Interview: Liz Lochhead, poet

Who do you turn to for advice when you land a job that almost nobody else has ever done? That was the question faced by Liz Lochhead earlier this year when she became Scotland's makar, or national poet, after the death of Edwin Morgan.

Your average poet - even one of Lochhead's standing - rarely finds themselves thrust into the limelight with politicians and pundits hanging on to their every well chosen word. Being makar changes all that. So how would she deal with the responsibility?

As the first female poet laureate, fellow Glaswegian Carol Ann Duffy had two years' experience on the poetry front line.

She was Lochhead's first port of call. When Lochhead asked her what she should do, Duffy had a level-headed answer: "Nothing any different from what you would want to do normally - only people take your phone calls."

They also send you a lot of emails. Now, a typical week for Lochhead can involve anything from reading at a conference about creativity in an ageing population to fielding a call from a daily newspaper about her opinion of the census.

It is a responsibility she relishes. "It's strange to be speaking out publicly about poetry and language," she says. "It might well be a help to get taken a bit more seriously."

It also means more people will take note when Lochhead steps out in her other job as a playwright.

By a neat coincidence, the first main stage production of one of her plays since she became makar is also one that clearly showcases her talent for writing in verse. First seen in a 2008 production by Theatre Babel and now revived by Edinburgh's Royal Lyceum, Educating Agnes is a big-hearted comedy translated from Molire's L'cole Des Femmes.

And because the 17th-century French playwright opted to write his play in rhyming couplets, that's exactly what Lochhead has done.

"You trust the theatrical structures and strictures," she says, admitting that Molire's 12-syllable, unstressed Alexandrine metre does not work in Scots, but that his rhyming does.

"The most important thing is the sentences, which often run on beyond the rhyme. It's important to keep the sense going.

"There's a way of slightly cheating in letting the rhymes disappear in the ear of the audience for a while and bringing them up when it's a particularly funny one. The audience do like the outrageousness of it, so it's important that it is in rhyme."

The comedy is one of those archetypal set-ups at which Molire excelled. The middle-aged Arnolphe reckons the best way he can guarantee himself a faithful wife is to raise a young girl in monastic seclusion and marry her, in all her innocence, as soon as she comes of age. Such a misguided - not to mention immoral - attempt at social engineering inevitably comes unstuck. Innocent she may be, but the virginal Agnes can't help falling in love with a more appropriate suitor. It's the eternal story of idealistic youth triumphing over cynical old age and one that packs a feelgood punch.

"They're incredibly beautifully built high comedies," says Lochhead, a great champion of Molire. "Everybody needs a big popular comedy."

Educating Agnes is the most recent Molire comedy Lochhead has translated, after Tartuffe and Misery Guts (originally Le Misanthrope). It is part of a lineage of Scots reworkings of the French dramatist's plays that stretches back via Rikki Fulton's A Wee Touch O' Class in 1985 to Robert Kemp's Let Wives Tak Tent (another version of L'cole Des Femmes) which appeared in 1948.

Lochhead puts the popularity of these MacMolires down to the lack of 17th-century Scottish playwrights, a mutual love of comedy and, above all, a shared appreciation of language.

"However differently, say, Gregory Burke writes from John Byrne, or however differently I write from Daniel Jackson, Scots popular writers are all linguistically and verbally exuberant," she says. "We're not subtexty. We relish language and shifts of register."

When you hear Lochhead's blend of everyday 21st-century language and highfalutin phrases, you might assume she has taken liberties with the original. On the contrary, she argues, she has frequently been faithful to the letter.

"You've got to make it live, but the starting point is the play. I'm trying to do it beat by beat to his ideas and his arguments. A speech of mine might increase or reduce by two lines, but that would be about it."

The setting of her play is a "stage world" where the era is Molire's own, but the language is drawn from the intervening centuries. Much of the comedy is in the unexpected clash of cultural references.

"It's set in a provincial town in France, but people can mention Einstein or Hello! magazine, they can be anachronistic," she says. "I feel free to do exactly what I think Molire was doing. Molire was incredibly slangy in one line and high-flown in the other. He was famous for his shifts of register, which Scottish people are. Putting Molire into a vigorous language helps. Molire - he's Scottish too."

Educating Agnes is at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, Friday until 7 May

This article was first published in Scotland On Sunday, 3 April, 2011

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