In thrall to obsession

As The Postman Always Rings Twice comes to the British stage, Rhoda Koenig asks the director why an amoral tale set in Depression-era California has such a grip on our imagination
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A struggle between two men for a tarty blonde who seems to be helpless but is really pulling the strings - that is the essence of James M Cain's notorious novel The Postman Always Rings Twice, a hard-boiled noir classic. It was made into a movie in which a luscious Lana Turner leads John Garfield to his doom, and another in which Jack Nicholson, looking even sleazier than usual, ravishes Jessica Lange brutally on her kitchen table. But Lucy Bailey, who is directing Andrew Rattenbury's adaptation for the West Yorkshire Playhouse, sees the story as less a tabloid tale than a "Greek tragedy".

That description would have been scorned by the good citizens of Boston and Canada who, in 1934, banned the novel. Cain's style, called by one critic "debased Hemingway", was shocking for its directness. He "gets down to primary impulses of greed and sex", another wrote, "in fewer words than any writer we know".

But, while many saw the writing as crude, others found it a fitting way to portray a world without God or much of a civilisation. The one great movie version of the book is Visconti's first masterpiece, Ossessione (1942); so frighteningly real is the anarchic passion let loose in Fascist Italy that one might almost be watching a documentary. The novel also inspired Camus to write L'Etranger (1946), whose title character feels a stranger among men, knowing neither guilt nor sin, only impulse.

In 1981, the composer Stephen Paulus and the librettist Colin Graham made Postman into an opera, Paulus saying that the power of the story derived from its two main characters having "no knowledge of good or evil". But that amorality, Bailey points out, is less a personal failing than an economic one.

"Frank and Cora have no other choice but to kill Cora's husband. People might say, 'Why don't they just go?', but they have nowhere to go." The story takes place at the lowest point of the Great Depression, in a lonely stretch of California whose starkness emphasises the social and moral emptiness of the milieu. Frank, a drifter, "is chucked off a truck and rolls, like a tumbleweed, into the Twin Oaks Diner. Once he's in it, he'll never get out."

Cora has married its proprietor, Nick, who disgusts her physically, as a way of avoiding the prostitution that is the only way she knows to stay alive. (One of the welfare administration's field workers of the time wrote of his horror at being stopped by a desperate woman who asked only 25 cents for her services, then, when he demurred, dropped her price to a dime.)

In order to put up with Nick, Cora has killed part of herself - the parallels between marriage and prostitution is a disturbing undercurrent of the story - and her infamous invitation to Frank ("Bite me!" she says, and is not content till he draws blood) is not a masochistic surrender but a demand to be shaken into life. "I took out that line," says Bailey, "and the other famous one." (When Frank carries out the murder, she becomes wildly excited, and, as she begs him, "Rip me!", they make love next to the corpse.) "You can see it, so I thought, there's no need to say it. But I'm starting to think about putting them back in."

Blunt though it is, the language is a delicate matter for Bailey, who has sought, with Rattenbury, to consider the dialogue of the novel, that of the movies, and what will work on stage today. For all its violence, the speech of Cain's hard-as-nails characters was of course created at a time when profanity was rare in speech and forbidden in print and film (Tay Garnett's movie of 1946 sounds almost genteel compared with the book). That elliptical toughness can now seem arch and self-parodic, a mannerism adopted to circumvent censorship. Acknowledging this, Bailey says, "We're trying to find a bridge between the novel and the speech of today, to come up with a voice that sounds authentic."

Bailey has been in this territory before. Five years ago she adapted Baby Doll, the Elia Kazan movie with a script by Tennessee Williams, for Birmingham Rep. That was also a triangle drama and, says Bailey, an "erotic thriller" in an isolated setting. She has reassembled for Postman many of the team that put together that much-praised production. Charlotte Emmerson will again play the killer-innocent (this time Patrick O'Kane will be the male lead), and the design, music and lighting will once again be created by Bunny Christie, Django Bates and Chris Daisey, respectively. "The music will be much less relaxed than it was in Baby Doll. It will have a higher level of tension. We're going to use a harmonica to represent Frank's wandering life, and the way he drifts into murder, and four violins for an eerie, ruthless sound. We need to set off the text rather than illustrate it." And the lighting? "As noir as we can get it."

The biggest challenge, of course, is in producing a work of cinematic dimensions - though this trope is ironic, considering that most people these days see movies in a multiplex or on their televisions, on screens much smaller than the vast stage at Birmingham, where Bailey used shutters to pinpoint the action and create a sense of voyeurism for Baby Doll, or the aptly named Quarry Theatre at West Yorkshire.

Still, Bailey has had to find methods of substituting for the camera's freedom of movement. She is relying on visual metaphor, a far more potent force on stage than in the realistic cinema. "We'll show the diner, the desert and the courtroom [where Frank and Cora are tried for murder] as parallel spaces, which you couldn't do in the movies. In the theatre you can involve the audience more, and help them to make that leap of the imagination, show that what is going on in one world resonates in the others. The diner is going to look as if it's made of pieces of rickety wood that could be blown away at any moment - a symbol of their lives. And the rear wall actually will disappear to reveal the desert, to show that behind Frank and Cora there is only a vast nothingness."

At the same time, Bailey will make sure that what context there is places the story firmly in the hungry Thirties. "I loved the Bob Rafelson movie of 1981, but the ethos of that movie was very Eighties. I didn't feel at any moment that those people had suffered the Depression, that they were acting out of desperation rather than self-indulgence." Frank and Cora, Bailey says, "have lived a lot in a short time, but they are not mature. Strangely, they even have a kind of innocence. You get the feeling that the people who sit in judgement on them are no better, or even less than they."

From Cain's novel, Bailey is also retaining the casual contempt for the foreign-born which, common in the Thirties, was erased from the 1946 movie, made right after a war in which Americans had to forget their differences and drop their hyphens. (Cora's loathing of her husband is intensified by his being Greek.)

But the most important ingredient Bailey hopes to restore from the novel, one excluded by the moralism of the Forties as well as the sensationalism of the Eighties, is Cain's "compassion for the inconsequential lives of these people. He likes these people and feels for them, and is angry that their lives are crap."

That compassion, Bailey says, is the answer to someone who might say, 'Well, I've read the book, I've seen the movie. Why should I go to the theatre?' "I think viewers will be moved by seeing the story on stage, by seeing the characters' vulnerability. I'm a huge advocate of watching real people. I think our version will convey the awful sense that the fulfilment of Frank and Cora's love is their own annihilation."

One rather tricky practical problem remains, though: how on earth is Bailey going to represent Frank's murder of Nick, when he tries to make the death look accidental by sending his car over a cliff? "Oh, that," she says. "That's a wonderful coup de théâtre."

And it is?

She smiles. "My secret."

'The Postman Always Rings Twice', West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds (0113-213 7700) Saturday to 16 October