No stop­ping Lo­gan’s run

From stage to screen, John Lo­gan is hav­ing hit af­ter hit. Michael Bodey taps into the writer’s en­ergy

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film -

JOHN Lo­gan had a very good Fe­bru­ary: there were cel­e­bra­tions as the play­wright’s adap­ta­tion of Brian Selznick’s novel The In­ven­tion of Hugo Cabret, called sim­ply Hugo, picked up five Academy Awards. Oh, and his project with di­rec­tor Gore Verbin­ski, Rango, took the Os­car for best an­i­mated film. These wins added mo­men­tum to the be­gin­ning of pro­duc­tion on the new James Bond film he has writ­ten, Sky­fall, and to the project now oc­cu­py­ing his mind, a film adap­ta­tion of the pop­u­lar Broad­way mu­si­cal Jer­sey Boys: The Story of Frankie Valli and The Four Sea­sons. And did I men­tion his adap­ta­tion of one of Wil­liam Shake­speare’s tough­est, if merely sec­ond long­est, plays? Co­ri­olanus is earn­ing plau­dits as it splat­ters its blood around the world.

Lo­gan has gar­nered three screen­writ­ing Os­car nom­i­na­tions from 10 screen­plays. You might think from all this that the 2010 Tony Award win­ner is lost to the stage, but he laughs wickedly at the sug­ges­tion. ‘‘ No, noth­ing could be fur­ther from the truth,’’ he says, adding that there is a touch of ‘‘ kis­met’’ to these films be­ing re­leased in such quick suc­ces­sion: ‘‘ I oc­ca­sion­ally barred my­self from plays so I could go off and write for the movies.’’

He re­cently com­pleted a new play that should be pro­duced in London early next year at the Don­mar Ware­house, led by di­rec­tor Michael Grandage and the team that pro­duced Red, his Tony Award-win­ning play about artist Mark Rothko (the play won six Tonys when it went to Broad­way). ‘‘ So I’m com­pletely in­volved in my theatre work,’’ Lo­gan says, as though he has noth­ing else to oc­cupy his time. It is an in­tim­i­dat­ing roll­call. Red’s res­o­nance con­tin­ues with up­com­ing Aus­tralian pro­duc­tions by the Melbourne Theatre Com­pany this month (star­ring Colin Friels) and Syd­ney’s En­sem­ble Theatre in Septem­ber (with Colin Moody).

The two-handed drama fo­cuses on the renowned ab­stract ex­pres­sion­ist Rothko at the height of his art, pro­duc­ing works of in­tim­i­dat­ing power in the late 1950s. Lo­gan has achieved some­thing mon­u­men­tal, a ren­di­tion of a fa­mously brood­ing artist joust­ing with his fic­tional younger stu­dio as­sis­tant, Ken, that speaks of gen­er­a­tional change: the pass­ing of a torch from mod­ernism to the pop art rep­re­sented by Ken. The In­de­pen­dent on Sun­day de­scribed it as ‘‘ thrilling’’ and The New Yorker’s John Lahr com­pli­mented ‘‘ Lo­gan’s smart, elo­quent en­ter­tain­ment’’ for tak­ing au­di­ences with Rothko into the deep colours of his paint­ings.

The play also presents a stel­lar depic­tion of a complicated char­ac­ter. Al­fred Molina’s per­for­mances of it on the West End and Broad­way earned par­tic­u­larly rave re­views.

Lo­gan is clearly a writer in the zone. Through his film and tele­vi­sion work, and with Red, he has pro­pelled him­self from the com­fort­able con­fines of Chicago theatre on to the A-list of Hol­ly­wood and stage writ­ers. He must feel it, too. Cer­tainly it re­quires con­fi­dence to take on an adap­ta­tion of Shake­speare, as he has done with Co­ri­olanus, not pre­vi­ously adapted for the screen.

‘‘ Yes and no,’’ Lo­gan muses. ‘‘ On one hand you think, well, the au­dac­ity of dip­ping into the Bard and try­ing to make a movie re­quires a bit of nerve. But on the other hand — and the way I looked at it — Co­ri­olanus has been around for 400 years, it’s go­ing to be around for an­other 400 years; what can I re­ally do to f. . k it up?’’

He says the play’s stur­di­ness will al­ways re­main, so he and first-time di­rec­tor Ralph Fi­ennes felt con­fi­dent they could be ‘‘ so mus­cu­lar’’ with the adap­ta­tion and ‘‘ just go in and get in the en­gine and sort of bang it around a bit’’.

In Fi­ennes he found a like mind: an ac­tor known for his oc­ca­sion­ally hefty per­for­mances on screen and stage, but who was an un­known quan­tity be­hind the cam­era. Lo­gan says their com­ing to­gether on the project hap­pened though the ‘‘ odd­est col­lec­tion of cir­cum­stances’’.

A love of Shake­speare was in­cul­cated early in the Us-born son of North­ern Ir­ish im­mi­grants, although he built his early suc­cess on the Chicago stage with the plays Never the Sin­ner and Haupt­mann, and the mu­si­cal melo­drama Riverview.

‘‘ The rea­son I’m a writer to­day is I fell in love with Shake­speare when I was re­ally young and when I started writ­ing movies I re­ally wanted to do adap­ta­tions,’’ he says. ‘‘ And for me Co­ri­olanus was the ob­vi­ous one to do be­cause I think it’s so mod­ern. But I never in my wildest dreams thought there would be any­one as crazy as I am who [also] wanted to do Co­ri­olanus. And lo and be­hold, here comes Ralph Fi­ennes.’’ They met in Los An­ge­les, Fi­ennes pitched his vi­sion of the movie and it was ‘‘ ex­actly the movie I saw’’.

There are ob­vi­ous rea­sons Co­ri­olanus had not been adapted for screen (although it has been adapted for tele­vi­sion by the BBC). It is long and its late-pe­riod verse is complicated. Cru­cially, its lead ‘‘ hero’’ doesn’t in­voke em­pa­thy — not a crime in Shake­spearean plays, but usu­ally his tragi-he­roes are framed in more ac­ces­si­ble sce­nar­ios or, at least, ex­plain them­selves.

This tragic fig­ure, based on the Ro­man gen­eral Caius Mar­cius (later given the name Co­ri­olanus), is in­su­lar and iso­lated. He lives to scare au­di­ences. Yet Lo­gan’s vi­sion for the play is meaty and in­volv­ing — I had to thank him for hav­ing up­ended my trep­i­da­tion at putting my­self through yet an­other Shake­speare adap­ta­tion us­ing the tired trope of a tyran­ni­cal po­lit­i­cal sys­tem or board­room.

Mod­ern Shake­speare adap­ta­tions have rarely moved be­yond the set­tings of fas­cist so­ci­eties or suited cor­po­rate malfea­sance, af­ter Or­son Welles’s ground­break­ing 1937 pro­duc­tion of Julius Cae­sar and Ber­tolt Brecht’s later po­lit­i­cal in­vo­ca­tions. And whereas Welles’s fas­cist set­ting was bang-on for a time of shift­ing al­liances in Europe, to­day such adap­ta­tions look tired.

‘‘ I un­der­stand your trep­i­da­tion and I ap­pre­ci­ate your hon­esty about it,’’ Lo­gan says. ‘‘ Most peo­ple pre­tend to be very re­spect­ful.’’

Co­ri­olanus might have fallen into ex­actly this trap if not for its tight fo­cus on its ti­tle char­ac­ter (played with un­nerv­ing in­ten­sity by Fi­ennes, who also played the role on the London stage in 2000) and its pre­science. They shot the film in the scarred Ser­bia, which helps. But Lo­gan and Fi­ennes agreed

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