Brief Interviews with Hideous Men at the Edinburgh Fringe

Student play based on David Foster Wallace’s short stories goes to Edinburgh after sell-out run in Oxford

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

The title of David Foster Wallace’s Brief Interviews With Hideous Men is pretty self-explanatory. It is a collection of postmodern short stories featuring a series of wretched men who are questioned until they reveal their tortured pasts.

Two Oxford students, Josh Dolphin and Penny Cartwright, decided that these hideous men deserved to be seen, and not just read about, so they adapted Wallace’s stories for the stage. After a sell-out run in Oxford, the pair are taking the performance to the Edinburgh Fringe this August.

Establishing what parts of Wallace’s original text would translate onto the stage was “at once easy and difficult” according to Dolphin. Since the interviewer’s questions are omitted from Wallace’s short stories – replaced merely with a “Q” – the one-sided dialogues lend themselves well to theatrical soliloquy. One after the other, the men take to the stage and reveal their long-suppressed idiosyncrasies, often with hilarious results. Each character seems more bizarre than the last.

“It’s about insecurities,” explains Cartwright. “Taken to the parodic extreme.” These people don’t just exist on the news, these are ordinary men in the most mundane of settings. You may even recognise a few people you know. These are men who boast about their sexual prowess, their proclivity for having a “good time”, and yet they stand grinning before us on the stage, completely alone.

Wallace’s text is structured as a transcript of the interviews. The role of interpretation – being recorded and being misunderstood – has therefore become an important feature of Dolphin and Cartwright’s adaptation. “People are so afraid these days that their words will be twisted and publically scrutinized,” says Cartwright. “But these men think that this is their chance to tell their story straight – unedited.”

Both directors are huge fans of the book, and have remained faithful to Wallace’s vision. “It’s great material to work with,” Dolphin explains, noting a poignant relevance to the current climate of social media. “The dilemmas of being recorded tie nicely with modern ideas of how people present themselves, the discrepant personalities we exhibit online and in person”.

The directors are keen to develop the show further ahead of the Edinburgh run. There will be a new cast, and Dolphin will be taking on a role or two himself. Cartwright and Dolphin have decided to make use of an omnipresent radio in their Edinburgh show too. It is just as important to the directors that there is someone listening as it is that there is someone talking. They did not want to fall into a monotonous cycle of monologues. “We want to resist Talking Heads territory as much as possible,” says Dolphin.

Wallace’s prose is famously difficult, but the directors believe the show can be enjoyed without knowing the book. “I know it’s clichéd, but there really is something for everyone,” says Cartwright. “Lots of people told us that they went away and read the book after seeing the show”. Cartwright and Dolphin promise that the originality of the material is perhaps its greatest asset. “Wallace is not often adapted,” says Dolphin. “It’s very exciting”.

Brief Interviews with Hideous Men will be running at the Space on the Mile, Edinburgh, from 24 to 29 August. Box Office: