It is the first time that Mike Leigh has revisited a play he had already directed.
Ecstasy opened at Hampstead Theatre in 1979. The old tin shack, as it then was, hosted several of Leigh’s plays over the years.
“On the whole this is not something I’m remotely interested in. Normally doing a play is all about the turn-on of not knowing what it is and discovering what it is through the process of doing it. It is about making things up. I’ve been very happy for other people to do endless productions of Abigail’s Party and the other plays. But I’m especially fond of this play. It plumbs depths.”
It certainly does. Leigh has developed his own brand of miserabilism, but in Ecstasy his early enthusiasm for Pinter and Beckett is most overt. Audiences will also spot a tonal overlap with his most recent film, Another Year, which counterpointed marital bliss with desperate loneliness.
Ecstasy centres on a group of old friends who come together in a Kilburn bed-sit, with the Winter of Discontent just over and Margaret Thatcher’s regime about to transform the country. Jean, who works in a petrol station, may seem to her happily married friend Dawn to lead a life devoid of male company but in an opening scene that prefigures the sexual nihilism of Naked, we see her having casual encounters of brutalising pointlessness. In the second act, as booze flows and cigarettes are puffed in an unruly gathering in her grotty bedsit, we wait to discover whether Jean can forge a different, more hopeful kind of relationship with men.
“Obviously, of the plays that are extant, the others are for all intents and purposes comedies, albeit with some kind of tragic element. And this is tragedy, albeit it’s funny.” Ecstasy evolved, he recalls, partly to wrong-foot those who were expecting him to follow Abigail’s Party with another roaring play that made fun of suburban aspirations. He recalls “the sheer wheeze of confounding the expectations of everybody. Also one taps into one’s own preoccupations.”
When originally developing it with a spectacular cast that included Jim Broadbent, Julie Walters and Stephen Rea, Leigh wanted to call the play One Mile Behind You, an accusing allusion to the fact that the action onstage was set in Kilburn, a rougher, less well-to-do part of London precisely one mile to the rear of the Hampstead audience.
Leigh is so closely associated in the public perception with his work for the screen that there will be many who are less aware of how deeply his roots are embedded in theatre. He trained as an actor at Rada and in the Sixties went on to work as an assistant director at the RSC. He assisted both Edward Hall’s father, Peter Hall, and Trevor Nunn.
The cast features Sinead Matthews who has previously worked with Leigh on award-winning films Vera Drake and Happy-Go-Lucky. He cast her straight out of RADA to play an expectant mother who goes to Vera for an abortion.
In Ecstasy, Matthews plays the perky, garrulous Dawn, a Brummie who has lived in London for a decade and is unhappily married to uncouth Irishman Mick.
Other cast members are Sian Brooke, Daniel Coonan, Claire-Louise Cordwell, Allen Leech and Craig Parkinson.
Following Ecstasy the Duchess theatre will host a revival of Simon Gray’s Butley, which brings The Wire’s Dominic West back to the London stage.
Book Ecstasy tickets online now.
[posted by Louise, 23/03/2011]