Theatre: Jenni Fagan on adapting her novel The Panopticon for the stage

Look up the word “panopticon” and you’ll find that it refers to a design for a prison or other institution, originated by the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham in the 1790s. Bentham imagined a circular building, with a central surveillance point from which a warder could see every other part of the circle. A single guard cannot watch every part of the curve at the same time; but if the surveillance point is designed so that the guard can see out but the inmates cannot see in – creating what Bentham called “a sort of invisible omnipresence” – then the inmates will never know whether they are being watched or not, and will be under strong pressure to obey the rules.

Jenni Fagan PIC: Mihaela Bodlovic
Jenni Fagan PIC: Mihaela Bodlovic

Bentham called it The Inspection House, as well as The Panopticon; and it’s an image of such literal and metaphorical power, in a society where we all live under ever more pervasive electronic surveillance, that it’s not surprising that writer Jenni Fagan refused to consider any other title for her debut novel, even when publishers told her that readers would not understand it. By the time The Panopticon was published, in 2012, Fagan was already 34 years old, and had been writing every day since she was seven. Born in Scotland in 1977, and brought up entirely within the care system, by the time she reached her 30s she had also worked as a musician in rock bands, published and performed some of her poetry, and become a writer and artist with a profound sense of her own voice; and she was not about to change the name of the first novel she had felt compelled to write, the story of a brilliantly imaginative, sometimes visionary 15-year-old girl called Anais, who seems trapped by the criminal justice and care systems, but still has the strength and the wild imagination – full of mythical beasts and magical cityscapes – to dream of other possible lives.

“I did hesitate to write a novel that could so easily be interpreted as autobiographical,” says Fagan, “but I also knew that this was the book I had to write. It is a work of fiction, with strong surrealist elements; and although I notice, particularly in the UK, that there tends to be this intense interest in my own background and story, what I want is for people to focus on the work, and on the way the care system in the novel acts as a metaphor for the way everyone in society conforms to structures that are imposed on them, and enforced through different kinds of surveillance.

“All my life, I’ve been an absolute outsider to most ‘normal’ social structures; during my time in care, I lived in working class families and middle class families, and I never belonged anywhere. That puts you in a complex position as a person, but in a strong position as an artist; you can observe those structures from a distance, and start to imagine ways of changing them.”

The Panopticon won instant acclaim on its publication in 2012. The novel was shortlisted for half a dozen prizes, translated into at least eight languages worldwide, and optioned by Ken Loach’s film company, Sixteen Films; the film version, scripted by Fagan herself and directed by Jim Loach, will be released in 2020. And now, the National Theatre of Scotland is about to launch its new stage version of the book, also scripted by Fagan, and directed by brilliant young Scottish director Debbie Hannan.

“I am quite a ruthless writer,” says Fagan. “I find that my ego is no use to me when I’m writing or editing; I just want to get the work right, and that’s a useful quality when it comes to adapting for film or stage. So when Jackie Wylie of the NTS suggested a stage version of The Panopticon, I didn’t hesitate. I love theatre for its intensity and immediacy, and I have been quite closely involved in the production, right down to advising on hairstyles and clothes. There does come a moment, though, when you have to let go of a play, or any adaptation, and let it become whatever it’s going to be, in that art-form. It’s like a good song; every recording is different, but the song is still there.”

As well as looking forward to the play’s world premiere next month, Fagan is also currently navigating a packed schedule of other commitments, not least to her eight-year-old son, born just as she finished The Panopticon in 2011. She is about to complete an Edinburgh University PhD about structural metamorphosis in society, and is looking forward in 2020 to the publication of her new novel Luckenbooth, about a century of Edinburgh life. Beyond that, she has another two novels in mind, and a couple of additional film projects; and she is also currently Gavin Wallace Writer In Residence at Summerhall, where she is working on a project that involves, among other things, engraving her poetry on old bones found in the building, Edinburgh’s former vet school.

“It is a busy time,” she says. “But now that I’ve turned 40 I feel that this is my decade – the moment when I’m old enough to know what I’m doing, yet still have the energy to do more. I’ve always been prepared to work hard at the craft of being a writer, ever since I was a child, and I’ve recently lost some friends in ways that remind you that you won’t be here forever. All I’ve ever wanted is to create a body of work that’s of real creative value; and if I can complete that over the next decade I may just step back after that, and take up knitting.” Joyce McMillan

The Panopticon is at Platform, Glasgow, on 4 October, and at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, from 10-19 October,