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Hugh Leonard, playwright

About his work for stage, page and screen

Month

November 2014

The Poker Session

Hugh Leonard’s play, The Poker Session, treats the themes of betrayal and blame.  The playwright discussed some of the play’s complexities in his production note to the acting edition.  “The Poker Session is not only a play of detection: it contains also the elements of a comedy, a thriller, a tragedy, an allegory and a black farce. It is for the intending producer to decide upon his own interpretation – to find his own ‘through line’, as it were. pokersessionOn the surface, the play seems to be completely naturalistic: the story of a young man who is spending his first evening at home after a year in a mental institution. Its basic appeal to an audience stems from the several questions it poses: such questions as ‘Is Billy now sane?’ ‘Why has Des, the missing guest, failed to show up?’ and, most important of all, ‘Who drove Billy into the asylum?’

“But the play’s apparent simplicity may prove deceptive. The Poker Session may be understood (and misunderstood) on a number of more ‘subterranean’ levels. To give one example: although we see poker being played hardly at all in the course of the action, the play has none the less been written so that it resembles a rather hectic game of what Teddy calls ‘stand-up poker’. Each character behaves towards the others in the same way as he or she would behave during an actual poker game.”

The Poker Session was first presented by Gemini Productions during the 1963 Dublin Theatre Festival and subsequently staged in London (1964) and New York (1967 and 1984). Marius Goring played Teddy in the first production. Colm Meaney appeared in the NY 1984 production. Professional and amateur productions continue. The cast is: 3M 3F.

 

Great Expectations

Hugh Leonard’s stage adaptation betrays his life-long attachment to the work of Charles Dickens, especially Great Expectations.

My great-aunt Julia lived in a ramshackle drunkard of a house … I remember an old woman dressed in unending dusty layers of grey and black who called to our house one day and presented me with a mildewed copy of Great Expectations and then pushed a halfpenny into my hand with the unassailable observation that as long as I kept it I would always have money. My new affluence was short-lived, for she returned the following day to inform my mother that ‘I want me bewk and me ha’penny back, if ye please’. … and although she retrieved both the coin … and the book, the harm had been done. I had already travelled the marshes with Pip, stolen bread for Magwitch and nearly had a seizure when uncle Pumblechook drank the tar water…”

GreatexpectationscoverSo wrote Hugh Leonard in his memoir Home Before Night. In the 1960s Leonard forged a reputation in writing for stage and the new medium of television and in 1967 adapted the first of many classic works as TV serials, mainly for the BBC in Britain. This was of course Great Expectations. In the early 1990s, Leonard returned to Great Expectations and adapted it for the stage for the Gate Theatre in a production directed by Alan Stanford.  Hugh Leonard’s adaptation continues to be staged by professional and amateur groups. It has been described as “bringing to life all the vivid characters of the original and conveying the story with great clarity, atmosphere and theatrical flair”.

The cast comprises nine male and six female with some doubling possible.  In his adapter’s note to the published edition Leonard wrote of his stage play “There are two Pips, not for reasons of stagecraft, but because there are two in Dickens’ book: the country boy and the young man he becomes. I have tried to reflect this duality by doubling some of the other parts and by stressing the double life of that delightful schizophrenic, Wemmick”.  It has been staged with a set comprising three thematic zones that are otherwise minimalist.

Leonard has also adapted A Tale of Two Cities for the stage.

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