Twenty years ago, the American playwright John Logan happened across a fact that struck him. It was this: that in 1932 in a London bookshop Alice Liddell Hargreaves, the model for Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, met Peter Llewelyn Davies, inspiration for JM Barrie’s Peter Pan. She was 80, he was 35. Both immortalised as extraordinary child characters; both fragile, damaged adults in real life. What, he wondered, could they have said to each other?
Now, two decades later, the thought finds fruit in a new play, Peter and Alice. It is about to open in London’s West End, the second drama in the inaugural Michael Grandage Company season, with the alluring prospect of title roles played by Judi Dench and Ben Whishaw.
Why the wait? Well, Logan has been busy – he wrote the Tony-award-winning play Red, but he has also been steeped in film scripts for the past 15 years (the most recent being the Bond blockbuster Skyfall). Perhaps, too, the delicate interplay in Peter and Alice between fictional and real worlds, youth and age, was best tackled by a more mature playwright?
“I’ve been thinking about it for 20 years and I wasn’t ready to write it until three years ago,” agrees Logan, now 51, amiably. “So yes, I think frankly it takes a little heartbreak, to really begin to value what innocence might mean. And the more Michael Grandage and I talked about it, the more I realised that, beyond the biographical and literary traffic of the play, it was really about what it is to grow up.”
The piece certainly has a dreamlike, elegiac tinge. As the two characters warily converse, their memories begin to press in and we learn of what they endured. The first world war was devastating for both of them. The question of growing up gains added poignancy in Llewelyn Davies’ case, because of Peter Pan’s obstinate refusal to do so. The story drew Logan into the delicate issue of artists and their muses – particularly tricky in this case, because there has been so much later speculation about the nature of the authors’ interest in the children that were their inspiration.
“To me there is no question,” says Logan. “They [the children] were not sexually molested. However, that does not mean the influence of Barrie and Carroll was not deeply unhealthy … I think both men lived lives of a certain amount of repression. And it would have been antithetical to their natures to risk the romantic, tender relationship they had with the children by anything physical or too ‘adult’. And yet, the point in the play where Alice and Peter really come in harmony is when they talk about what it was to be made to grow up too fast. Because the thing that marked them as children was being fixated upon: being given too much emotional pressure by an adult.”
The play is permeated with the conscious irony that Logan too is taking dramatic licence with the historical characters. And it is daring structurally: he brings ghosts and fictitious characters on to the stage and has them mingle with his “real” protagonists. As a seasoned screenwriter (other successes include Gladiator, The Aviator and Hugo), he cherishes the stylistic freedoms particular to theatre.
“Film is very linear,” he explains. “Abstraction in cinema is very difficult to do in ways that aren’t clichéd, whereas on stage you can do that better than anything. Film is very visual: you’re always looking for visual metaphors to tell emotional stories. So in Skyfall, for example, the bulldog that sits on M’s desk became a visual metaphor for M and then it pays off at the end when Bond gets it. Theatre can be about language – it can only be about language, and [yet still] be riveting.
“I like the claustrophobia of theatre,” he adds, with a mischievous smile. “That’s why none of my recent plays have intermissions. I like the fact that you’re going to be there until it’s done.”
That claustrophobia was certainly evident in Red, which confined the audience with the two characters, Mark Rothko and his apprentice, in the artist’s studio. In Grandage’s premiere at the Donmar Warehouse, actors Alfred Molina and Eddie Redmayne primed canvases on stage and the auditorium smelt of turpentine.
“Red was the first play I’d written in almost 10 years and I said it was not so much a play as an anti-film,” says Logan, laughing. “It was two characters in a room, talking for 90 minutes. If you deliver a screenplay with a scene longer than three pages you’re in desperate trouble! Screenplay writing is like writing a haiku. You have to make sure every single word justifies itself. Whereas with theatre, you can have a complexity of language. The audience doesn’t expect reality or traditional narrative, they’re open to whatever storytelling you’re going to give them.”
Logan was a successful playwright for many years before he ventured into cinema. His first play, Never the Sinner, about the Leopold and Loeb case, premiered in Chicago in 1985; his first film was 1999’s Any Given Sunday, directed by Oliver Stone. There was, he says, a steep learning curve.
“I’d written a speech and he [Stone] said, ‘Al Pacino could give you that speech in a look.’ And he was absolutely right. Part of my education was realising when to let the actor, the cinematographer and the director do the job. Ingmar Bergman said ‘build your films on faces’, and that’s exactly what movies can do. You don’t need a lot when you have Daniel Craig’s eyes.”
Ah yes, Mr Bond. When I meet Logan, he is about to be whisked away on a 007 assignment: he is writing the next two films and has to zip off for a meeting. One suspects that not even the sort of creative torture endured by Bond could prise plot details from him, but he can say that he hopes to build on Skyfall in examining the complexities of Bond’s character.
“Fleming’s courage in showing Bond’s fear and vulnerability and depression was really interesting and something that a modern audience can accept,” he says. “I think Skyfall demonstrated that they want more layers to that character. And those are the layers that Fleming wrote.”
Logan’s next project for stage also tackles a tough cookie: the legendary Hollywood super-agent Sue Mengers. Bette Midler will return to the Broadway stage to play her in Logan’s one-woman show, I’ll Eat You Last, in April. Again, Logan explores the gap between apparent invincibility and actual vulnerability: “It’s that woman realising her time was passing that I found interesting.”
In a sense, the play pulls together both sides of Logan’s career: screen and stage. But Logan, eloquent enthusiast for both forms, confesses that it’s his first love that goes deepest.
“For all the movies, I’m still just a theatre rat,” he admits, cheerfully. “I’m never happier anywhere in my life than when I’m in a rehearsal room for a play.”
‘Peter and Alice’, Noel Coward Theatre, London, to June 3 www.michaelgrandagecompany.com
‘I’ll Eat You Last’, Booth Theatre, New York, from April 5, www.illeatyoulast.com