This week the team at Above The Stag Theatre open their new production of Maurice, based on the classic book by EM Forster. This tale of forbidden gay love is set in the early years of the 20th century and was made into a film in 1987 by Merchant Ivory, starring a young Hugh Grant and James Wilby in the title role, who is now directing this new production at the UK’s only full time LGBT+ theatre. Dave Cross met up with James to talk about the play, the book and returning to the world of Maurice.
Hi James, for those who haven’t seen the film or read the book, what’s the basic story of Maurice?
I don’t want to give too much away, but it’s effectively a love story – actually, two love stories. One that goes wrong and one that goes right. EM Forster wanted very much to write a gay love story that had a happy ending, or as happy as it could be for two gay men in the early 20th century in England.
Even when the film came out in the 80s gay characters were rarely seen in a positive light, so it was quite daring…
Yes, Beautiful Launderette came out around the same time as Maurice, but even in the late 80s most gay characters were just stereotypes and often tragic. There was a play by John Osborne called A Patriot For Me, which I was in actually, about a young officer in the Austro-Hungarian Army at the turn of the century who we know is gay. He works his way up through the ranks to become a colonel and has loads of affairs along the way, and becomes a spy for the Russians because they blackmail him. When they made a film based on it in 1985 they almost totally removed the gay part of the story.
How was the film Maurice received when it was released?
It was fantastically successful in places like France, but in the UK, Thatcher had brought in Clause 28 and there was a slight regression here, with a rise in gay bashing. We were getting rave reviews abroad, but not so much here, and even known gay film reviewers seemed afraid to be too enthusiastic.
And it must have been much worse when Forster wrote the book?
Yes, if it had been published in his lifetime he would probably have been arrested. I guess he could have been by the late 60s, but I don’t think he wanted to go there when he was in his late 80s, so it wasn’t published until 1971, after his death the previous year.
How does the play differ from the book and film?
Obviously theatre is a very different medium to film, but the film version was very faithful to the book and the play is too.
Maurice was your first major film role and here you are directing the play; it’s obviously special to you…
The book is extraordinary, an amazing piece of writing. All through it you keep thinking about the choices Forster makes as a writer.
His hero is not a conventional hero. He has many, many flaws, he’s a snob, he’s not particularly intelligent – Forster describes him as ‘mentally torpid’. Into this Forster adds the complication of him being gay, which means he has to rethink his whole life because of the time he is in. I’ve read the book many times; there’s nothing quite like re-reading a book that you love, especially when it’s so well written as this.
Is this your first directing job?
I’ve directed children in a play and I think if you can work with kids you can probably work with anyone. It did give me a taste and I have wanted to direct for a while. Of course if you’re an actor who decides to direct you do have to start at the bottom and work up, you can’t just waltz in and start at the National. You need somewhere to start.
So how did this happen?
I was actually invited to direct by Peter Bull, here at Above The Stag, and I said yes instantly. When I went into the film it was my first film role and I did that, so I figure I can do this as my first proper directing job.
In the book and film there are lots of different locations – how are you handling that here?
David Shields, the set designer here, is brilliant and we agreed straight away on a more abstract concept for the set, rather than try to recreate all the different locations in the book that we see in the film, from mansions, boats, museums and much more. In fact we use the set to show the pressure that Maurice is under. We use it as part of the storytelling rather than just a background.
Obviously you played the title role in the film – how has it been to direct another actor as Maurice?
Tom, who plays the role, is really good. He’s coming to acting a little bit later in life; he was a journalist and he’s learning all the time, which is great. I’ve been careful that it’s his Maurice, not just a copy of mine. He’s dark haired so that gives the part a different vibe to my blond film one. The whole cast are very good, as are all the team here, so it’s been a total pleasure and I can’t wait for everyone to see the finished show.