Here’s to you, Terry Johnson… The Graduate comes to the West End stage

1st March 2000

Terry Johnson brings The Graduate to London. First published in Time Out, March 2000
The biggest faux pas I make when interviewing Terry Johnson about his stage adaptation of The Graduate is to mention Time Out’s review of the film – this is a review which dares to suggest that the all-time classic, to use video-store parlance, is actually not quite a masterpiece.

The expression of joviality occupying Terry Johnson’s face vanishes before you can say “Here’s to you, Mrs Robinson”. “I wouldn’t read your own colleagues,” he advises with withering gentleness. “Critics don’t exist to give an accurate report on anything: they exist to fit themselves into the work of art without having to produce it. That kind of observation is about a critic making their own profille. It’s got fuck all to do with the film, which sits in people’s memories like a fucking sapphire.”

Uh-huh. The enormity of Terry Johnson’s admiration for Mike Nichols’ 1967 movie is probably on a par with the degree of contempt he feels for the media. Some expression of the latter I was expecting (“It’s not an easy thing writing a journalist,” he once remarked about one of his characters. “I mean, what motors people to write rubbish? Who can be bothered to get out of bed in the morning to do so?”).

The more surprising attitude is a prickly reluctance to draw comparisons between the film and his adaptation, which starts previewing at the Gielgud Theatre this week, starring Kathleen Turner as Mrs R. “It’s only the media who need to look at it in those terms,” he says with irritation, “because they’re not bright enough to look at the reinvention. The comparison is on a level with ‘Richard and Judy’, so far the only journalists dumb enough to show a clip from the film just before interviewing our leading lady.”

I suspect the number of hacks who will join the bovine editors of ‘Richard and Judy’ in the slough of Johnson’s disapproval will rise sharply in the coming month. The playwright, now 44 (“I can’t believe I’m older than Mrs Robinson!”) talks animatedly about going back to Charles Webb’s novella for his inspiration, locating taut rhythms of speech that prefigure David Mamet – “I watched the film once; I reread the book six times. The book is essentially what’s great about the film.”

That’s as maybe, but, quite obviously, it’s popular acquaintance with the film – with the comic understatement of Dustin Hoffman’s stupefied, boyish Benjamin, with Anne Bancroft’s feline seductress and with the lusty innocence of the evergreen Simon and Garfunkel soundtrack – which emboldened Sacha Brooks, whose idea the project was, to head straight for the West End.

It’s also hardly a wild assumption to make that Johnson, who also directs, would be quite happy for an audience to be filtering the play through their memories of the film. Last year’s Cleo, Camping, Emmanuelle and Dick, an audacious conjecture about the principal stars of the Carry On films, relied on a substantial degree of recognition on the part of those watching.

And, prior to that, surprising collocations of twentieth-century, mass-media icons on stage have provided Johnson with some of his wittiest hours: Marilyn Monroe and Albert Einstein in Insignificance; Dali and Freud in Hysteria; a central plank of the humour in the exquisite Dead Funny was the desperate first-person familiarity of its male characters with their comedy hero Benny Hill, known to them only through television.

It ‘never occurred’ to Johnson that The Graduate would be seen in the light of these past endeavours. “In no way is this a homage to anything people know,” he says. The adaptation is, for him, like his regular directing stints: a welcome break from the task of penning originals. “At the moment, I don’t think I’ve got anything to say that hasn’t been said before, so I might as well short-circuit the pain and get on with the joy of making this happen.”

The all-new The Graduate will retain the precise setting of the book. “It would not have been difficult to rewrite it for the ’90s – it would have taken me, um, half a day,” Johnson asserts.

“We thought that, on balance, people would rather see something set in California in the ’60s.” The dramatist has, however, made one very noticeable change: “The film, and the novel, ended on a note of great escape. Two people running off-stage is not a great ending to a play, so I had to lock the characters into the church in order to support the climax.” If Johnson can extricate himself and us from the memory of the movie at that point – as Benjamin and Elaine squirm free of social conformity – let’s just say that he’ll deserve a fucking medal.

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Dominic Cavendish - Theatre Critic & Journalist

Dominic Cavendish is the lead theatre critic for The Daily Telegraph. He is the founding editor of the audio archive Theatrevoice

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