Shining a different light on the RSC’s Rome Season, Phil Porter is stepping away from Shakespeare’s serious plays set in Ancient Rome, and looking at the comedic side of the historical city.
Taking influences from famous playwright Plautus, who was the most popular comic playwright of Ancient Rome. Phil explained to me the concept of his play and why this genre has worked so well for thousands of years.
It is about a clever servant who is working for this horrendous man who is a general in the Roman army and his mistress, the woman that is the partner of his old master has been kidnapped by this horrible general,” Phil explained. “And she the servant has by chance found herself now working in the house where her mistress is being kept enslaved. So the clever servant is trying to find a way of escaping with her mistress from this horrible general. But it is also a kind of picture of all of Ancient Rome and all the levels of society.”
With the RSC’s celebration of Ancient Rome Phil explained that they were looking to do something funny, and he had a lot of experience in reading Plautus. “I read some of his plays when I was at Birmingham University 20 years ago so I was sort of aware of it, and it is just really up my street because it is farcical, funny and quick. So that was the main source of inspiration and I’ve obviously thrown in lots of my own kind of ideas and tried to make it as fun an evening as possible,” he said.
It strikes me a challenge to write comedy, particularly getting it right and making it work. In regards to the process of writing a play, Phil said that this one started out by being very logical and very mathematical. “Every writer does it a bit differently really and even for me, every project is a little bit different. With this one, with a play that has a lot of physical comedy to it, it is quite mathematical in a way to know how it all works early on,” he said. “I kind of plotted it out and structured it because you want it to all work like clockwork and speed up in the right places for the physical comedy to make sense.”
What makes writing comedy easier, is having several weeks of rehearsal and Phil emphasised the importance of trial and error. He explained: “You just have to trust your instincts and trust that what you are finding funny, other people will find funny. In theatre most of all, if the story works and people care about the characters it is just so much easier to make people laugh rather than feeling like you’re a comedian just telling jokes. Phil does have a strong presence in the rehearsal room, it isn’t the type of process that involves him writing the play and taking a step back, he is constantly working on the piece. They recently invited a small audience of twenty to watch what they had been working on so far, and he emphasised how valuable this is. “We knew it was funny but it is great to hear the reactions and it is great for them to get a bit of energy back from that audience,” he said.
“I think for people coming to the theatre it is one of the best experiences the theatre can offer, being able to laugh communally with other people.”
He explained it as “you need to be able to walk before you can run” and then expanded on that by saying: “We have 350 props in the show and hundreds of entrances and exits so I think the audience will really see how hard we have all worked to make this thing work like clockwork.” He said the pressure is really on, because it’s a challenge to be able to create a piece of theatre and call it a comedy. “It’s always quite a big challenge to say ‘this isn’t a play that might also amuse people, it is an out and out comedy’ and so if I haven’t made you laugh then I have failed which is a scary challenge because there is nowhere to hide.”
Aside from the inevitable challenges, he really does love writing about comedy, particularly because a lot of it is such a collaboration. He said: “I’m working with a really great director, and that experience of trying to figure out what is going to get the best laugh and what will be the funniest is a really interesting experience.”
Phil has had an extensive career writing plays that have been performed across the country, in the West End and more. However he said that working with the RSC always feels like coming home, as he grew up in the area. He said: “It is obviously great to have plays on in a theatre that is really well resourced, so you are always working with the best actors and designers and technicians. Also just the theatres themselves are fantastic, I’ve been lucky to have plays on in both the main theatres and I love them.”
There has been such a huge influex of farcical plays, with the rise in popularity of shows like The Play That Goes Wrong. Phil showed his appreciation for this, but pointed out: “It’s impossible not to be influenced by all these very old plays and a lot of the comedy now that is new and original still owed a great debt to the people that were writing such a long time ago that were figuring out comedy for the first time.”
In terms of creating an impact, Phil’s aim is to create a piece of theatre that just makes people laugh. He said: “Most of all I want the audience to have a really fun raucous night in the theatre and they will remember laughing a lot. What I love about writing comedy is getting it right and making a whole room full of a few hundred people all laugh together at once – which is just the most brilliant thing.”
Phil Porter’s Vice Versa open at the RSC on the 11th of May until the 9th of September, and tickets can be found here.