Irish Playwright Enda Walsh on bringing Roald Dahl’s most savage story 'The Twits' to the stage
Enda Walsh: 'There’s real cruelty in The Twits. We’ve injected a heart into it’
‘It’s just teasing, isn’t it,” says Enda Walsh, rocking back on the sofa in his north London home as his small dog stretches out on the cushions beside him. “I think that’s why I was attracted to The Twits. Teasing. And tricks. They’re hugely creative people, but wired in a very bad way.”
Walsh, the 48-year-old playwright of lacerating, character-driven works such as Disco Pigs and Ballyturk, speaks like someone for whom words are only just sufficient. He punctuates a rapid, Dublin-accented monologue with sound effects, gasps, scary faces, frightening imitations and paroxysms of hilarity.
We’re here to talk about his new play, The Twits, an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s memorably nasty story which opens at the Royal Court next week. Directed by John Tiffany, who collaborated with Walsh on the hit musical Once, it stars Jason Watkins and Monica Dolan.
The Twits is one of a clutch of short books that Dahl wrote around 1980 to fulfil a contract with his publishers Knopf, when (according to his biographer Donald Sturrock) he was ill, fractious and coming towards the end of his tumultuous marriage to the actress Patricia Neal. Born from a single entry in Dahl’s notebook reading “Do something against beards” – he was a lifelong enemy of facial hair – it’s one of his darkest and most subversive books, and revolves with ghoulish dedication around the activities of Mr and Mrs Twit, a hairy, filthy old couple living in a windowless house who play tricks on each other, slaughter passing birds, and ceaselessly torment their family of enslaved monkeys.
To an adult, The Twits may seem a book teeming with fury and hatred, with its vicious old pair trapped in a cycle of rage and revenge (worms hidden in the spaghetti, a glass eye rolling at the bottom of a beer glass) as they head towards an eventual come-uppance at the hands of some enterprising animals. To a child, it’s another of Dahl’s comfortingly Manichean revenge stories, in which bullying and injustice are summarily punished and the bad are brought low by the good. As Walsh observes, it’s also “very, very funny, full of snot and dirt and beards.”
Dahl’s work is currently also enjoying one of its intermittent spurts of popularity on stage and screen. Dennis Kelly and Tim Minchin’s Matilda the Musical is playing simultaneously in the West End and on Broadway, Sam Mendes’s production of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory continues to pack in the crowds in London, and Steven Spielberg has announced his intention to direct a film adaptation of The BFG next year, starring Wolf Hall’s Mark Rylance. But anyone expecting The Twits to offer a page-to-stage translation of Dahl’s gloating fantasia is likely to be startled by Walsh’s approach, which bolsters the original’s slim plot with a larger cast and a reimagined narrative.
As a child, Walsh wasn’t a Dahl fan; it was his nine-year-old daughter Ada who introduced him to his grotesque charm. “So many of his stories are about revolution, aren’t they?” he says. “They’re about trying to topple nasty people.”
To Walsh, the Twits are “bored individuals. They haven’t done anything, they’re not making anything, they don’t seem to have jobs. In our version of the story, Mr Twit gets so bored that he takes a pan and starts smashing his wife over the head with it.”
These new Twits are also terribly posh, running wild on a country estate that Walsh has transplanted to Roald Dahl’s home village of Great Missenden in the Chilterns. “I thought it’d be great, given the logic of the world of the Twits indoors, to see what they’ve turned their English garden into,” he says cheerfully. “All that wonderful English folk stuff: carousel music, Morris dancing, floral dances, brass band sounds. There’s a lot of that. And in the Twits’ garden, it’s very dark and creepy.”
Walsh has lived in London since 2005, but most of his plays have circled around Irish characters. Aren’t these the first upper-class figures to enter his work? “Well, yes,” he laughs, “but I’ve met a lot of them. There are many dirty, scruffy people in the world, and the Twits are the most revolting, but my first thought was – of course, they must be incredibly posh! Because there’s that thing of…” and the soft accent transforms into a boorish patrician howl… “‘Oh, why bother! Don’t care about this!’, and so they look like crap.” He grins, slipping back out of character. “And I just love that sort of freedom, and eccentricity.”
The show is aimed at audiences aged eight and up and, says Walsh, “it’s our job to make sure that kids really feel the story, feel the sadness of it.” He looks serious. “I’m doing a kids’ show so, of course, it’s going to be robust and theatrical – but I think all theatre needs to be that. Connected with who we are, really basic human desires, wishes, dreams: our capacity to try and love, and then, you know, fall apart, combust, break down, restart ourselves.”
And this, it seems, is where The Twits joins up with the rest of Walsh’s work. With its roster of regional characters and its raucous, amoral lordlings, there’s a certain inevitability to The Twits being seen as a political play – but Walsh bats away the suggestion. “My aim for theatre was always that I wanted to know strangers,” he says. “I want to know what that stranger is, and where they are, and their history, and what their dilemma is, and whether they’re going to figure it out, or whether they can’t. So I’ve always thought it’s about humanity. That itchy, dirty thing, those moments when you feel your existence,” he rubs his hands together, face contorting.
And it’s humanity in extremis that most fascinates him: “That moment when you’re going, ‘I’m barely existing, I’m barely living, I’m sort of scratching a f------ existence out here’. Do you know what I mean? And examining that, with character. I don’t think I’ve ever written anything that I would say is political.”
I mention Hunger, the film script he wrote for the director Steve McQueen about the IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands. He laughs. “Well, probably. There’s a little bit of politics there.”
The Twits isn’t the only project Walsh has on the go – he’s written an opera that will have its premiere in Edinburgh this summer,
has at least one film script on the boil and is soon to announce another play.
But for now, his focus is firmly on The Twits and the delicate matter of off-setting Dahl’s taste for subversion – which Walsh shares – with a sense of humanity. “There’s so much cruelty in The Twits,” he says. “Giddy cruelty. I think we’ve injected a heart into it, without being sentimental.
“The Twits are pure vileness, but I think everything around them is just trying to breathe” – he mimes puffing and sobbing for breath – “among all these foolish rules and creepiness and danger. I watched a run yesterday, and I was thinking, ‘I don’t know if I’ve ever been involved in anything that just feels that dangerous at certain points!’ ”
He puffs out his breath and flops back, miming exhaustion. If this play is even a fraction as energetic and fun as its author, it’s going to be a riveting evening.