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Interview

In His Head

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It would strike some as ironic that Christopher Hampton, the prolific playwright behind The Talking Cure—the story of the early development of psychoanalysis—has never spent anytime on a psychiatrist's couch. "I've never been in therapy," says the soft-spoken writer with a shrug. "I've always thought whatever's wrong with my head, which is no doubt extensive, I'd better not fix it because it seems to be my livelihood."

Which doesn't mean Hampton didn't extensively research the subject of psychotherapy before penning The Talking Cure. The play details the partnership between Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, who first developed their theories of psychoanalysis in the early 1900s and put them to the test on a young patient, Sabina Spielrein. This unsuspecting woman becomes largely credited with the infamous break between the two men—for reasons both professional and personal. Hampton says the project took five years to write, noting, "It was like a university course, preparing for this play, partly because of course you have to familiarize yourself not only with Jung and Freud but the whole media and what everybody else was writing and thinking at the time."

When it originally premiered in 2003 at London's Royal National Theatre with Ralph Fiennes in the role of Jung, an unexpected tragedy dampened the proceedings. James Hazeldine, the great English stage actor playing Freud, died of a heart attack after the third preview. "It discombobulated the whole thing," recalls Hampton. "The understudy took over; he was a great actor but 20 years too young. Ralph was heroic, and it was a part that was particularly suited to him. But we didn't really feel the play had been able to reach its full potential in London."

Bringing The Talking Cure to Los Angeles' Mark Taper Forum offers Hampton another chance to stage the show, as well as the opportunity to work with director Gordon Davidson, artistic director of Center Theatre Group, who is retiring at the end of 2004. Hampton has had a relationship with Davidson that dates back to when his play Savages was staged at the Taper in 1975. "Gordon said that he particularly wanted to do this play, and it's coming up to his last season, and I thought it would be nice to work with him again because it's been sort of a regular presence in my professional life, the Mark Taper," notes Hampton. "Another reason I like working here is, it was actually Gordon who introduced me to the notion of taking a play a year or so after it had first been done, when the dust had had time to settle and you started to see what hadn't quite worked with it, which you can't always do in the heat of rehearsal, and have another go at it." He points out that this is precisely what happened with Savages, a play he feels worked far better in Los Angeles than it did in London.

Composing Reality

There is something about the lives of real people that appeals to Hampton, who has frequently penned works about historical figures. His second play, Total Eclipse, examined the relationship between poets Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine and his screenplay for Carrington details the life of painter Dora Carrington. "So I am interested in dealing with history," Hampton notes. "But I have a rather curious set of rules. I won't make anything up. Obviously I have to make up the dialogue and I have to intuit the quality of the relationship of the characters. But I won't make up any facts. I think you have a responsibility, especially with people like Jung and Freud who were so seminal. You have to play fair by them, really. And the curious thing is, the more you look into any given subject and the more you ferret around to try to find the facts behind it like a sort of detective, the more extraordinary the story turns out to be. In the end, it's always been my experience that the story is much more interesting than anything you could have invented."

But hasn't the author ever been tempted to cheat, to move around a few dates for the sake of dramatic structure? "That's why Talking Cure took such a particularly long time," Hampton says with a laugh. "Because events tended to happen in slightly the wrong order, or there are strange gaps and you can't find out what happened between event A and event B. It was a really tough one, this one. I think there is one example where during rehearsals we found that if we turned two scenes in a different order they would play better. But in fact the first one only happened a few weeks after the second one."

A Hand at Acting

Hampton became involved with theatre at Oxford University, landing a job at the Royal Court Theatre in London straight out of college. Within a few months he was running the literary department—a prestigious assignment that was nonetheless not entirely satisfying for the young writer. "After about a year I said, 'Look, I'm supposed to be writing plays,'" says Hampton. "And they said if I could get an assistant for some ridiculously small amount of money, I could shove some of the work onto him and write my plays. So I hired David Hare, who was 21 at the time." Hampton and Hare—who also later emerged as a well-known playwright—frequently discussed how they could go about having lasting careers as writers. "It didn't escape our attention that a lot of writers sort of came, flared up, had 10-year careers, then vanished," observes Hampton. "So I used to say, 'David, we'll be done by the time we're 30.' So I think subconsciously we started to prepare strategies as to how to avoid this problem. Mine was to diversify. So every now and then I've always liked to do something completely different. I started to translate plays. At one point, I had my television stint. I eventually got around to the thing of directing films. Just to not do that pure thing, really, where you just write the plays and inevitably you sort of find yourself writing the same play over and over again. Yes, you can get better at it; but, in the end, there are only so many plays. Even Samuel Beckett—you kind of sense that he started writing 30-second plays because that was the concentrate of what he'd been doing. It takes it out of you, repeating, going back into that furnace. Because writing a play is an exhausting thing to do. So I've tried to just keep refreshing myself by doing different things."

Some of those different things over the years have included penning the Oscar-winning screenplay to Dangerous Liaisons, an adaptation of his hit play Les Liaisons Dangereuses. He also translated Yasmina Reza's Art, which went on to win the Tony Award for best play, and he wrote the book for Andrew Lloyd Weber's Sunset Boulevard. And though he never had any intention of becoming a film director, he found himself behind the camera, guiding actors Emma Thompson and Jonathan Pryce in Carrington. "I only directed that because Mike Newell abandoned ship at the last minute and I had to do it," recalls Hampton. "I'd been working with Mike for about five years, and we had cast Emma and Jonathan and were starting to get on to the rest of the cast. Mike was in the middle of editing another film, and he came in one day and said, 'I'm very, very depressed. And I said, 'Why?' He said, 'Well, I'm editing this little English movie and it's not going to do anything, it's going to be a disaster. So I think I can't do Carrington, I have to go back to America and do a proper movie.' And the film, of course, was Four Weddings and a Funeral."

Hampton has even tried his hand at acting, appearing as a judge in the film adaptation of Total Eclipse, which starred Leonardo DiCaprio and David Thewlis. "Yes, I won't make that mistake again," Hampton jokes. "No, it was fine, but it was nerve-racking. It was Leonardo DiCaprio's idea, I'm afraid. When we were preparing the film in Paris we did a week around the table, so the principles had been cast but not the small parts. So I was there and would be reading in the small roles. And one day at the end of one of these sessions, I saw Leonardo whispering to [director] Agnieszka Holland. And she came up and said, 'We have decided you play the judge.' So there we are."

Hampton describes his on-screen experience as both fun and frightening, adding he has always had terrific empathy for actors. "I always wanted to be an actor when I was a kid and, in fact, I wrote my first play, which was called When Did You Last See My Mother? really to act in it," he reveals. "I wrote this great lead role, and I played it at university. And then the play got taken up, was put up at the Royal Court in London, and they cast this actor named Victor Henry who I hadn't heard of. And I went down and I saw him, and I thought, 'Well, he's not what I had in mind at all. He's too short and he's got a provincial accent.' Then he was so good in the part, so brilliant, I thought, 'OK, I better find something else to do.' Because I don't really think there's any point in being an actor unless you're going to be really, really good."

Coming Attractions

Up next for Hampton is a wide variety of projects, including the release of Imagining Argentina, a film he wrote and directed that reteams him with Thompson. He is also writing his first opera libretto to be scored by Philip Glass, and he is adapting Ian McEwan's novel Atonement for the big screen. And it was just announced that Dracula: The Musical, for which he wrote the book, will begin previews on Broadway July 12. With so many high-profile projects in so many different mediums, it would seem Hampton's plan to diversify has served him well. Asked how he does it, the writer simply says, "It's a combination of keeping your eye on the ball and moving from one sport to another." A goal Hampton accomplishes with what appears to be great ease. BSW

"The Talking Cure," presented by Center Theatre Group at Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A. Apr. 15-May 23. $31-47. (213) 628-2772.

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