Laurie Sansom on bringing new life to literature

Morven Christie as Lise in The Driving Seat leaves a trail of unanswered questions in her wake
Morven Christie as Lise in The Driving Seat leaves a trail of unanswered questions in her wake
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LAURIE Sansom explains why literary adaptations can be as rewarding as new plays for the National Theatre of Scotland

LAURIE Sansom is standing in the National Theatre of Scotland’s rehearsal room showing me a notice board. It’s the kind of thing you’d see in a police procedural, with photographs, documents and other pieces of evidence offering clues to solve a crime. In the midst of all this, someone has written a phrase: “What are her thoughts? Who can tell?”

The lines are taken directly from The Driver’s Seat, a short novel by Muriel Spark published in 1970. It’s a beguiling tale about Lise, a woman from a northern country who ventures south on one last fateful journey. Teasing the reader, Spark makes it impossible to be sure what Lise is thinking – as the quote on the notice board reminds us. Told in the upbeat manner of a comedy, the novel is actually an unsettling murder mystery that keeps the reader guessing to the end.

It was the Edinburgh-born author’s favourite of her own books and Sansom can see why. He came across it when doing background reading for a production of Spark’s The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie a few years before he became artistic director of the NTS. He’s been determined to put it on stage ever since. “For the first time ever, I read a book and went, ‘I have to do this on stage.’”

Happily, his production of Miss Jean Brodie for Northampton’s Royal & Derngate theatre had met with the approval of Penelope Jardine who looks after Spark’s estate (as it did with audiences: one critic called it “little short of perfect”). That made it easier for Sansom to get her permission to adapt The Driver’s Seat – the first time it 
has ever been done on stage – and to receive expert feedback about his adaptation. “We’ve received lots of notes from specific detail to bigger-picture things about 
what the book’s larger meaning might be.”

His approach has been to stay true to Spark’s dialogue and to capture something of her detached, ironic voice, while seeking theatrical solutions to the problem of adapting the novel’s multiple locations and shifts in time. By framing the story as a crime investigation, complete with six investigators, he hopes to give the audience a way into a story in which the protagonist’s motivation is left deliberately ambiguous.

“It asks so many questions about what is going on in Lise’s head that it is essentially dramatic,” he says. “It doesn’t over-explain. On stage, it’s very difficult to find an equivalent of the authorial voice that knows what the characters are thinking. What’s dramatic is the audience having to make decisions about behaviour and what people say, and to work out what they’re actually thinking. The Driver’s Seat is the epitome of that in that we never find out what’s going on in Lise’s head.”

Played by Helensburgh-born actor Morven Christie (of Twenty Twelve fame), Lise is a short-tempered 34-year-old who, having grown weary of life in an accountants’ office, agrees with her colleagues that it’s time she took a holiday. Her true intentions, however, are impossible to fathom. On her journey to an unnamed Mediterranean country, she leaves behind more red herrings than clues. “The enigma is the point,” says Sansom. “How much is it possible to know someone through their behaviour, what they wear, what they say, what they look like, who they speak to?”

The book’s themes may be serious, but its tone is quite the opposite. The director adds: “It’s darkly comic. There’s a disturbing conclusion, but along the way she meets a host of extraordinary eccentrics who seem equally trapped in their bubbles.”

The Driver’s Seat is part of a strand of adaptations that will be a feature of Sansom’s programming for some time to come. Already this year, we’ve seen a Gaelic-language staging of Compton Mackenzie’s Whisky Galore (or Uisge-Beatha Gu Leòr) and coming up on the Edinburgh Fringe is the premiere of Lee Hall’s musical adaptation of Alan Warner’s The Sopranos, retitled Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour.

Sansom has more in store for 2016. “In the case of Spark, we’re taking a Scottish writer but an unfamiliar book and we want to share that more widely and introduce people to more of her canon,” he says. “Adaptations are quite a good way to create something new and at the same time explore a particular moment in literary or cultural history.”

In applying 21st-century theatre techniques to classic works of literature – which includes non-fiction as well as fiction – he believes the NTS can show us familiar works afresh. He is equally committed to showcasing Scottish playwrights. “You want those original plays in the mix,” says the director, whose first production for the NTS was Rona Munro’s all-new historical trilogy, The James Plays. “We’re going to do an original drama by a Scottish writer every year.”

Now nine years old and approaching what he terms its pubescent phase (“We’re going to get bolshie!”), the NTS is building on its achievements while questioning a few assumptions. Having no theatre of its own means the organisation must continually ask itself about the range of material it is doing and the audiences it is trying to reach. But with work under way on a £5.8m headquarters in the Speirs Wharf regeneration area of Glasgow, the company is increasing its capacity to develop productions on every scale. “The new building must be an engine room for what we do throughout the country and internationally,” he says.

In terms of the global picture, he’s ready to capitalise on the touring success of shows such as Black Watch, Let The Right One In and The Strange Undoing Of Prudencia Hart by actively seeking foreign collaborators. “The opportunity is now to collaborate with some really exciting international companies and artists to make something brand new,” says Sansom, who, for example, is looking to ask questions about nationhood and identity with artists in Quebec. “We’ve got such great relationships with various companies that it could be an exciting new strand.”

Above all, he is keen for the NTS to be seen at all scales, which means big stages as well as small. The current production of Yer Granny starring Gregor Fisher is a marker for the way Sansom is moving. “The conversation about Yer Granny started with thinking we were not playing enough on number-one stages with work that is of broad popular appeal,” he says. “We’ve set ourselves the goal of going into all the number-one houses every year. We’re also going to do a rural tour every year.”

Before all that, though, his attention is on The Driver’s Seat. “My admiration for the book has increased hugely,” he says as he heads back into rehearsal. “If we hit a problem, the chances are either we haven’t noticed something in the book or we haven’t put it in the script. We go back to the book a lot. Spark is a bit of a genius.”

Twitter: @MarkFFisher

• The Driver’s Seat is at the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, from 13–27 June, and at Tramway, Glasgow, from 2-4 July