Ahead of Sunday night’s BBC Radio 3 broadcast of LUNGS, Duncan Macmillan offers an insight in to the process of adapting the play from stage to radio:
In George Orwell’s ‘1984’, Winston Smith is tortured in Room 101, a place that contains everyone’s worst nightmare. Some people believe it was based on the Committee Room at BBC Broadcasting House where Orwell had worked during the Second World War. I’m currently adapting 1984 for Headlong, and was in the middle of the Room 101 scene when I was invited to come in for a meeting at Broadcasting House.
Unlike Winston, I wasn’t tortured with rats. But I was asked to cut down the swearing in my play ‘Lungs’ which the BBC were about to record for radio broadcast.
“In terms of language, s****, p***, c*** and w***** don’t ring too many alarms. I’m more concerned about words like f***, m*********** and c***.”
I’ve not heard as much swearing in my life as during this meeting about swearing. It was revealed that the f-bomb appears in my play seventy-eight times. I knew this already, oddly, as the play had been reviewed by a theatre-blogging Reverend in Winnipeg who had counted them.
I’d been through this before with the first production in Washington DC where, during rehearsal, I’d managed to cut thirty-two f***s. It’s a generalisation but Americans tend to use the word for emphasis whereas Brits use it for punctuation. There’s no word quite like ‘f***’, no word that has the same function. The characters in Lungs are stressed, they’re thinking out loud, they’re scared and angry and excited. To me, every f*** was justified.
But words have a different power on the radio. When you haven’t got the actor’s body language or facial gestures to help contextualise them, swear words can feel much more abrasive and unnecessary, particularly at the start of a play when the listener hasn’t had a chance to get to know the characters. To my surprise, not only were they not about to strap rats to my face, it became clear that there was no pressure from the BBC to cut the swearing at all. Yes, certain things in language and content require various processes but their priority was always to preserve the integrity of the script and if all the language and content is justifiable, then there’s no problem. The quality of attention from the audience is different on radio than in the theatre. It’s in people’s homes, in their kitchens, living rooms, cars and earphones.
In this new context I found that much of the swearing could be extracted. It took a lot of work but I managed to more than half the f*** count and there aren’t any in the first twenty minutes or so. I sent the revised script to Toby Swift, our producer. He thanked me, then asked if I’d mind restoring some of the eliminated f***s.
On stage Lungs is performed without sets, props, costume changes, lighting changes or sound effects, just two actors. On radio, the listener is already making the sort of imaginative leaps the play asks of the audience in a theatre. So we decided to include a lot of sound in the radio production that wasn’t in the stage version. I broke the script down into fifty-eight scenes and we recorded them separately, with a different acoustic and background sound for each one. We reunited Alistair Cope and Kate O’Flynn from Paines Plough/Sheffield Theatres’ production, Richard Wilson redirected them and Toby did a fantastic job with the production. It was great to get the team back together again, Alistair now a father and Kate taking a few days off from her astonishing performance in Port at the National. They managed to recreate what they did on stage but also bring something brand new to it.
Listening to it in the edit, after all the work cutting the swear words and debating the right form, I think it sounds great. Thank f*** for that.