Man Booker Prizewinning author Ben Okri’s novella The Comic Destiny has been adapted for Hammersmith’s Riverside Studios. He tells Robert Cumber how it explores the nature of storytelling, and why there’s nothing better than a good walk to get the creative juices flowing.
WHEN Ben Okri first set eyes on David Johnstone, at a book signing in Edinburgh, he knew he was the man to direct his surreal fable The Comic Destiny.
The founder of experimental theatre company Lazzi was last in a long queue of fans but the Man Booker Prize-winning author of The Famished Road claims he instantly realised there was something different about him.
“I looked at him and got a good feeling. I asked him to call me and that began a conversation, including a long walk in Hyde Park,” explains the Nigerian-born author, who lives in Little Venice.
“I like his spirit. He seemed to be someone open to surprise and without a fixed view of what theatre should be. There was just something unusual about him.”
Three years later, Johnstone’s adaptation of the novella, from Okri’s short story collection Tales of Freedom, has just finished a successful run at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe ahead of Tuesday’s opening at the Riverside Studios.
Okri describes the story, of a young couple and an asylum escapee among other ‘afflicted’ characters, in their search for the same mysterious room, as one of the hardest he has ever had to write. He always thought it would make a good play but admits it was never going to be easy to adapt, which is why he had to find the right person for the job.
“It was a forbidding task and David was intimidated by it at first because it’s not an easy text to pry open,” he says.
“It’s written very simply but it took me many, many years to write and people who have read it tend to find it difficult to grasp what’s going on.
“Every piece of writing is a very intense process, but The Comic Destiny was one of the most fraught and long-lasting processes.
“It was hard to let go (of the finished work).”
Once Okri had chosen Johnstone, he was happy to leave him to his own devices and is delighted with the result, which he describes as a ‘meeting between two visions’.
“It’s extraordinarily rich, strange, mysterious and full of energy. What you get is a different play every night, influenced by everything from the theatre of the absurd to Laurel and Hardy,” he says.
Like most of Okri’s work, The Comic Destiny explores the roots of inspiration and creativity.
He describes writing as being ‘woven’ into his life but admits the process of ‘releasing the possibility of an idea’ is far from easy.
While many authors claim physical work helps get the creative juices flowing, and the acclaimed Japanese author Haruki Marukami swears by running, Okri takes a more relaxed approach.
“Long walks are a big part of the writing process for me. I couldn’'t think while running – that’s for athletes – but walking is just the right pace to allow thoughts to bubble to the surface,” he says.
The Comic Destiny is at Hammersmith’s Riverside Studios from Tuesday to Sunday, September 9. Tickets, priced £15 to £17, are available at www.riversidestudios.co.uk or from the box office on 020 8237 1111 link to article online