Entertainment & Arts

John Logan on the tragedy of Peter and Alice

Judi Dench in rehearsals for Peter and Alice
Image caption Judi Dench in rehearsals for Peter and Alice

With his new play Peter and Alice about to open in the West End, Skyfall writer John Logan explains why it's taken two decades to reach the stage. But don't expect him to reveal anything about the next Bond film.

Twenty years ago, American playwright John Logan was flicking through a book at the home of a theatre director in Australia when he came across a fact that intrigued him.

The book was a biography of Alice Liddell Hargreaves, the real-life inspiration for Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland.

The intriguing fact was that in 1932, at the opening of a Lewis Carroll exhibition, an elderly Alice Liddell met Peter Llewelyn Davies - who as a boy had helped inspire JM Barrie's Peter Pan.

"I thought an 80-year-old woman and a 30-year-old man as the protagonists in a play was inherently interesting," says Logan, during the last day of rehearsals for Peter and Alice at a south London studio.

"I had a sense of what the tone of the piece was. It was very dark and involved, going to dark, intense places."

Starring Judi Dench and Ben Whishaw, Peter and Alice is Logan's first new play since Red at London's Donmar Warehouse in 2009. The play went on to win six Tony awards on Broadway.

This new work reunites Logan with Red's director, ex-Donmar boss Michael Grandage. It is the second play in the Michael Grandage Company's inaugural West End season.

"I wasn't psychologically ready to write this until I did Red and I met Michael Grandage. He is the artistic partner I'd waited for my whole life."

The pair will work again together next year when Grandage makes his film debut directing Genius, based on Logan's script about the literary editor Max Perkins.

Despite the title, Peter and Alice is not a two-hander like Red. The characters Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland are woven into the story, along with their creators JM Barrie and Lewis Carroll.

What Logan explores in Peter and Alice is how the lives of his characters were affected by World War I.

Two of Liddell's three sons were killed in action. Llewelyn Davies lost his brother George in the trenches and himself fought at the battle of Somme, aged 19. After two months he was invalided home, but was mentally scarred for life.

Image caption John Logan (left) and Michael Grandage during rehearsals for Peter and Alice

Another of his brothers, Michael, drowned, aged 20, in a suspected suicide at Oxford University in 1921.

"Both of them went through dense, layered complicated long-term tragedy," explains Logan. "The thing I found interesting is what uses they then made of their fictional counterparts to grapple with it.

"Peter Llewelyn Davies came to despise Peter Pan because to him it was a lie: Peter Pan was the boy who never grew up. To Peter the reason people never grew up was because they died horribly.

"Alice Liddell, on the other hand, went through these hardships and found a certain amount of solace in Alice in Wonderland near the end of her life, when she was rediscovered as the inspiration for the character."

007 reunion

Fans of the latest Bond film haven't failed to notice that Peter and Alice is something of a Skyfall reunion.

Logan co-wrote the screenplay, while Dame Judi returned as M and Ben Whishaw made his Bond debut as Q.

"It was delicious when we were shooting Skyfall because Ben and Judi and I all knew we were doing the play, but we couldn't talk about it, so we'd walk onto the set and have droll exchanges about our future."

Logan speaks of the "inherent earned gravitas" and "maternal benevolence" that Dame Judi brings to Alice. Whishaw, he adds, is an actor "willing to stand on the edge of an abyss and be vulnerable".

Logan knew that the play's themes would make writing it a difficult journey.

"Dramatists are not like novelists or painters or composers. We create people and we have to walk in their shoes and look at the world though their eyes.

"There's not a playwright I know who, when dealing with dark material, doesn't get depressed. They have to walk along that road alongside their characters for a while until they can send them off. It took a fair amount of preparation for me to get ready to do that.

Image caption Ben Whishaw (front) plays Peter Llewelyn Davies

"Now the anxiety of writing it has lifted to be replaced by the profound anxiety of human beings actually watching it."

With a career that includes Gladiator, The Aviator, Hugo and Coriolanus, Logan is one the most sought-after screenwriters in Hollywood.

Unsurprisingly, he is thrilled by the critical and box office success of Skyfall. "I'm really proud of the movie. I love Skyfall and I love Bond and that's why I'm doing the next two. I've done a lot of big movies but I've never done one where everyone cared so much."

And he deflects enquiries about the progress of Bonds 24 and 25 with practised ease.

"It's coming together very well, I'm very pleased with where it is. [Producer] Barbara Broccoli once said when you work on a Bond movie it's like you belong to MI6.

"I thought she was joking but I quickly realised when I had to shred drafts that it really is."

Even with two more Bond films on his agenda, Logan still sees himself as first and foremost a playwright.

Apart from Peter and Alice in the West End, another new Logan play. I'll Eat You Last - starring Bette Midler as legendary Hollywood agent Sue Mengers - opens on Broadway in April.

"The fact I ended up writing screenplays was just a sequence of little miracles," says Logan. "I'm still happiest here right here in London, rehearsing plays, than anywhere else on earth."

Peter and Alice is at the Noel Coward Theatre, London, until 1 June.

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