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Wednesday 7 December 2016

Hampton fashions triumph out of failure

Published 27/02/2010 | 05:00

Hampton initially tried to break into the precocious university theatre scene, auditioning for parts in plays, but failed. Then he entered his play for a university competition -- it was rejected.

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But then his luck turned. As he recalled in an interview last year: "A couple of weeks later, the board (of the drama society) came to see me and said the play that won was too expensive to stage, and as my play was extremely cheap, they had decided to replace the winning play with mine."

The play proved a hit at college and, emboldened, Hampton sent it to the legendary London agent, Peggy Ramsay. Days later, Hampton got a phone call from Ramsay, who insisted he come straight to London.

The following day, Hampton sat in Ramsay's office and listened as she telephoned her contacts to demand that somebody stage his play. Bill Gaskill of the Royal Court agreed; three months later, his play premiered at the Royal Court's small upstairs theatre; a month later, it transferred to the West End.

Hampton, the losing student playwright and failed student actor, became the youngest writer ever staged in the West End. He was 20.

When Hampton graduated from Oxford, a couple of years later, the Royal Court appointed him as its first resident writer. There, he wrote his second play, a comedy set at Oxford called The Philanthropist.

Its initial reception was as inauspicious as that of his first. The Royal Court didn't like it and shifted it around between directors. Eventually, almost a year later, they found someone to direct it, and rehearsals started.

"The rehearsals were pretty miserable," Hampton recalled later. "They often are when you're doing a comedy. At a certain point, you can't imagine that anyone is ever going to laugh at the play."

This time, though, it seemed worse. The theatre's director, Bill Gaskill, came in to see what was wrong. He took a long hard look at the issues they were having and then said, "I'm sorry, but it's the play." The cast, director and writer sank into despondency.

But the first preview was just nights away and there was no option but to go on. Then, at the very beginning of the first preview, there was a burst of laughter from the audience. "And it just continued," recalled Hampton. They had a hit, a palpable hit.

It became the Royal Court's longest-running comedy ever.

After The Philanthropist, Hampton's agent Ramsay sat him down for a chat. "You've got a choice," she told him. "You can write the same play over and over for the next 30 years, and you'll probably get even better at it, or you can decide to do something completely different every time."

"As a matter of fact," he replied, "I have started writing a play about the extermination of the Brazilian Indians in the 1960s." "Well, that'll do it, dear," said Ramsay.

Since then, Hampton has been a prolific playwright and screenwriter, regularly doing something completely different. As well as the Brazilian Indians (Savages), he has tackled dictatorship in Argentina (in the film Imagining Argentina), modern art (in his translation of the hit French play, Art), musicals (Sunset Boulevard) and adaptations.

It is one of the latter for which he is probably most famous. In 1985, Hampton adapted an 18th-century French novel by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos about two aristocrats trying to outdo each other with their ability to seduce.

Les Liaisons Dangereuses opened at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford with Alan Rickman in the male lead, transferred to London, and then to Broadway, where it picked up multiple awards.

Then, in 1988, Hampton adapted it again, for the screen, as Dangerous Liaisons. With Stephen Frears directing, and iconic performances by John Malkovich and Glenn Close as the sexually sparring leads, it won Hampton an Oscar and took six other nominations.

Laclos's original novel has sometimes been seen as an indictment of the degeneracy of the pre-revolutionary French aristocracy; in Hampton's hands, though, it is a timeless study of sexual malevolence and self-inflicted tragedy, with a compelling story and -- always a bonus -- flamboyant costumes.

So the decision by The Gate to stage it now should be seen not as any kind of commentary on the degeneracy of our own political class but, more simply, as a reaction to the general despondency by offering the prospect of a sumptuous entertainment.

With Michael Barker-Caven at the helm and a strong ensemble, the production is likely to be good -- and if it is good, it's quite likely to be a hit. It is in preview this weekend and opens on Tuesday. Booking is at www.gatetheatre.ie or 01 8744045. We could all do with a distraction.

colinmurphy@independent.ie

Irish Independent

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