Patrick Marber politely shoos away a waiter away who has paused to explain an impressive, three-tiered construction bearing afternoon tea. "We'll figure it out," he says. The guy looks disappointed. To be fair, this contemporary version of an old idea does seem complicated, full of the "new twists" and "deconstructions" of faddish cuisine. It is also a deceptively genteel accompaniment for the matter at hand: Marber's lacerating version of Strindberg's classic play of desire and destruction, After Miss Julie, which recently opened, in slightly altered form, for Prime Cut.
In 1995, Marber was approached by the BBC to rework Strindberg's play for television. At that time he was a tyro of radio and television comedy, as part of On The Hour, The Day Today and Knowing Me, Knowing You… With Alan Partridge, but had branched out to write and direct his first stage play, Dealer's Choice, to great acclaim.
Set in rural Sweden on Midsummer's Eve, Strindberg's play takes place on a bacchanalian night when social barriers temporarily dissolve. "We don't really have an equivalent for that," Marber says of Britain. In a moment of inspiration he fixed upon a moment in British history, similarly high on euphoria and promise: the landslide Labour election victory of 1945.
"That moment is famously talked about as the moment when modern Britain began," he says. "So everything followed from that one element, really." In 1995, no less than now, that potential for change seemed unfulfilled, an arch correspondence with the promise of social and sexual equality in Miss Julie, cruelly denied by grubbier forces.
Marber is charming company, quick-witted, shy with his gaze and fluently self-critical. "That's me," he says, at one point. "I've never had a good idea I didn't immediately regret." Yet he is satisfied with his conceit for After Miss Julie: not too flash or forced, its historic setting, he admits, left it ripe for restaging. "I have been unfaithful to the original," reads his author's note for the play's 2003 stage debut. "But conscious that infidelity might be an act of love."
For Prime Cut's undertaking he revisited the text with director Emma Jordan to render it for a Northern Irish context, transposing it to V-E Day in 1945 Fermanagh – just two months earlier, but, to some extent, a world away. Some notable lines typical of Maber's humour have been sacrificed, such as the servant John's comparison of the ousted prime minister to a glass of burgundy: "Like Winston Churchill: Robust, full-bodied . . . And finished." Elsewhere, others have accrued quite new meanings, such as John's remark that his family have worked the land for centuries, introducing grace notes of religious and historical division to its class and gender battles.
“It’s one of the reasons I’m very excited to see this production,” Marber says of such nuances. “I’m going to hear a different accent, a different voice, a different feel, and I don’t know what it’s going to be like. That’s thrilling.”
One thing that remains constant, in both Strindberg's play and much of Marber's work, is a deadly tango between intimacy and brutality. Marber's 1995 play Closer, a ferocious drama about sexual betrayal, was written – of all places – at the serene Tyrone Guthrie Centre at Annamakerrig. "The first draft was written in Lady Guthrie's bedroom. I just worked non-stop. It was one of the most intense periods I've had as a writer. I'd creep down at about 5 o'clock in the morning, when everyone was asleep, and raid the cereal cupboard for sustenance. I lived very odd hours."
When Closer was first staged in Dublin, in 2000, Jim Carroll's review for Irish Theatre Magazine opened with an unimprovably succinct line: "In Closer, relationships are unpleasant affairs." The description could easily be applied to much of Marber's work: from the betrayed Catherine in After Miss Julie ("How was she?") to the bitterly jealous lovers in Closer ("It tastes like you, but sweeter.") or the obsessive characters of his Oscar-nominated screenplay for Notes on a Scandal ("You bitter old virgin. You're lonely for a reason.")
Improbably, although slightly fittingly, he was persuaded to rewrite the screeplay for Fifty Shades of Grey, but, alas, his version was not used. That must have smacked, I suggest. "Yes, my characters are always hurting themselves. There is a lot of sadism and a lot of masochism in my work. I don't know why that is . . . " He chuckles. "It's a mystery! I like people who are right in the belly of a conflict, an internal conflict. I want them to become combustible. You brought that word into the conversation."
Actually, we had been talking about cigarettes, which Marber, a life-long smoker, gave up three years ago in favour of vaping, something he describes in sinfully enjoyable terms: “It’s one of the best substitutes for a pleasure that I’ve ever experienced. It’s an absolute, powerful hit of nicotine. That’s what you want. It’s like something deliciously evil touches you at the back of your head.”
Following a prolonged absence from the stage, and a worryingly long period spent blocked, Marber has recently enjoyed a surge of activity. Last year his new play The Red Lion was staged at the National Theatre in London, followed there by his new Turgenev adaptation, Three Days in the Country, while Closer received its first major revival at the Donmar Warehouse.
“I had a nice year this year,” he agrees, and the immediate future is thrumming with some high-profile collaborations. “But I’ve got a get a new play written. However much I’m enjoying doing other bits and pieces – versions, movies, directing – there’s always that jungle beat: ‘Write the new play!’ If I’m not writing a new play I don’t feel I’m doing my job.”
He recalls that Sean O’Casey used to keep an admonishing note above his desk that read: “Get on with the bloody play!” Marber used a similar maxim as his screensaver. “Because you stare at it every day and go, Yeah, I’m not.” Now, that does sound sadomasochistic. Marber smiles. “It’s a cruel business, playwriting.”
After Miss Julie is at the Project, Dublin until March 19