Picking his way through the reproduced detritus of Philip Larkin's life (tea chest, stacks of cardboard boxes), Sir Tom Courtenay stops at the shoes resting, toes apart, at the centre of the mocked-up stage. The gleaming black lace-ups of stiff leather will help him, he says, to get into the character of the poet. "I'll be wearing a suit, too – not a thing I do a lot of. I always wear these easy-going clothes." He indicates his denim shirt and taupe suede trainers. Is he easy-going? He sighs. "I wish I were."
We were in the rehearsal room of the West Yorkshire Playhouse, in Leeds, where Courtenay is currently playing Larkin in a one-man show, Pretending to Be Me. He is credited in the programme with its authorship, which makes him cross. "I didn't write it – it ought to say 'devised' or 'compiled by'.'' A few years ago, the actor Michael Godley sent him a show of his own devising, hoping that he would appear in it; while Courtenay liked the idea, he thought that version too close to a poetry reading. He set about putting together a show of his own, drawing on Larkin's letters, interviews and essays, as well as his poetry. Pretending to Be Me has plenty of jokes, not just for their own sake but to take the edge off the chilling topics Larkin dealt with. "His mother dies, the hedgehog dies (the subject of a poem), he's going to die, but, the more we get of death, the more jokes he makes."
Courtenay also felt the show needed a fair bit about Larkin's unhappy childhood. "I think at school they would have given him a hard time. He was 20 times cleverer than anyone, he was tall, he couldn't see, and he stammered." Home was no refuge from his classmates. In the show, Larkin describes it as "dull, pot-bound, and slightly mad", his mother delivering at every meal a "monotonous, whining monologue... full of funk and suspicion... I never left the house without the sense of walking into a cooler, cleaner, saner and pleasanter atmosphere".
Larkin spent the last 30 years of his life in Hull, where he was librarian at the university. He arrived in 1955, the year Courtenay left the town, his birthplace, for University College London and, later, the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Courtenay's father painted ships; his mother earned a few shillings making fishing-nets from twine looped over hooks on the cupboard door. Though he hadn't known Larkin's work before being asked to do the show, Courtenay was a keen reader from childhood, of poetry and prose. In his tender memoir, Dear Tom, Courtenay includes many of the letters that his mother, Annie Eliza, wrote to him in London, among them one that follows an anecdote with the observation: "Now this might not seem much of a story but to me it is that woman's poetry. I'm sure everyone has got poetry." The letter ends, "I'm your father's poetry." Courtenay quotes it now, shaking his head sadly at the world it evokes.
Other than changing clothes, donning glasses, and slicking his hair back, Courtenay, now 65, will not try to look like Larkin, who was much taller, bulkier, and balder. "I draw the line at shaving a swathe through my plentiful head of hair. So anyone who thinks I should be bald will have to listen with his eyes shut." As well as having dissimilar appearances and histories, Larkin and Courtenay do not share a taste for the theatre. One of the former's happiest moments, he wrote, was at the theatre when he realised that, after the interval, one need not go back.
The show takes place on the day Larkin moved house; surrounded by the records and artifacts of his life, Courtenay thinks, he might be moved to reflect on how it had turned out as it did. "I like the idea that he's dead and hasn't realised it." The title refers to the business of being a full-time poet, which Larkin abhorred. "It means giving readings and lecturing and spending a year at a university as poet in residence..." he wrote. "I couldn't bear that ... I remember once saying, 'I can't understand these chaps who go around American universities explaining how they write poems: it's like explaining how you sleep with your wife'. Whoever I was talking to said he'd do that, too, if his agent could fix it."
Limiting the show to Larkin's own words – even if some of them, in his letters, weren't meant for public view – has resulted in some areas of his life being ignored. He never talks about his girlfriends, for instance (a bachelor, Larkin had several, sometimes simultaneously). "It never occurred to me," says Courtenay, "that he would." And even if he would, Courtenay wouldn't want to know, and doesn't think we should. "He's a writer – that's what interested me. He can put his feelings into words better than most of us. The girls – that's neither here nor there."
Courtenay also says that, as he worked to capture Larkin's personality, "I became fonder of him". That wasn't the experience of a lot of people after the publication of the poet's letters, which offer, with their contemptuous jokes about blacks, women, liberals, and Irishmen, and their enthusiasm for porn magazines – something to offend everyone. Courtenay thinks that Larkin's unsavoury side, which he showed only in private, to his male friends, is something else that's neither here nor there, its importance much exaggerated by the jealous and puritanical. He will be mentioning Larkin's enjoyment of pornography, but "keeping it light", treating it as far less important than his love of jazz. "I don't show him looking at the pornography." We agree that this would not be a good idea.
It is time to leave, but before Courtenay walks me to the door he turns back to the platform where he has been working to create the presence that inhabits those shiny shoes. He places them side by side, facing front, their toes just touching the line of tape that marks the lip of the stage, and steps back to regard the effect. "There,'' he says. "I think they're much happier now."
'Pretending to be Me', West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds (0113 213 7700; www.wyplayhouse.com), to 21 Dec
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