THEATRE / Making room for improvement: The actor didn't like it; the playwright agreed. Now PVT Wars is back, but bigger. Sarah Hemming reports

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The Independent Culture
WHEN James McLure's PVT Wars opens at Watermans Arts Centre, Brentford, this week, there's one thing that audiences can be sure of: it's twice the play it used to be. Written as one act in 1978, focusing on three injured Vietnam vets in hospital, the play has expanded - gaining a second act, several extra scenes, a proper third character and an interval in the process. At least the bar staff will be happy.

But McLure didn't doctor his play with bar receipts in mind. One night in 1984 the Texan playwright was at a performance of the original (while the one-act version has been produced in Britain several times, this is the premiere this side of the Atlantic of the longer play): 'The actor playing Natwick came up to me after the show and said he thought his part was underwritten,' he recalls. Rather than punch him on the nose, McLure agreed - and decided to do something about it. The actor's observation was a catalyst for him not only to expand Natwick but to bring the whole tenor of PVT Wars up to date.

'The play was first written in 1978 - before Apocalypse Now, three years after the last vet got out of Vietnam,' says McLure. 'There were very few Vietnam plays at that point and people hadn't really begun to assimilate the experience. In 1978 the general tendency was to want to forget about the war. A vet was some scary alien in our midst who we wanted to forget - the first question any vet ever got asked was, 'Did you kill anyone?'.

'By 1984 the image of the vet had changed: I think we'd learned to distinguish between the war and the individuals. In 1984 I no longer saw these people as helpless victims. I saw them as damaged goods and people with enormous difficulties, but not as helpless victims.'

McLure realised that his play was very much a product of its time. 'I tried to write some new scenes in which the men had more strength - I tried to make the play not as bleak. The characters are no longer completely burnt-out cases with no hope.'

His decision to intervene raises a fascinating question. There must be many a youthful novel or play sitting on a shelf to embarrass its author, but is it advisable, or even artistically truthful, for the older author to rewrite it with the benefit of wisdom and technical assurance?

'There are some plays I wouldn't touch,' says McLure. 'I would never rewrite Lone Star (his best known play), despite the fact that if I wrote it now I would do so very differently. The playwright who wrote it is a younger man, working with a whole different set of principles.

'As for PVT Wars I wrote that when I was 28. Now, at 42, I think I might not have embarked on it - I would be intimidated by the subject nowadays. But it was a fascinating experience trying to get back into the heads of the characters - and of the younger version of me - to add to it. I think I felt less cynical in those days, although I wrote a darker play then than I would now. Of course, the advantage of adding to it several years later was that I'd seen lots of productions, so I knew its defects. For instance, the character of Silvio is often played OTT as a violent psychotic. I've given him an extra scene in which a sensitive actor would realise that he has a gentler side.'

But McLure added width, as well as quality. The play would benefit, he decided, from a change in structure.

'In a one-act play, however good, after about 45 minutes the audience will have figured out the four or five ways it could end and be ahead of you. So you have to wrap it up quickly before they get bored. With the two-act version the audience lives with the characters for longer and cares about them in a different way.

'I knew where I wanted to expand it and at what point the audience got restless and was ready for an intermission. That's the advantage of waiting seven years to do your rewrites.'

McLure points out that although the variation in length between one act and two might be quite small, in spirit the two forms differ considerably. An interval, he argues, has a big psychological effect on the audience.

'Even if all it means is having a drink in the bar, there is a short period of meditation about the play. This means that in the second act you can take it round new corners.'

'It breaks at a really good point,' says Stephen Moyer, the director of PVT Wars (who has also directed the one-act version). 'The audience leaves with a particular impression and when they come back things have completely changed.'

Expanding a one-act play into two acts involves more than adding a few lines and cutting the text in half, says McLure. The change in structure lends it a different contour and a different pace: 'Watching the short version you often sense the actors feeling, 'We've got to step this up'. Whereas an audience that knows it will be coming back has more patience. The actors can indulge in a moment that reveals the character; they can take a pause they wouldn't be able to in the short version. There's a different feeling and speed to it.'

McLure found making the jump in scale interesting, but difficult. He feels that his experience mirrors that of many young playwrights who have few opportunities to develop from the 90-minute mindset to writing big beefy plays for large casts.

'I started by writing plays for a late-night slot where we had to keep it to an hour. My inner clock was set then to accomplish whatever I was going to in 55 minutes, then get off. When I eventually wrote a longer play (Thanksgiving) I found it very difficult. I was given over two hours and I was like a drunken sailor. I wrote this play that must be the longest two and a half hours in American theatre. It just won't work no matter what I do to it. It's like one of those undiscovered Russian classics that people put up - only it's no good. There's too much philosophy in it; it's too languorous. I tried to say everything I knew about life in two hours.'

McLure adds that while 'for me the best writing says things as succinctly as possible', he would welcome the chance to go big again and to test what he learned from expanding PVT Wars and from his mistakes in Thanksgiving.

'I'd love to be commissioned to write a big play with 60 actors. It seems to me we are losing the art of writing the long play. Technically you have to be very honest to do it. I think it depends on how good your bullshit detector is: the biggest danger of writing a long play is that you fall in love with one character and give him or her great long speeches that aren't necessary. In a one-act play it's harder to do that.'

And he does have one epic waiting in a drawer: 'There's a play I've worked on for years about my family that's about the size of War and Peace. I'm going to have to wait till everybody's dead, then cut it down to size.'

'PVT Wars' opens tonight at Watermans Arts Centre, Brentford, Middlesex (081-568 1176)

(Photograph omitted)