Closer and closer: Patrick Marber returns

With two new plays announced and his most famous work revived at the Donmar, Patrick Marber is staging a comeback. Tim Auld talks to the cast of Closer, the playwright’s portrait of sexual betrayal

After nearly eight years without a new play, Patrick Marber is back in the spotlight. Earlier this month, Rufus Norris, the incoming artistic director of the National Theatre, announced that the playwright would have two new works in his first season: The Red Lion, about semi-professional football players, and Three Days in the Country, an adaptation of Turgenev’s A Month in the Country. But before that, in a new production at the Donmar Warehouse directed by David Leveaux, there is the return of Marber’s 1997 hit, Closer, the play on which his reputation as a major playwright was staked; the play that made his name as “the finest dramatist of his generation”, and went on to be a Hollywood film, directed by Mike Nichols and starring Julia Roberts, Natalie Portman, Jude Law and Clive Owen.

Marber’s raw tale of sexual betrayal among four star-crossed Londoners earned him comparisons with the emotional heavyweights of 20th-century theatre. “It is right up there with Williams’s Streetcar, Mamet’s Oleanna, Albee’s Virginia Woolf, Pinter’s Old Times and Hare’s Skylight,” wrote one critic. Josie Rourke, the artistic director of the Donmar, describes it to me as “one of the great plays about the human heart”. It’s about love, sex and the damage we do to each other in the names of these gods, with or without meaning it.

Closer followed swiftly on the heels of Marber’s first play, Dealer’s Choice (1995), a testosterone-fuelled drama about a poker game set in a restaurant basement. This also opened to glowing reviews, and, like Closer, went on to win the Evening Standard award for best comedy.

That Marber was a talented comedian and sketch writer was already well known. But few could have guessed the speed with which he would transform himself into a playwright of substance. After graduating with an English degree from Oxford, he had worked as a standup before making his name as a writer and performer alongside Armando Iannucci, Stewart Lee, Steve Coogan and Chris Morris on the satirical radio shows On the Hour and Knowing Me, Knowing You, and then on television in The Day Today and The Alan Partridge Show.

But the short-sprint art of sketch-writing is a world away from the discipline required to write full-length plays. Few manage to make the leap. Marber achieved it with what seemed like effortless ease.

Dealer’s Choice was inspired by his experience of gambling addiction. Now 50, a married man with three young sons, he only dabbles at poker. But at the time he could lose £10,000 in a night and had to turn to his father to bail him out. Write what you know, the saying goes, and Marber did just that, painting a hilarious, unsentimental portrait of how men behave when they get together to compete.

Along with Mark Ravenhill’s Shopping and Fucking, Sarah Kane’s Blasted, Jez Butterworth’s Mojo and Jonathan Harvey’s Beautiful Thing, Dealer’s Choice heralded the dawn of a loose dramatic movement which earned the title “in-yer-face” drama. Young, experimental, expletive-ridden, unafraid to discuss and stage subject matter rarely, if ever aired on stage (oral sex, anal sex, rape, even defecation in the case of Anthony Neilson’s 1997 play The Censor).

Out of this whirlwind came Closer. Or perhaps it might be more accurate to say, into this whirlwind Marber launched Closer and stirred things up a bit more. The play was inspired, Marber has said, by Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies and Videotape, but also by “romantic stuff. A series of events in my personal life.”

It’s the story of two men, Dan and Larry, and two women, Alice and Anna, who tread a dance of sex and infidelity. Dan, an obituarist, goes to bed with Alice, a stripper, whom he helps after she has been run over. Larry, a dermatologist, goes to bed with Anna, a photographer, after they meet in the aquarium at London Zoo. Dan tries to go to bed with Anna, whom he meets when he is having a portrait photo taken for his new book – eventually he succeeds. Larry finds out Anna and Dan are having an affair and goes to bed with Alice whom he meets in a strip club. Round and round they go, coupling and splitting up, rubbing their emotional wounds rawer and rawer.

Closer is a melancholy piece but it is also laugh-out-loud funny, often, as in the very best drama, at moments of starkest pain. It’s easy, too, to forget just how original Marber’s writing is. Closer includes the first scene of internet chatroom sex to have appeared on stage.

Then there’s the dialogue: “Now fuck off and die. You fucked-up slag,” are Larry’s parting words to Anna in one scene. Twenty years on, such directness may have lost some of its shock value, but Nancy Carroll, who plays Anna in the new production, doesn’t see this as a bad thing: “[The internet scene and a strip club scene] at the time took people’s breath away. And even expletives didn’t get used on the London stage in the way they do today. What they represent now is not so much a shock value as an honesty value.”

The cast (Carroll, Rufus Sewell, Oliver Chris and Rachel Redford) is nevertheless prepared for strong reactions from audiences. “If we don’t divide opinion we haven’t done our job properly,” says Chris, who plays Dan. And the play has had it’s vociferous critics, among them Dominic Dromgoole, artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe, who wrote in his 2002 book, The Full Room: “Just as when you take coke, you find yourself being brilliantly articulate about a few tiny platitudes, so Marber manages to make some fairly thin truisms seem like great profundities … What finally lessens [Marber’s writing] in my view is a lack of a real wish for good … Beyond what we see is a chaos filled with violence and sexual disgust, and endless mutual loathing.”

You could, as Dromgoole did, see the play as a despairing portrayal of the selfish lives of modern urbanites, caught in an empty round of bed-hopping. In an interview about the film adaption in 2005 Marber himself acknowledged the bleakness, “No one improves, there aren’t great moral lessons to be learned,” he said. But he refuted accusations of nihilism. “The people who don’t like it perceive it as a slab of nihilism. When I watch the film I find it full of gentleness and softness and tenderness.”

Certainly the cast of the current production find a redemptive quality in the play: “I think a lot of people think of Closer as being this bleak play about these four people screaming at each other,” says Carroll. “But actually it’s about four people putting themselves in the way of love. Of being honest about what’s going on in their hearts. It’s a positive story, with very slightly dark, shouty moments where you might want to go and have a gin and tonic!”

It remains to be seen how this play will speak to us two decades after its first outing, and where Marber’s career will go from here. In 2004 Richard Eyre, who commissioned both Dealer’s Choice and Closer for the National Theatre, wrote of him: “I’ve no doubt that not only will Patrick survive, but that also his best work lies ahead of him.”

Since then, Marber has never been out of work. His adaptation of Moliere’s Don Juan was staged at the Donmar in 2006; his film script for Closer was nominated for a Golden Globe, and his screen adaptation of Zoë Heller’s Notes on a Scandal for an Oscar. Film producers have him on speed dial to polish up scripts (he was brought in to work on the script for Sam Taylor-Johnson’s new Fifty Shades of Grey). He hasn’t, however, yet written a stage play to trump Closer.

But then, as Leveaux tells me, when I ask him about the influence of Closer, Marber has set a high standard: “You know that phrase Gertrude Stein used when the young Ernest Hemingway sent her some of his early writing: ‘There is a great deal of description in this and not particularly good description. Begin again and concentrate.’ I think Closer is one of those plays that makes us want to begin again and concentrate.” Or as Marber has said of playwriting: “It’s just so damn difficult.”

Closer is at the Donmar Warehouse, London WC2, from 12 February.

Tim Auld

The GuardianTramp

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