For the first time, Mike Leigh is reviving one of his own plays. Isabel Lloyd talks to him about the highs, and lows, of “Ecstasy” ...

From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Spring 2011

Today, a new Mike Leigh play starring Julie Walters, Jim Broadbent, Stephen Rea and Ron Cook would sell out before the casting director got off the phone. But in 1979, when “Ecstasy” premiered in London at what was then called the Hampstead Theatre Club, most of the cast were virtual unknowns, and Leigh tended to be dismissed by old-school critics as an unthinking, if amusing, caricaturist. Although the play did well enough, it wasn’t “considered West End material”, as Leigh puts it, and languished unrevived for many years.

It deserved better. The slice-of-lowlife plot is simple enough: a woman gets in a fight with her married lover, then spends an evening drinking herself into incoherence with three old friends in a Kilburn bedsit. But the story is woven from a careful selection of threads. Its themes of loneliness, emotional mis-hits, and man’s spirited determination to scrape some pleasure even at the bottom of life’s barrel are strands Leigh has returned to several times. And when he does, the results are often among his strongest, warmest and best-loved creations: think of “High Hopes”, “Life is Sweet” or, most recently, “Another Year”.

Which is perhaps why, 32 years later, Leigh—by now a film director so Oscar-nominated he could have his own seat at the Kodak Theatre—is bringing “Ecstasy” back home. As part of Edward Hall’s debut season as artistic director of the Hampstead, Leigh is directing a new production of the play: the first time a man notorious for improvising everything from scratch has returned to any of his earlier works.

“I’ve been trying to get it done for years,” he says. “I kept telling Edward’s predecessors at the Hampstead that they should revive it, but they wouldn’t listen. Ed wanted me to write something for him but I didn’t have time”—Leigh is due to create a new play for the National, which opens in September—“so I suggested ‘Ecstasy’ instead. After he read it, he said he couldn’t think of anyone better to direct it than me. So I said yes.”

You might have expected Leigh to honour one of his more famous pieces. “Abigail’s Party”, for instance, which had premiered at Hampstead two years before “Ecstasy”, and which—thanks to a swift television adaptation, and Alison Steadman’s terrifying anatomy of aspirational hostessing—remains the best-known of his stage works. There’s also the problem of the name: the play was written and set in a time when ecstasy was just another name for joy. Now it has connotations of a more chemical kind.

Yet it’s not inappropriate. The four main characters lead lives of repetitive poverty. Jean is gentle, intelligent, but stuck in a job behind the till at a petrol station. Her friend Dawn is a martyr to two scrapping children and her drunken, lazy husband Mick, as well as know-all teachers who “think they’m bleedin it”. And the lonely, itinerant construction worker Len has only one consolation: fishing. Even that gives him headaches. Yet the third line in the script, after “Wanna fag?” and “Yeah”, is a post-coital “Good that, wannit?” Everything indulged in during the play—sex, smoking, drinking, singing—is part of the characters’ attempt to have a good time, to achieve ecstasy: a word whose etymology means, literally, to escape one’s self.

The precise use of the title is typical of its author’s attention to detail. The most common misconception about Leigh’s working method is that he simply gathers together a group of actors, tells them to research and create a character each, then they improvise a story while he writes down the results. The truth is far more structured: he comes to each project with a clear theme in his head, and performers who’ve worked with him attest to his beady demands that they improvise scenes again and again until he gets exactly what he wants. Which is, he says, “the truth. Critics often accuse me and my actors of being middle-class intellectuals making stuff up about the working classes; but everything we do, as in ‘Ecstasy’, is based on who and what we’ve experienced ourselves.”

Certainly “Ecstasy” is full of real life. It was originally going to be called “One Mile Behind You”—intended as a sly prod in the ribs of the Hampstead audience, whose well-fed rumps would have been sitting only a little way east of the deprived area of London the play is set in, and where the original cast did their research. The characters continually refer to real places in Kilburn, and when they listen and dance to an Elvis LP in the second act, it’s an actual album they’re playing: “40 Golden Greats”, to be exact. This creates particular challenges for the performers, who have to time long passages of dialogue to coincide with the rise and fall of the music on the turntable.

I know this from experience. In 1991, in an earlier life, I was lucky enough to play Jean, the quietly alcoholic resident of the bedsit, at the Latchmere in Battersea. It’s a gift of a part—Jean’s inner life is almost completely masked by the few things she says, yet she is on stage, and in the audience’s eye, throughout. The upshot is that those watching feel unusually intimate with her; and when her final, very ordinary tragedy is revealed, the impact on them is profound. Afterwards, in the theatre bar, it wasn’t uncommon for members of the audience to grip my wrist and stare at me, eyes red-rimmed. Not that I could take credit for their emotion: it’s all in the writing.

But don’t expect too many tears. As Edward Hall says, “ ‘Ecstasy’ may be about a group of people who don’t have a lot in their lives, but it is very, very funny.” The comic rhythms of the original cast still sound like a drumbeat through the script—the rat-a-tat snare of Walters, the slow bass thud of Broadbent. The challenge faced by the new cast (most of whom, according to Leigh, “weren’t even born when we first did it”) will be to make it sound their own. So will Leigh be encouraging them to improvise new lines? Not this time. “I’m sticking to the original text. I can remember how to direct, you know.” 

"Ecstasy"  Hampstead Theatre, London, from March 10th


Isabel Lloyd is the assistant editor of Intelligent Life and a former features editor of the Independent. She used to be an actress in Alan Ayckbourn's company. Picture Credit: Rex, Lebrecht.