Most of us, confronted with a big red button that says “Do Not Touch”, give it a wide berth. Not playwright Richard Bean. His recent plays have taken the sort of subjects that cause rows at dinner parties – immigration (England People Very Nice), climate change (The Heretic), terrorism (The Big Fellah) – and plunged in. Moreover, they have been laugh-out-loud funny.
“I guess some playwrights would treat the subjects with a bit more sobriety, gravitas,” Bean admits. “Me, I just want to boil an issue down and take the Mickey out of it. But I’m not a flippant man. I think these are serious issues.”
Not everyone sees eye-to-eye with Bean’s approach. England People Very Nice, which focused on successive waves of immigration in London’s East End and was staged at the National Theatre, drew criticism for its comic handling of racial stereotyping. Bean remains unfazed by any negative response: “I’m very, very proud of that play ... It was a play about racism and the sociological process of immigration if you like.”
“The way I tackle those big subjects is with humour. I don’t have any interest in sensationalism as a dramatist. No one’s going to have bottles stuck up their backsides in my plays, I don’t do that stuff. The thing I can do is keep an audience awake with jokes. If I’m a plumber, gags and jokes are the main tools in the bag for me.”
Now Bean is back with his tool bag at the National, working again with the artistic director Nicholas Hytner, who staged England People Very Nice. This time, however, they are on rather less thorny ground. Bean’s new play is One Man, Two Guvnors, a new version of Carlo Goldoni’s effervescent 18th-century comedy The Servant of Two Masters.
Bean’s play is a complete rewrite, setting the action in 1960s Brighton among small-time thieves and gangsters. A quick glance at the script suggests that it could be very funny. It is certainly rich with verbal quips. “What’s that word for someone who likes inflicting pain?” asks one character. “Police officer,” suggests another. “Sadist,” corrects a third.
But, with its roots in Italian commedia dell’arte, the play also calls for slapstick comedy. Goldoni, dismayed by the self-indulgence with which actors would improvise around a given scenario, tried to stem the vulgarity by writing a fixed script. But the stock characters and enthusiasm for clowning still poke through: this is a piece that calls for some bravura comic acting. Bean has left room throughout the script for lazzi, or set pieces of comic business, and says that he and Hytner are deliberately aiming at a “popular and accessible” show.
To that end, perhaps, they have called in James Corden as Francis (Truffaldino in the original), the hapless comic lead who manages to get himself hired simultaneously by two demanding individuals. It is a peach of a part for a comic actor, and should suit Corden, who last appeared at the National in The History Boys, but has since become a household name in Britain as Smithy in the television comedy series Gavin & Stacey.
But for all the knockabout comedy, there is a dark thread running through the play. The narrative depends on one character having murdered another. There is also a fairly frank appraisal of humanity’s capacity to be driven or derailed by desire, lust, spite and greed. Is Goldoni making a profound point?
“The students of commedia dell’arte will say this is an analysis of the human condition,” replies Bean. “Everyone is aspirational; everyone is a snob; everyone needs to eat and get laid. I went to see Didi Hopkins, who works solidly in the commedia dell’arte field, and she drew the map for me of the stock characters and how they fit into the hierarchy of society. You and I think it’s a giggle with a load of pratfalls in it, but it can be philosophical.”
Most good comedy has a serious, if not cruel undertow – even a gag as simple as slipping on a banana skin. And it can also be hard work for the creator. Bean suggests that the sharp wit that characterises his plays doesn’t come easily.
“Comedy is always very hard work,” he says. “There’s a lot of rewriting. If you write a funny speech that is meant to open the second half and it’s not funny, the night of the first preview you’re up all night rewriting it.”
Despite this, he seems hooked. He took a degree in social psychology and worked as an occupational psychologist, before first stand-up comedy and then written drama lured him over. He says that lines for plays often come to him in the middle of the night: “You know you’re a writer if you have to get out of bed to write down a line.”
Both his backgrounds – the analytical and the caustically comic – find expression in his plays. But I wonder whether he ever feels that he should resist a gag? Is he himself a servant of two masters – the gravity of the subjects he tackles and the levity that he often deploys? And does he ever feel the comic master has too much sway?
Take The Heretic, staged recently at London’s Royal Court. This was an acerbically funny comedy about climate change. “The heretic” of the title was a fictitious academic (played by Juliet Stevenson), whose research about sea level in the Maldives did not fit with her department’s position on climate change. But several environment writers questioned the validity of the play’s scientific critique and objected that the play succeeded because of its comic flair.
Bean observes that comedy “is just my method” and says that he would not define himself as a global warming sceptic: “What will audiences take from The Heretic? I’m talking about the science here not the jokes. If you asked them they might say ‘the sea level in the Maldives isn’t rising.’ And there’s your science. Somebody find out why it’s not rising in the Maldives. That is how science moves forward. That’s a good question.”
“I’m sceptical in the true sense of being sceptical,” he adds. “All scientists are sceptical ... Everybody’s wrong, you just keep pushing back the frontiers.”
His interest, he says, is in provoking people to question what they hear, read and think. That impetus, the sensitive subjects he addresses and the comic style he deploys might land him in arguments, but he seems unlikely to change tack anytime soon.
“I’m much more comfortable writing the counter-intuitive side to an argument,” he says. “If you take the issue like aid to the third world, I would write a play from the point of view that it’s destroying the third world. I would never dream of writing a play suggesting that we need to give more aid to the third world. Not from a moral point of view, don’t get me wrong, but because there’s no drama in it.
“The question is: where is there a play? And only very rarely is there a play in the orthodoxy. You’re selling the orthodoxy? People have already bought the orthodoxy. You look at the orthodoxy, chop it up and get people to look at it.”
‘One Man, Two Guvnors’, National Theatre, London, www.nationaltheatre.org.uk, +44 (0)20 7452 3000, previews from May 17, opens May 24.