Denise Mina on reimagining Brecht for the Royal Lyceum: “You really have to admire the sheer balls of the man”

For her take on Brecht’s Puntilla And His Man Matti, Denise Mina has fixed the gender politics, with Elaine C Smith taking the lead role. Interview by Joyce McMillan

Denise Mina's adaptation of Brecht's Mr Puntila And Her Man Matti for the Lyceum has a female lead, Mrs Puntila, played by Elaine C Smith.
Denise Mina's adaptation of Brecht's Mr Puntila And Her Man Matti for the Lyceum has a female lead, Mrs Puntila, played by Elaine C Smith.

In the Circle Bar at the Lyceum Theatre – just before an afternoon rehearsal – Denise Mina is laying it on the line about the differences between novel-writing and theatre-making. “When you write a novel,” she says, munching her way through a small French almond cake, “you really only have one collaborator, and that’s the reader. You write the words, the reader’s imagination does the rest.

“Theatre, though, is really intensely collaborative. In theatre, you can’t chisel words into performers’ mouths. If the words don’t sit right in the actors’ mouths, if they don’t fit their accent or whatever, then you have to change them; and the whole process is a completely collective one in that way.”

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When Mina talks, people tend to listen. It’s not that her manner is bossy or imposing; on the contrary, she’s small, bright, youthful, and full of laughter, still sporting a slightly punk look at the age of 53. Yet she is one of the queens of Tartan Noir, the burgeoning crime-fiction genre that has put Scotland and its cities on the global literary map over the last two decades. At the last count, she had 14 published novels to her name, most of them featuring strong and complex female protagonists; they include huge successes such as her debut novel Garnethill (1998), and The Long Drop, her 2017 fictional exploration of the 1950s Peter Manuel murder trial.

Mina has also written for theatre and radio, and for the Hellblazer horror comic book series; and there’s no disguising the quicksilver sharpness of her mind, as it ranges across life and art, cultures and genres, forging connections here, analysing differences there. So when it comes to her latest theatre project – creating a new stage version for the Lyceum and the Citizens’ Theatre of Bertolt Brecht’s 1940 play Mr Puntila And His Man Matti, which will feature Scottish stage and screen star Elaine C Smith as a female Puntila – it’s perhaps not surprising that Mina seems completely at ease with the profound difference of tone between her work and Brecht’s.  Where her novels are dark, gothic, full of deep psychological and societal undercurrents, his plays are full of the dry, bright light of reason applied to the layers of bourgeois obfuscation and nonsense that clutter our culture, obscuring fundamental power relationships; but as a strongly political thinker and writer herself, Mina is fine with that, just so long as she can have her way with the play’s old-fashioned gender politics.

“Elaine and I have worked together before, on a Play, Pie And Pint lunchtime play I wrote called Ida Tamson, about the matriarch of a Glasgow gangland family, and we just had so much fun. So when David Greig rang and asked if I’d like to do this, with Elaine playing Mrs Puntila, I was thrilled. I read the play and loved it, except for the fact that I was appalled by its sexual politics, in which all the women are just treated as servants or chattels, and that’s supposed to be a comedy point.  So I was delighted to be doing this with the gender shift. For a modern audience, it actually makes it easier to focus on the play’s themes of class and power, without being distracted.”

Brecht’s play – written with his collaborators while the Brecht group, in flight from the Nazis, were living in exile in Finland, and waiting for US visas – tells the story of an old-fashioned landowner, Puntila, who is a cruel and oppressive boss during his brief hours of sobriety, but a charming and affectionate human being when drunk. Matti is his new chauffeur, a no-nonsense working-class character who talks straight back to him; and their conversations and adventures allow Brecht to tease out all the layers of self-deception and delusion Puntila uses to disguise from himself both the extent of his power, and the fact that he routinely abuses it. Even in translation from the original German, Puntila’s language and personal style is strikingly similar to the that of the current US President; and Mina says that it’s a real joy, at this moment, to be working on a text that analyses what she calls the “disinhibited populism” of authoritarian leaders, with such sharpness and wit.

“I think you really have to admire the sheer balls of the man,” says Mina, “producing this stuff, with everything that was happening in Europe in 1940. We’re working on this production with Murat Daltaban, the Turkish director who created Rhinoceros for the Lyceum two years ago; and he sees these connections too – even quite close verbal connections – with the current situation in Turkey.

“And there is something just so energising about Brecht, and his absolute emphasis on making things clear to an audience.  He always recognises that we’re all just in a big room telling a story, and he’s not trying to manipulate your emotions.  He’s taking the audience on a journey all right, but it’s not necessarily an emotional journey; instead he’s giving you something to think about, and something to look at.

“What’s also true, though, is that Brecht’s theatre has this huge urge to entertain. Puntila And Matti is one of his funniest plays, and it’s got these strong elements of vaudeville and low-class slapstick that just create real belly-laughs. You can see how well this suits actors like Elaine, and the brilliant Steven McNicoll, who’s playing Matti; and my job is to create a text that makes all this work, here and now.  So that’s why I’m spending a lot of time in rehearsal. I’m still writing as we go along; and honestly, I’m loving every moment.”

Mrs Puntila And Her Man Matti is at the Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, from 28 February until 21 March; and at the Tramway, Glasgow, from 25 March until 11 April