Abigail Harvie interviews UoB alumni Phil Porter, whose play ‘Vice Versa’ is currently being performed at the RSC

Written by Bea Harvie
MA English Language and Applied Linguistics student, fourth year at the good old UoB. Dancer, reader, avid film and tv watcher and theatre goer. I honestly just roll with it!
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Phil Porter is an award-winning playwright and alumni of the University of Birmingham. Of his ten plays, three have been performed at the Royal Shakespeare Company including Vice Versa, currently playing in the Swan Theatre as part of the Rome Season 2017.

'there was a gap in the market for something that was a bit funny'

Hi Phil! This isn’t your first play for the RSC. Have you ever written anything like a roman comedy before?

I read some roman comedies when I was a studying drama at UoB in the late nineties. A lot of the comedy we do nowadays, possibly without even realising it, has its roots in roman comedy in terms of farce and out love of word play and that sort of thing. And then the RSC were doing “the Rome Season” and they realised that the other plays they have were brilliant but heavy, serious Shakespearean plays so there was a gap in the market for something that was a bit funny.

One of the things that we enjoyed watching the performance were the number of pun and props! How did you manage to fit so many into a five-minute period?

It was really good fun doing that. When I first wrote it, the prologue in the second half was similar to the first, with rhyming couplets and then I thought “I’m going to try to do something a bit different”. I decided to amuse myself with the worst, most groaning puns I could possibly think of. By rehearsal we had about fifty or so puns in that speech, then the director and the cast added about five or ten more. I think we set a world record for the most puns in two minutes. That Sophia, who plays Dexter, can pun and hold the right props out at the right time is amazing. I think we are over 300 props by now, most of them are written in, especially the food props in the punning section. We will probably keep adding until the very final performance.

For the characters, like Dexter, how do you develop the characters?

This play is very loosely based on a play from about 200BC, mostly the main characters. When you write it, you have a bit of an idea but casting is a big part of the process. You find an actor who may not have been what you imagined, but they just make you laugh so much you think “we’ve got to have them, they’re perfect” and from that point the character starts to mould around what that person brings to the role.

'When Trump was elected, I thought it would be a bit crazy to ignore the connections between this fictional idiot and the idiot elected president'

General Braggadacio is based on Trump, did you always intend the piece to be Trump satire?

When I started writing I wasn’t thinking about Trump. I was just writing this play about this idiot and this slightly dangerous strand of masculinity which is so desperate for attention and power that it will inflict great misery on those around them. When Trump was elected, I thought ok, well it would be a bit crazy to ignore the connections between this fictional idiot and the idiot elected president. I didn’t want to make that the whole joke, the whole play, but I will throw in a few cheeky references in the second half just so people can enjoy the comparison.

'The most important advice for writers is to get to the end of the play'

With all the funding cuts in the local arts, do you have any advice for aspiring playwrights beyond university?

I saw recently that the Midlands Arts Centre had their funding cut. When I was a student at Birmingham, my first play was on at the MAC. Our governments like to talk about the success and the money bought in by big productions, but the people who have reached a point where they are writing, directing, acting in them nearly always developed through the subsidised sector so it’s important.

The most important advice for writers is to get to the end of the play. It’s easier to start something than to finish it. Just push on through to the end, then you have something to work with and you can redraft it, that’s where the fun starts. With playwriting, the most important thing you can do is try to see it performed. Once you start hearing your work performed, you get a much clearer sense of what it’s like. You have to beat the system, be self-critical but also be confident in your own voice and just get your work out there.

Article by Abigail Harvie