Emma Donoghue: ‘When I have an idea, I hurl myself at it’
The ‘Room’ author on making a musical version of her all-conquering book for the stage
Author Emma Donoghue: ‘I don’t resent the fact that ‘Room’ is my biggest hit by far because writers are lucky to get one big hit.’ File photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times
Room came first as horrific non-fiction. The story of the Josef Fritzl case planted the seed in author Emma Donoghue’s mind and inspired her story of a mother and boy held captive in a basement, the only world the boy ever knew.
Room premiered in London in May, and I walk with Donoghue past the Theatre Royal Stratford East, looking for a cafe to talk. “Emma Donoghue Room” is writ large in lights; Donoghue says it’s like bringing a picture home from school and seeing it stuck up on the fridge. She is proud and giddy. She has guests here tonight. The show begins in less than an hour.
Donoghue has written several other plays and “always thought Room could work on stage definitely, as soon as I’d written the novel really. But it would have to be the right kind of collaborator.” Others have proved vital for Donoghue in creating Room’s other incarnations. When Lenny Abrahamson approached her to make the film, it was his passionate letter that won her over. “I love this book, I feel I understand how it works, and I believe I have the skill and sensitivity to do it justice on film,” he wrote. Donoghue was to have a similar experience with Bissett. (She describes them both as having this “absolutely unpretentious generous energy”.)
“I talked to various theatre people and none of them were quite right for me: some very arty, some very Broadway. I remember one of them suggested you could have a cold puff of wind going through the theatre at the point where Jack escapes to make the audience literally shiver. I just thought that was the most naff idea I’d ever heard.”
Donoghue was busy with the film when Bissett got in touch. She had come across Room in that very ordinary way, in an airport bookshop. “You may think this is mad,” she told Donoghue, “but I’d like to do a play of this with you and I think it needs songs.”
Donoghue “promptly Googled” Bissett and was delighted by her experimental work. For one show, she bussed 20 people at a time “to a really rough building where they took part in a show in a flat”. But Bissett also has a “warm populist side, she uses music, her shows are also very accessible. She’s very invigorated by political issues of the day.” Donoghue wanted to work with “a powerhouse” such as Bissett. “Even though I was a bit nervous of the music, I thought, why not?”
Bissett wrote the show’s eight songs alongside Scottish songwriter Kathryn Joseph, but Donoghue is keen to point out that, “this really isn’t a musical. I think it’s that the songs are used as a sort of psychic grid for Ma, when her dark feelings spill out privately. It’s not used in the way musicals typically do, to declare things.”
She thinks the songs are the best part. “The music is thrillingly different and it gets you to places that words don’t.”
The music is not the only new departure for the production. “We needed to solve the problem of the child,” Donoghue says. “You can get a film actor to do a performance in little pieces and then you edit it altogether. But asking a child to perform for two hours: you can’t ask them to memorise thousands of words and their cues.”
This was solved by having a “big Jack” shadowing the child. “The adult could give us all the verbal expressiveness and the long monologues from the book and the child gave us the innocence, the playfulness.”
All the main roles in this production are played by black actors, which may owe something to the Theatre Royal’s history of community theatre, and its close ties with east London. “That was Cora’s decision as director. But I was thrilled when she did because I thought it added just a new resonance to the story. It reminds you of so many situations in which either poverty or modern slavery or human trafficking or tensions around Black Lives Matter . . . It reminds us of lots of other situations in which people are not free.”
Donoghue is far more comfortable in theatre than among the madness of Hollywood. She loved making the film of Room but not the publicity. “It’s a very glitzy world and I really wasn’t that at home in it. It’s an awful lot of parties and makeup and people coming to your room to do you up before red carpets. Theatre is so much less about the glitz and much more, you’re all in a room together in your yoga pants working really hard at something.”
She describes getting down on the floor, banging saucepans. “It’s really very anti-star. It’s about the ensemble.”
How does she feel to return again to the same story? Is she fed up of playing her greatest hits? Not at all, Donoghue says, describing it as “a satisfying trilogy of experiences. I don’t resent the fact that Room is my biggest hit by far because writers are lucky to get one big hit.”
For Donoghue, Room was rooted in the “ambivalence of motherhood. The days when you feel you’re doing it right and then next month you’re like, what have I done? I’ve messed them up forever.” But the story’s malleability means it resonates differently depending on where it is experienced. “I’ve had readers write to me from Iran and from China saying it’s clearly a political allegory: life under an oppressive regime.”
‘Blaze of creativity’
Donoghue talks about the necessity of working “in a blaze of creativity . . . When I got the idea for The Lotterys Plus One [her recent children’s book] at a dinner party, by the end of the night I pretty much had it plotted out in my head.
“I have plenty of lower energy days when I don’t achieve much, but when you get seized by an idea, I hurl myself at it because otherwise the idea gets away. I recognise in both Cora and Lenny a similar creative fire.”
So, post-Oscars, her agents don’t mind her pursuing a slightly smaller theatrical project rather than going hell for leather on something for Netflix? She laughs. “My screen agent might say to me occasionally, ‘So you definitely want to go in this direction rather than this other direction which would be far more profitable?’ and I go, ‘That’s right, yeah.’ ”
Donoghue is excited about a turn in the Abbey. “If you’re an Irish writer, an Irish playwright . . . I’ve so enjoyed my plays being put on in places like Project Arts and Andrews Lane, but there’s nothing like the Abbey. I remember seeing things like Observe the Sons of Ulster there, just major milestones in my theatre-writing career.”
Her show is also the first one in which the Abbey will launch “a beautiful idea”, its free ticket preview initiative.
Canada is very much home for Donoghue after 19 years there but she comes back to Ireland every summer. “I still really click with Irish people. It felt so good to make the Room film with Irish people. It felt great to be part of Irish culture.”
The film production has opened a whole new world for Donoghue in writing for the screen. “That’s a hard industry to break into. Suddenly in my late 40s, I have people sending me scripts and books to adapt.” She’s adapting her two most recent novels, Frog Music and The Wonder for film, and other authors’ work for television.
She previously said that she didn’t think she could work for television because she didn’t see herself as part of a writing team. “I should never say never. I’ve met writers like Tom Perrotta of Little Children and The Leftovers. With The Leftovers, he’s one of the writers in the writers’ room of the adaptation of his book. He was just one of the gang and he wasn’t the lead one, because he was not that experienced in TV, but he enjoyed it. What’s crucial as a writer is to keep trying new things. Getting stale is the real danger.”
However, she has no intention of abandoning the autonomy of fiction. “I like that there’s certain things that are entirely my own.”
A stage manager who has been wandering around the bar, comes over with a box of corsages.
“What does this symbolise?” asks Donoghue, taking one.
“It’s a tradition going back a very long time. Everyone who worked on the show wears a carnation.”
“So it’s who to blame, basically?”
Inside the Theatre Royal Stratford East, the cramped dimensions of the London stage, and the perceived inescapability of the theatre, amplify the horror of being crammed into a tiny room.
This is undoubtedly a musical, and while the songs sometimes lift you slightly from the story, they are, as Donoghue says, a way to see inside the minds of these two people living different realities in the same tiny space.
Witney White is a Ma we haven’t seen before in book or film. She is enthralling as the defensive mother, so exposed in the outside world. Big Jack, played by Fela Lufadeju, has the physicality of a dancer, creeping across tables and bounding impossibly around the small space. Donoghue described him as “like everybody’s superhero or guardian angel figure”.
Projections of the crayoned scrawls of Jack’s imaginings, and some subtle puppetry bring a sense of a child’s perception. Freed from the stark realism of the film, there is more laughter and a different sort of heart here, something brighter and more hopeful. There is music in this prison. Room is at the Abbey Theatre until July 22nd. abbeytheatre.ie