From uncertain beginnings to a third round of Molière via Liverpool’s tenure as the European Capital of Culture, Roger McGough and Gemma Bodinetz tell Eleanor Turney why they are drawn to the French playwright’s work and to working together.
Gemma Bodinetz, Artistic Director of the Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse, is pretty unequivocal about why her relationship with poet Roger McGough has been such a success: “I love him!” There is clearly more to a partnership that has spanned three productions and six years than affection, but it seems like a good place to start. “Working with Roger is just a delight”, continues Bodinetz. “We started with Tartuffe [in 2008 and revived in 2011] and it was just such a joy. We found so much fun in Molière, and the audience repsonse was great, so we then did The Hyperchondriac [in 2009]. After that, well, we missed each other, I think and thought, well, if world wants another ‘McGoughiere’ as we call them then we should do another one! My heart sinks thinking that this might be last one; Roger and Molière have very special thing.”
It didn’t always seem as though McGough and Molière were going to be friends, though. McGough, highly-regarded poet, presenter of BBC Radio 4’s Poetry Please and current President of the Poetry Society, came to prominence in 1967 when he was published in an anthology called The Mersey Sound along with the other “Liverpool Poets”, Adrian Henri and Brian Pattern. So, the verse-writing was not new to him. Nor, in fact, was the French; McGough studied French at university – although he freely admits to “not getting on with Molière” then. “I was very wary because I’d done French at university and read some Molière, and it didn’t really appeal at that age – I didn’t think it was very funny.”
When Liverpool won its bid to be European Capital of Culture, Bodinetz was looking for a play that “could be presented in Liverpool that was both of Liverpool and European, too”. She settled on Tartuffe, but wanted a new version: “I thought, if I went to another city as Capiral of Culture I wouldn’t want something parochial or something ubiquitous, I’d want something European that had a flavour of the city we were in. I’ve always loved Molière, and I found myself reading his couplets and thinking, I know someone who could do that…” She approached McGough, who she knew slightly from his poetry readings at the Everyman, “…and he was very nervous about it, he basically said ‘no’! He said ‘I’m not a playwright’, and I said you don’t have to be a playwright, the characters and the story are there, I want your wit and humour. I ended up hopping on train down to London where I knocked on his door and talked him into it.” McGough remembers the initial approach: “I didn’t think it was going to be a project with legs, but in the end I said I’d have a go because it’s nice to asked… Once I started giving voice to the characters it just took off – I got involved in the characters and felt for them.”
Tartuffe toured with English Touring Theatre and was extremely popular. “Tartuffe was a surprising hit, surpising to me, anyway, so we decided to do another one”, says McGough. Having then done The Hyperchondriac the followin year, Bodinetz explains how they came to choose The Misanthrope for their latest venture: “Roger and I talked about doing another Molière. We were keen on Don Juan, but it’s very mad and it’s not in verse, and Roger really enjoys the verse work – Molière writes in rhyming couplets and Roger is a master of that! He pointed me towards The Misanthrope and I got really excited; it has depth and darkness as well as all the silliness and rhyme.”
As opening night draws closer, McGough and Bodinetz are both hard at work in the rehearsal room. McGough describes the process, and working with Bodinetz, as “a joy”. The script – which he sees “as a poem on the page” – does get tweaked during rehearsals, which is why McGough is on hand: “in my mind it’s one thing and the way actors say it is another, but I’ve got in my mind what it should be like and they usually do it! I’m Liverpudlian and so rhyming ‘romance’ and ‘chance’ is the most natural to me, but not all the actors speak like me, they say ‘chaarnce’!” Bodinetz is full of praise for McGough, too: “He trusts me in the rehearsal room, I’ve always felt that generosity.” Ultimately, they both clearly have a huge affection for Molière and for each other, which comes across in spades during our chats. As Bodinetz says of McGough: “I love him! He’s got a beautiful spirit and is a very funny man!”, and you can’t really ask for more than that.
The Misanthrope, adapted/written by McGough and directed by Bodinetz, is at the Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse from 15 February – 9 March, and then touring until 1 June, taking in Oxford, Cornwall, Exeter, Bright, Southampton, York and Bath. For more information and tickets see either the Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse website or English Touring Theatre’s website.
Image 1: Gemma Bodinetz in rehearsals
Image 2: Roger McGough in rehearsals
Image 3: Rehearsals for The Misanthrope