcher" by Germaine Greer.)

"John has a right to fail," he replies, "but I don't think that Peter Hall and the 20 actors who had to go out there every night should be put in the position of failing because of the author's right." Success, then, at any price? The piece, as staged, was certainly a once-in-a-lifetime feat. Teevan contends that it would take a book to do justice to the production history and the complex issues arising from it.

Tantalus was not the first time that Teevan had had a run-in with another writer. Arguing that adaptations often fail through being slavishly faithful to the original, he makes a contrast between his relationships with two contemporary Italian writers (Giuseppe Manfridi and Edoardo Erba) whose work has been introduced to the English public in his verbally clever and witty versions. "Italian is a much more unified language. Even their slang is almost literary. We have a stratified language." So Erba was "very unhappy" with the hilariously coarse Irish demotic, skilfully attuned to the rhythm of the running, which Teevan gave to the joggers in the metaphysical play Marathon. Manfridi, however, was delighted with the outrageous punning in the translation of Cuckoo, his reworking of the Oedipus myth in which a young man and an older woman get stuck in the act of anal intercourse. Manfridi is just about to return the compliment in an Italian version of a Teevan drama. "We give each other licence to make it work."

With Tantalus, he reveals, "I learnt so much, so intensively." One fruit is a new translation of The Bacchae for Peter Hall. It goes into rehearsal next spring at the National. Teevan can take comfort from the fact that, unlike Edoardo Erba and John Barton, Euripides has been dead these 2,400 years.

'Monkey', Young Vic, London SE1 to 19 Jan, 020-7928 6363

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