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Julian Clary and Janet Ellis
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Editor's Note: Stephen Wakelam is the writer of the play Waiting For The Boatman. The programme is broadcast on Friday 16 March on BBC Radio 4 as the Afternoon Drama. PM

It was the director, Sasha Yevtushenko, who suggested to me - maybe three years ago - the idea for a play about the painter Caravaggio. The anniversary of his death was coming up: 1610. I'd read the Helen Langdon biography and had been knocked out by an exhibition of his late canvases in 2005 at the National Gallery, so didn't need much encouragement.

The life is dramatic enough - murder, scandal, feuds.... For a long time, I couldn't see how to do it. I spent a lot of time staring at reproductions of the paintings and, in doing so, started to recognise certain faces. These were Caravaggio's friends and (it doesn't need much imagining) lovers. There they are, looking out at us, sunburnt hands/necks, dirty feet and all.

Sasha didn't press, had maybe given me up, and the 2010 anniversary of the painter's death had almost passed when the key finally turned in the lock - what I fancied writing was a play about Caravaggio in which the painter never appears. Needless to say, I worked it out carefully as a synopsis before trying this notion on the director. I suppose I was thinking about 'The Third Man' in which the Joseph Cotton character, a decent guy, comes out to Vienna to look up his friend, Harry Lime/Orson Welles and gets a shock. My central character would be not the great painter but his one time associate, Mario Minniti, a Sicilian, the model for 'The Boy with the Basket of Fruit.'

In my synopsis, Mario would arrive in Naples only to find Caravaggio dead. After some initial hesitation at this Hamlet without the Prince, Sasha signed up to the idea. There was the usual hiatus before we got the commission and I went out to France last June with the best part of a car boot full of Caravaggio books to start the detailed research, which usually gets me underway with the writing itself.

Scraps of dialogue find their way into my notes. A new character appeared - not in the synopsis - when I learnt that, while in Naples (the setting for the play) Caravaggio had a Flemish art dealer, Abraham Vinck. An important aspect was selecting which relevant paintings to include in a 45 minute play. I was particularly interested in a couple which have disappeared or he never finished, and it was one of these, a 'Circumcision,' decided me on a main location - a Dominican Friary in a poor quarter of Naples. I have never been to Naples, but that doesn't matter so much in radio, where the well-placed fillip of detail can do the trick for the listener. I read travellers' accounts and, back in Britain and underway with the play, spent a number of happy hours on Google Maps down at street level, moving my way around the city as a virtual tourist.

There's a moment in the play where Minniti, my central character, looks down from a balcony in what we'd now call a gay bar and thinks he sees someone he recognises. Or, at least, that's what happens in the finished script. I'd got to this scene - though hadn't choreographed it - while house-sitting a friend's house, looked down to the garden where a young-ish workman was eating his packed lunch. He threw his head back, taking a swig of his drink, and my scene was - with his simple lingering gesture - polished off.

Language is a difficulty in any play set four hundred years ago. It's all rather odd, if you think about it. It should be in Italian or one of its (presumably) strong dialects. But I don't run to Neapolitan. I read chunks of one of the few English prose works from around that time, 'Memoirs of Colonel Hutchinson,' and also picked up Rousseau's Confessions - a good century later (and in a translation at that) but strong on feelings. They suggested to me odd turns of phrase - giving the narration and some of the dialogue an 'authenticity.' Sasha, the director, got me to develop the underlying emotional line of the story. My clue for this had been something a model of Lucien Freud's (one of his lovers) said. I paraphrase: 'When he was looking at you, you never knew if it was love or work...' Andrew Graham-Dixon's biography of Caravaggio, which came out while I was underway with the play, helped me with useful new information - or intelligent speculation - on Caravaggio's death and how the news, via a boatman, reached Naples; it also gave me my title.

Detailed plot always comes late with me and Sasha pushed me finally to heighten - as far as I wanted to - the detective/conspiratorial element in the script. He was beginning to spot things about the play that I couldn't articulate and helping bring them more to the surface. He did the casting.

It is hard to imagine an actor more on top of his game than David Tennant. To hear him and another distinguished Hamlet, Anton Lesser, was thrilling. We were well served by the actors. I couldn't come in for the last stages of the edit - I had 'flu - so received the finished version in CD form. When I played it to a friend, watching her reactions quietly, she said at the end, 'Was this the play you said you had difficulties with?' 'Yes,' I said, 'it was trickier than most.' 'Not that you'd notice,' she said.

Writer, Stephen Wakelam, February/ March 2012.

See Caravaggio pictures from BBC News

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  • Comment number 2. Posted by maqtavish

    on 16 Mar 2012 20:41

    I'd no idea that so much research and work would go into a radio play. I must listen to the podcast.
    While philthehombre's comment is a bit to unwieldy for me to get my head round, I support his implied plea for a caption to the picture. I know it's David Tennant on the right, and I guess Stephen Wakelam in the centre. As for the bloke on the left, my guess, based on the blog, is that it's either Anton Lesser or the director, Sasha Yevtushenko.

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  • Comment number 1. Posted by philthehombre

    on 16 Mar 2012 16:11

    Since both Ed's collapsing of a future Friday into the 'is broadcast' of a timeless Thursday and Caravaggio's life ran and buried into Steven's similar 'life is' point to something of the tenseless abandon,vividness and immediacy of a transcribed dialect where temporal perspectives are very often inferred free of the sapping elaboration of written down words-then if for nothing else, one will look forward to Steven's and the et al's of the captionless pic(dialectic like saved from anon)-go at a neopolitan.

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