Patrick Marber: From major to minor

Patrick Marber's latest is a lyrical piece performed by teenagers. Has the writer who made his name with the adult-themed Dealer's Choice and Closer gone soft? Carole Woddis asks him to explain
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If Patrick Marber's name came up in a quiz show and you were asked to list words associated with his work, you can bet your life that epithets such as "searing", "emotionally intense" and "muscularly macho" would figure prominently. Dealer's Choice, Closer, Howard Katz and last winter's After Miss Julie - Marber's strafing 1940s update of Strindberg's study of class and sex - have all had a bit of "kick 'em in the goolies" effrontery about them.

If Patrick Marber's name came up in a quiz show and you were asked to list words associated with his work, you can bet your life that epithets such as "searing", "emotionally intense" and "muscularly macho" would figure prominently. Dealer's Choice, Closer, Howard Katz and last winter's After Miss Julie - Marber's strafing 1940s update of Strindberg's study of class and sex - have all had a bit of "kick 'em in the goolies" effrontery about them.

But things are not always as they seem. There is another side to the writer one critic has dubbed "the finest British dramatist of his generation", a self-confessed melancholic with a tendency to the compulsive (in his twenties, it was gambling, now reduced to regular poker sessions). Next month, the latest offering from the Marber pen will slip quietly into the National Theatre to form part of the opening bill of NT Shell Connections, the National's nationwide youth-theatre scheme, which culminates in an annual week-long festival on the South Bank in London.

Now in its 11th year and more expansive than ever, with about 600 young people and 12 companies taking part, it is described by Marber as "an unremittingly good enterprise". Marber is one of 10 playwrights - the others include the Tony-nominee Bryony Lavery, Snoo Wilson, Richard Nelson, April de Angelis and Philip Ridley - lassoed by NT Connections' team to take part.

In Marber's case, it didn't take much persuasion. Rewind six years to Marber sitting in the Olivier, watching Philip Ridley's Sparkleshark enthusing 1,000 teenagers. Recalling it while he sits at home in his spacious office near Smithfield Market, central London, Marber says: "It was one of the best nights I've ever had in the theatre, and I thought, 'Oh, I'd love to write one of those one day.' I thought it was an absolutely beautiful play." After a fair period of reflection and a few other jobs in between - screenplays of Patrick McGrath's Asylum and his own Closer, a radio play - Marber finally came up with something he thought might do.

The result, The Musicians, is an extraordinarily tender, lyric piece quite unlike anything with which Marber has previously been associated; a play of hope, dreams and wonderful imagination. Its potency lies in its deceptive simplicity and delicious juxtaposition of The Who's Pinball Wizard and Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony.

A school orchestra goes to Moscow to give a concert. The only problem is, their instruments are impounded by the authorities. Alex, a young Russian cleaner, comes up with an inspired solution. An entente cordiale is consummated. East and West join hands through music.

Where, I wondered, had the idea originally come from? The brief determined the content, says Marber: write a play that can be performed by any number of people in a variety of circumstances. "You might have a posh girls' school doing it, or an inner-city comprehensive in Birmingham. I went with the brief because I liked the idea of creating something that wasn't exclusive, that anyone could do - though, admittedly, not everyone has a school orchestra, by any means."

Using the orchestra also relieved him of having to specify characters by gender or race: "I could write a character for clarinet, who could be male or female. I liked that because it had a kind of democratic sensibility to it, which is what I think NT Shell Connections is all about."

All the same, would audiences buy the idea of Tchaikovsky being mimed by 20 young people - a technical challenge, if nothing else? Marber admits that he was worried. But seeing it tried out first by the National's own youth group, then at the scheme's workshop-retreat weekend in Keswick in the autumn, convinced him it would work. "It was magical," he says, with some surprise in his voice. "I suppose I ended up writing a piece that conveyed something of how I felt when I saw Sparkleshark - moved by seeing teenagers working together, because every time you open a newspaper, they're portrayed as violent, dysfunctional and dangerous."

Performed by pupils from Castleford High School, in Yorkshire, The Musicians will kick off the festival on Wednesday, along with Bryony Lavery's wild Shakespearean rap-satire, Discontented Winter: House Remix. The festival will finish with The Musicians (impressively, in the National's largest auditorium, the Olivier) the following Tuesday, performed this time by Theatre Royal Plymouth's Young Company in a double bill with Snoo Wilson's equally idiosyncratic Bedbug: The Musical.

Perhaps Marber's chequered teenage years had something to do with such unfeignedly unfashionable enthusiasm. He moved schools a lot - prep and boarding, home tutors, crammers - and it was only, he says, some enlightened English-teachers and the school play that helped to turn things around.

The former turned Marber on to literature, and got him to see "this other universe". In the case of the latter, he believes that, as for many others, it saved him - as well as getting him hooked into theatre. "It's very sexy, a school play," he says. "I liked the whole thing of it, the secret of being backstage during a show, this other world. I think a lot of kids do have their most profound childhood experience, being in plays. If you're one of the younger ones, you interact with older kids and they treat you as equals because you're all doing this thing together. It's one of the few opportunities in a school - which is such a hierarchy, such a strict society - to have this interaction, as well as being a fantastic opportunity to fall in love with the older girls or younger girls or whatever."

All of this seems in stark contrast to the perhaps carefully cultivated public persona that plays such as Closer and After Miss Julie and Marber's alternative-comedy associations with Steve Coogan, Armando Iannucci and Chris Morris might inevitably lead one to imagine.

You sense that the appeal of NT Connections and the birth of The Musicians was something that sprang from a very different part of the individual who can also say, regarding his three or four years as one of the progenitors of Alan Partridge: "There's only so long, when you've got a big ego like I have, that you can bear to be the man behind the man. I quite fancied being the man."

This is also the person who can confess in the same breath that, yes, he likes the control of being both writer and director of his plays - as he was for Dealer's Choice and the phenomenally successful Closer (by now it's been produced in more than 100 cities round the world) - but will also declare it a relief to have decided to hand direction over to other people. "It can be very lonely being a writer-director," he confides.

Recent experiences with Michael Grandage (for After Miss Julie) and Mike Nichols (for the film of Closer, with Julia Roberts, Natalie Portman, Jude Law and Clive Owen, due for release at the end of the year) have been wholly positive. Both have been "fantastically inclusive and generous", he declares adding, "though that's not to say I won't direct in the future. I like to keep my options open". We return to humour, understated but apparent in The Musicians. Our discussion prompts the thought that now might be the time for him to write a pure comedy. "I feel I've earned the right to."

Just for a second, a note of chippiness emerges. "When I started as a playwright," he says with just a hint of the old, quite well-rehearsed curmudgeon, "I was a comedian having a go at playwrighting. Over a period of time, I became a playwright with the moniker 'ex-comedian' attached. Now, I'm a fully fledged playwright." It's a statement that could imply how others at last are taking him seriously. Perhaps more importantly, it indicates that Patrick Marber, the one-time comedy writer, now feels that Marber the playwright can "have a go at a comedy and not be worried about it".

Marber is nearing 40, so it's been a while coming. "I hope," he says, "I've got another 10 plays in me. I feel I've only scratched the surface."

'The Musicians' is part of NT Shell Connections, at the National Theatre, London SE1 (020-7452 3000; www.nationaltheatre.org.uk; www.shellconnections.org) 7 to 13 July

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