You cannot be serious

Ronald Harwood is involved in a new West End production. But the veteran playwright laments the absence of incisive drama and rarely goes to the theatre, he tells Rhoda Koenig

The first problem Ronald Harwood had to deal with in adapting Francis Veber's comedy was the title. The play is about a successful publisher who, with his friends, gives a weekly dinner for clumsy misfits, whom they feign to respect; the guests then spread the panoply of their foolishness before their smirking hosts. The French title of the play by the author of La Cage aux Folles, and of the movie version, was Le Dîner de Cons, but West End language is not yet so robust. "The alternatives were difficult to find," says Harwood. "I thought of Dinner for Twats, but that wasn't quite right." Then he hit upon the perfect solution: See You Next Tuesday.

"Do you understand the title?" Harwood asks. "It's an acronym." I hadn't come across the phrase before, but I figured it out in about one and a half seconds. The large "U" on the poster in place of the second word helped. "I think it's very witty," he says firmly, before I can say what I think. "It's especially witty if someone doesn't understand it, and you have to explain it to them." So that's the target audience, then.

The punters will also include fans of Nigel Havers, who plays the nasty publisher, and of Ardal O'Hanlon, who repeats his Father Ted role of the goofy dunce. Patsy Kensit ("she's very good") is the dizzy girlfriend whom the publisher tries to hide from his wife, but unauthorised sex is not, for a change, the subject of the French farce. The play is a worm-turns joke, in which the sweet-natured idiot, without meaning to, nearly drives the publisher into bankruptcy, insanity and divorce. Isn't it, though, another example of a currently popular form of entertainment - holding innocent, vulnerable people up to ridicule?

"No, because the publisher is immediately criticised by his wife as cruel, and when O'Hanlon comes on, your sympathy goes to him immediately. He has a gift that I've known in only one other actor ever: Albert Finney. The audience loves him as soon as he comes on. O'Hanlon is beguiling. He charms you. What he does in the play is done out of the best motives."

Indeed, O'Hanlon's catchphrase could be: "I was only trying to help", though that self-centred phrase doesn't normally soften the heart.

Harwood agrees, though, that the fashion for derision is regrettable. "Someone should go on that awful game show to give Anne Robinson her comeuppance - she'd be in tears. Though she is a very good journalist - she started out as a journalist, you know. She's a nice woman. I wish her well."

Harwood is credited as the "adapter" of Le Dîner de Cons, though it's still set in Paris. "It doesn't work in an English setting. The whole system of the tax inspector coming to the house [as a result of O'Hanlon's helpfulness] doesn't exist here. But it's also better if the characters have the volatility that one associates with the French. It needs that bubble."

Will the actors use French accents, then? "Oh, God, no! The whole point of my adaptation is that you don't think about the language. It becomes natural." Harwood says he has "humanised the play here and there". But, I tell him, when I watched the film with his script on my lap, I found that, apart from a couple of brief, bland sentences, the English version was identical to the French. It was a translation rather than an adaptation.

"It was the same?"

"Yes."

"Well," he says, very firmly indeed, "then it was very accurate. I must have caught the essence of it."

See You Next Tuesday is a rather lightweight change of pace for Harwood - certainly after his own previous play, Mahler's Conversion, which drew universal critical hoots of derision. The South African teenager who arrived in London to attend Rada and become a star is now, at 68, the author of many plays (including The Dresser), novels, and film scripts (including The Pianist). Classical music, which he has loved since he was 10, has been the subject of several of his works, sometimes combined with another subject that, from his early years, made a deep impression on him.

"When the war ended, I was taken, like all other Jewish children, to see the newsreel films of Belsen and Auschwitz. I was haunted by them. I've never been able to expiate it." The last remark is disturbing, but it may be a non-Freudian slip. Harwood says he is unlikely to write more plays in the vein of Taking Sides, which considered the degree to which the great conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler was implicated in the Nazi atrocities. "I think I've done enough." He regrets, though, the absence of serious drama - "London isn't as bad as Broadway, where I think there's one thing that isn't a musical. The theatre used to be important in a way in which it isn't now. But it will be again. It will be. It's too important not to be." I wondered what he had thought of David Edgar's recent play, which examined the war guilt of Albert Speer, but he hadn't seen it. "I don't go to the theatre often - only if someone invites me."

Born in poverty, Harwood now has a large house in the country, a flat in Paris and a flat in Chelsea, west London, where we sit in a morning room decorated with portraits and landscapes, a Russian icon and Chinese antiques. "'I'm at home everywhere and nowhere,' as Graham Greene said." But New York is no longer a home from home: Harwood says he won't subject himself to the "puritan fascism" of its smoking ban. "Don't believe what you read," he says, with a smile and an elegant flick of his cigarette. "Smoking is very good for you."

Smoke-free zones may be a travel deterrent, but the threat of bombs doesn't keep him from going to Israel. "I won't let the terrorists win." He recently went there for a revival of The Dresser. "It was very quiet, with everyone staying away. The only other person in town was Richard Gere." The play, in which actors carry on through the Blitz, is especially meaningful to Israelis, he says. "It's about surviving in a time of terror, using culture as a shield. Have you seen the play? Oh, you saw the movie? The play is better - no, no, they're both good."

Harwood has never, he says, had trouble filling a page. He is as energetic as ever. He has written the script for two forthcoming films - Taking Sides, with Michael Caine, Jeremy Northam, and Charlotte Rampling, is about a former Nazi who is the target of a hit man; Being Julia, based on the novel Theatre, stars Annette Bening as a middle-aged woman who fears that she is losing her allure. Adapting Somerset Maugham's work, Harwood has had to make its subtleties more overt. In the book, the heroine, realising that the object of her seductive gesture is regarding her with horror, turns the manoeuvre into one that is merely flamboyant. Harwood, by contrast, has Bening suggest to her friend that they have an affair. He answers, "Don't you know I play for the other side?"

Harwood's next play is about John Amery, the son of the MP Leopold Amery, who was hanged during the Second World War for treason. "Rebecca West wrote about the case in The Meaning of Treason, but it wasn't known until recently that John Amery was Jewish. His anti-Semitism was fed by by self-hatred."

Just before I leave, Harwood tells me that his wife comes from a noble Russian family. "She's the five-greats-granddaughter of Catherine the Great." This information is so startling that my instinct is to earth myself with a joke that I think will not be taken amiss by the author of See You Next Tuesday: "Gosh, it's a good thing her tastes weren't inherited. It would be hard to fit a horse in here."

"Ah," says Ronald Harwood, "but you should see our place in Sussex."

'See You Next Tuesday' opens on 2 October at the Albery Theatre, London WC2 (0870 060 6621)

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