Playwright Mike Poulton Tirelessly Adapting TWO Into The Nth IMPERIUM


Gil Kaan

Writer, Registered Critic


A Noise Within commenced their 26th season September 3, 2017 with the United States premiere of Mike Poulton's adaptation of Charles Dickens' A TALE OF TWO CITIES. Mike Poulton's last stint on the Broadway boards in 2015 netted his adaptation of WOLF HALL eight Tony nominations, with one win. We had the opportunity to ask a few questions of this acclaimed adapter/writer from across the Atlantic. 

Thank you for taking time out for this interview.

Your adaptation of Charles Dickens' A TALE OF TWO CITIES premiered at the Royal & Derngate in Northampton in February 2014. Any edits to your script from then to your current United States premiere at the A Noise Within?

Yes. I made several changes for the subsequent U.K. tour, after the first, very successful, production in Northampton. We had two extra actors, and I had to simplify the crowd scenes. In each venue we had a crowd of local volunteers, and the rehearsal time for them was limited, and the movement complex. It all worked very well.

What creative forces brought you together with A Noise Within?

A Noise Within must have heard about the successful British productions. I was very happy to approve a new U.S. production – I always seem to get a warm reception for my work from enthusiastic audiences in America.

How set do your scripts remain once you first produce them?  Or do you allow your work to be fluid for subsequent productions?

I rarely play the same script twice. I'm forever tweaking - and improving, I hope. I've done seven versions of GHOSTS – all of them with radical changes. An audience is a developing thing – so should be an adaptation.

What originally sparked your interest in classic literature? Did you read a lot as a child?

Yes. As a child I was a voracious reader and theatregoer, and a precocious critic. It continued through school, university, a career at Oxford University Press, and then into the theatre.

Your wrote your first adaptations in 1995 - Anton Chekhov's UNCLE VANYA and Ivan Turgenev's FORTUNE'S FOOL. Any particular incident that triggered your desire to begin adapting the classics?

Impatience with the unperformability of overly-literary translations. In the 60's translations – of Chekhov or Ibsen, say, were, for the most part, nit-pickingly accurate, but un-sayable for an actor. I felt the need to capture the spirit of a piece, and translate it into speakable language. Also, speech patterns tend to blur in academic translations. Astrov, for example, has different rhythms from Vanya, or Serebryakov.

What aspects of a classic work attracts you to want to adapt it? Do you read a book passage and envision it vividly acted out?

Yes. I always play scenes in my head. If the scenes I'm seeing demand to be performed on a stage, then I follow my instincts. Actors are very grateful for juicy parts.

I just saw the A Noise Within's production of your adaptation. Here are some of the differences from Dickens' original I noticed, please correct me if I'm mistaken:

You simplified Lucie and Charles' children from two to one still in Lucie's womb. Yes. Making Lucie pregnant heightened the danger.

Besides Sydney and Charles in Dickens' book, bank manager Mr. Lorry is also in love with Lucie.

Mr. Lorry's affection for Lucie is fatherly.

You changed character "#22-to-be-executed" from an adult seamstress into a young female child.

The young child – in England, we played her aged 15. The changes you saw were a decision of the director. I'm never against change from directors and actors when it serves the text.

Do you have a set rules of thumb in your process of adapting?

No, there are no rules. The first decision is whether or not the work is adaptable – some novels should remain novels. Then each project demands a different approach. It would be soul destroying to have a ‘rule of thumb,' I think.

Now in the present, can you allow yourself to read for pleasure? Or do you get that urge to reconstruct the tome into a play?

It's difficult to separate the two. These days I can't read a book without mentally seeing parts of it played out on a stage. Even to the extent of casting, costuming, and lighting it. I've become a sort of living theatre.

Most of your works have been produced on the British stage. Do you remember your first impression of being "on Broadway"? Was it anything like your colleagues that already had been on Broadway had told you?

I love Broadway. And I love Washington, D. C. – two completely different experiences, and very different audiences. I've done four plays on Broadway and a number out-of-town. It's impossible not to be caught up in the whole Broadway/Tony Award buzz. But for me, home is The Royal Shakespeare Company. I suppose the best of both worlds is to bring my RSC productions to the U.S. My first impressions of Broadway took a while to sink in. I slept on the flight over, and was straight into a very intense, but exciting rehearsal room. One rehearsal room is very like another. I suppose Broadway didn't really hit me until we were up and running, and one became aware of red carpets and flashing cameras, and people thrusting microphones at me. I like the enthusiasm.

American actors have been known to revere and honor British actors. As a British playwright, what is your opinion of American actors vs. British actors?

It's not a contest. We have great British actors, and I've worked with great American actors. We have Judi Dench, you have Meryl Streep. I rather think our drama schools – the good ones like RADA and LAMDA, and a few others – are more rigorous and demanding than most of yours. And I suppose most of our lot aren't really interested in the star system – they just want to do good work.

Do you prefer working on one project at a time? Or multi-tasking on several adaptations?

I like to work on one project at a time. WOLF HALL took me three years. My current RSC project IMPERIUM has taken me the same time – we're in rehearsal at the moment. But there are always revivals, and other projects in development. I've been working on some plays for ten years and more. But I won't go into production until I'm absolutely happy.

Any adaptations you're working on you can share with us?

IMPERIUM is the big one – six new plays, each an hour long, opens at the RSC in Stratford early in December. I'm also working on plays about Hitler, Dreyfus, and two new adaptation of works by Schiller.

Any class piece of literature you'd still love to tackle?

THE ILLIAD.

Thank you again.

For available tickets and show schedule of Mike Poulton's adaptation of Charles Dickens' A TALE OF TWO CITIES through November 19, 2017; log onto www.anoisewithin.org

Gil Kaan, a former Managing Editor of the now-defunct Genre magazine, has had the privilege of photographing and interviewing some major divas in his career, including Ann-Margret, Diana Ross, Faye Dunaway, Carol Channing, Shirley MacLaine, Catherine Deneuve, Liza Minnelli, Sandra Bernhard, Anna Nicole Smith, Margaret Cho, and three Catwomen—Eartha Kitt, Lee Meriwether and Julie Newmar. He had the fortuitous opportunity to conduct Lily Tomlin’s coming out interview. Gil has since reviewed movies and theatre for a number of local and national outlets.
A photo montage of Gil’s Halloween Carnavale photos through the last decade was recently included in the WeHo@ 25 juried exhibition.