As we prepare to open our new adaptation of The Underground Man later this month, writer Nick Wood discusses adapting the novel for the stage and looks at the changes he made between drafts…
Mick Jackson’s debut novel The Underground Man was shortlisted for the Booker, and won both the Whitbread and the Royal Society of Authors’ First Novel Awards. It tells the story of a man isolated in his personal life and at odds with the wider world where new scientific discoveries are throwing the old certainties aside.
It’s written as the fictionalised fifth Duke of Welbeck’s diary, interspersed with statements from those who have witnessed his behaviour. So I’ve got to muck about with a highly praised, much loved novel, and it’s diary form is the first thing I wanted to change because a diary is about reflection, and a play needs action.
I knew it was going to have a cast of two, and the plus point was – I knew both actors. But the way in was a problem. I played around with a lot of different ideas before I began the first draft.
Below are the first pages of both the first draft and the rehearsal draft.
THE UNDERGROUND MAN. DRAFT ONE.
William enters. He’s dressed in long underpants, vest and barefoot. Clement enters behind a clothes rail he pushes in front of him. The musician enters. They both watch William. William selects a shirt and puts it on. Then trousers and waistcoat. He looks down at his feet. Clement slides a pair of shoes under the clothes rail. William sees them. Looks at them suspiciously and puts them on. Clement moves the clothes rail so we can see him clearly. Still watching William.
WILLIAM: I am… William John… Cavendish… Scott – Bentinck.
The musician goes to her seat.
WILLIAM: I am William John Cavendish Scott – Bentinck the …. the … 5th Duke of Portland. William John Cavendish Scott – Bentinck – 5th Duke of Portland. Good. I’m glad that’s clear.
He begins his morning exercises.
After I’d finished the first draft I could look back and see what appeared to work and the first thing that stuck out was the opening. We meet Clement, the Duke, and the musician as performers rather than characters. It could be quite funny, the business with the shoes and the clothes rail but it doesn’t add a great deal to our understanding.
It’s too busy. Doesn’t give the audience time to assess what they are watching, doesn’t show them how they are going to have to watch, what they need to bring to the play to make it work. It relies on a couple of quick laughs to get started and that’s about it, and practically it uses a prop we may not need again, the clothes rail, it has the servant directing the duke to put on his own shoes which is too abrupt a reversal of status, and it doesn’t get the musician to a place where she can begin to play right at the top of the show.
THE UNDERGROUND MAN. REHEARSAL DRAFT.
The musician enters. Begins to play. House lights down. William is in bed. Clement enters. William’s clothes are lying where he took them off. William wakes, gets up, starts his exercises. Clement watches him.
CLEMENT: His Grace, the Duke, lives alone except for myself, Mrs Pledger, our cook and housekeeper, and the maids. His bedroom door has two letterboxes. One allows messages to be passed in, and the other allows His Grace to pass messages out. If the bedroom door is closed His Grace does not to wish to be disturbed.
WILLIAM: Come in, Clement.
William finishes his final stretch in time to words.
WILLIAM: I am William John Cavendish Scott – Bentinck the …. the … 5th Duke of Portland. Good. I’m glad we got that clear.
By the time we’d got to the rehearsal draft I’d kept the exercises, the line about his name but little else. The musician is playing as the play begins. The Duke is on the set, in character. Clement is watching which establishes his ability to be the action and also comment on it right from the start. This is added to by him telling us directly about the household, the bedroom door, and the letterboxes which lets us know that the Duke is no ordinary man.
The Duke’s first line also lets us see that he and Clement have a great deal more between them than the usual master/servant relationship. It’s cleaner, not so cluttered. The audience gets the nature of the play from the start, plus the information they need, and the actors and the musician have room to breathe.
The Underground Man runs at Nottingham Playhouse from Thursday 22 September to Saturday 8 October.