Sandel, the stage adaptation of Angus Stewart’s well-known cult gay novel, adapted and directed by Glenn Chandler, was one of the major critical hits at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe. A new London production of Sandel, again directed by Glenn Chandler, opens at Above the Stag next week.
I visited the Sandel creatives and cast as they began rehearsals, to talk about the novel, the play, the new London production, and how and why the piece is still relevant today.
Sandel is set in Oxford in the 1960s and tells the story of a love affair between a 19 year old undergraduate, David Rogers, and a precocious and beautiful Cathedral choirboy, Antony Sandel. The third character in the play is David’s Catholic friend, Bruce Lang, who is studying to be a priest. Sandel is intended to delight and shock and is more controversial today than it was in the 1960s.
I interviewed Sandel’s director Glenn Chandler (GC) who adapted Angus Stewart’s novel for the stage. Chandler is a Scottish playwright and novelist and has written plays for theatre and radio, original screenplays for television and films, and television series. His best-known work is the Scottish TV detective series, Taggart.
What drew you to the material? Why did you want to bring this story to the stage?
GC: A publisher with whom I was working on another project told me he was desperate to reissue it. I remembered reading Sandel as a teenager and got hold of a copy – at great expense from Canada – and as I read it I just burned to put it on the stage.
It was a beautiful love story with an amazing setting, Oxford in the 1960s, yet incredibly controversial – and I enjoy a challenge!
Why did you want to tell this story now?
GC: I was advised to wait a few years. But I think this is the right time. We’re in the middle of a moral panic, and here’s the story of a 19 year old and a 14 year old who find mutual happiness, and a shared interest in music, and in which the younger boy is the groomer and manipulator of the older. We could say that the older boy should know better.
But in the 1960s, in the hothouse atmosphere of public schools and universities, there was a totally different ethos. Homosexuality was only just being legalised over 21 – both characters, the older and the younger, were underage.
Did you face any particular challenges adapting the novel for the stage? What were they?
GC: Adapting the novel wasn’t the main challenge – a lot of Angus Stewart’s dialogue trips off the page, and his characters are beautifully drawn. I did have to condense.
There are lots of characters in the novel who aren’t in the play – the choirboy’s aunt, Ricks the tutor, Dr Jones the head of the choir school. To have put those characters in the play would have meant other actors coming in to do just a couple of scenes – never practical.
I wanted to do it as a three hander – David, Tony and David’s friend Bruce, and concentrate on their relationships. The other characters are simply referred to throughout the play.
Do you think the novel, or play, is controversial?
GC: Decidedly so, and even more controversial than it was in the 1960s. The Sunday Telegraph at that time described it as a “love which is not despicable”. This was a choirboy sleeping with a teacher! Which national newspaper would dare to describe it as such now? But then we are half a century on.
What impact would you like it to have?
GC: I want it to delight people. I want them to see it as a beautiful love affair, and then pull themselves up short and say “Hey, but just a minute!” I think people will be emotionally and morally torn, not sure which side to come down on. And that makes for good theatre. I expected to get mixed responses. More than anything, I wanted people to think, to feel, to come away not quite sure of their position.
What sort of reception did your get in Edinburgh, both from critics and the public?
GC: Critical reception in Edinburgh was universally excellent, except for one blogger who described me as morally desolate. The Scotsman critic loved it, but didn’t feel she could review it! The Sunday Express, not known for its liberal views, said it was a gem of a play and might just change one’s mind about the subject matter. Yes, truly.
Audiences were often stunned, not knowing whether they should applaud such a controversial ending – no spoilers here! A few people were left in tears. Some came back four, five, six times. I think it got under peoples’ skin.
Do you think you will get a different response at Above the Stag in Vauxhall, London?
GC: Who knows? One can never predict audiences, and Edinburgh and London audiences are notoriously different. What a primarily gay audience will make of it, I wait to see. Ticket sales are booming, so nobody seems to be frightened away by the subject matter.
How will the London show be different from the Edinburgh show?
GC: There are two new members of cast. Ashley Cousins, who spent three and a half years in Billy Elliot, plays the choirboy Antony Sandel. And Joseph Lindoe plays David Rogers, who becomes his teacher. Their pairing creates a very different chemistry.
The play is also longer, as it is the two-act version. I was able to go back to the novel and extract more stuff that I didn’t have time to do in Edinburgh, such as their picnic in the Cotswold hills and the encounter with an American bomber from the Brize Norton Airforce Base. Now that’s fun to do on stage!
What are the key differences between writing for TV and film and writing for the stage?
GC: Writing for TV you only have control over the script – and very often, not even that. On stage, you have control over everything. Casting, direction, production values, the lot. You stand or fall.
What do you love about writing for the stage?
It’s always different. A TV programme can be shown a hundred times and it it never changes. A stage play changes every night, matures, evolves. Sandel is still evolving in rehearsal and will do so throughout its run at Above the Stag.
How do you find directing your own work? Are there any particular challenges?
GC: You have to be disciplined. To wear two hats. You can’t get precious about your writing. Very often my actors suggest they might say different lines, and you have to listen to them. There’s always a reason for it, and its usually a good one.
You have to recognise a bad bit of writing and turn it round. I wrote one new scene for Sandel which just didn’t work when I tried to direct it – so the director side of me forced me back to the drawing board, to accept it was my fault.
I think directing your own work is a valuable lesson, if you allow it to be. I would say that to become a good writer, you have to work with good directors. To become a good director, you have to work with good directors. Nobody ever learnt anything from working with writers!
What do you love about directing?
GC: Working with actors. I love them.
I also interviewed all three actors in the play – Ashley Cousins (AC) playing Antony Sandel, Joseph Lindoe (JL) playing David Rogers, and Calum Fleming (CF) playing Bruce Lang. Cousins and Lindoe are new to Sandel, whilst Fleming is reprising the role of Lang which he performed in Edinburgh.
Were you familiar with the novel Sandel before you auditioned for/were cast in the play?
All the actors said their first encounter with the novel was when they auditioned for, or were cast in, the play. Being involved in the play had encouraged them to read the book and they were all enjoying reading the novel.
AC: The stage adaptation retains the narrative and plot of the novel, its essence, but cuts to the chase.
CF: If I had read the novel without being involved in the play, I would have thought the cultural setting and context of the novel – a Choir School, Oxbridge in the 60s, and the heavy focus on the world of the Arts and Music – was not relevant to me and did not speak to my life experience of being a young man growing up in Edinburgh. Being in the play made the novel accessible to me.
JL: The stage adaptation has raised awareness and will introduce many new people to the novel. One of my friends is even reading the novel as part of her book group because she is coming to see me in the play!
Do you think the novel, or play, is controversial? If so, why?
JL: The story is controversial because it depicts a love story between a pupil and a teacher, where the younger boy is clearly below the current age of consent, and where the older boy is in a position of power, being a teacher. Many people have no issue with the relationship until Rogers becomes Sandel’s teacher, and at that point they feel Rogers should have ended the relationship.
AC: The play would be even more controversial, and clearer cut, if Sandel was a girl. Then everyone would see the relationship as inappropriate. Despite all the advances towards women’s equality, people still feel girls need more protection from potential male predators, whilst boys should be able to look out for themselves. But young boys are just as vulnerable as young girls, and are often more emotionally and sexually immature.
Why and how do you think the novel and the play are relevant to a modern-day audience?
AC: The novel is very relevant to today’s audiences because it is essentially a love story about the relationship between a teacher and pupil. Most people can relate to having a crush on a teacher. Whilst the world in which the story is set is outside most people’s experience, the love story is universal and is something everyone can understand and relate to.
Can you say a bit about your respective characters, their motivations, how you are portraying and interpreting them, and whether you identify or empathise with them?
JL: In portraying Rogers, I am trying to focus on his inner turmoil, the struggle between his conscience and his desire and passion for Sandel. In playing Rogers, I have to empathize with him and sympathise with his predicament. If I played Rogers as a villain, the play would not work.
AC: It is possible to play Sandel as a manipulative devil but I have tried to put myself in Sandel’s shoes and understand his motives for behaving in the way that he does. Sandel was bound by rules and regulations in all aspects of his life, as a choir boy and within his family. His relationship with Rogers was the one area of his life where he was able to take control and to be in the driving seat. It is important to understand his behaviour in that context. I see Sandel’s relationship with Rogers as his personal bid for freedom.
CF: Lang could be seen as the moral conscience of the play, encouraging Rogers to do the right thing. But I don’t see this as something to be admired because it conveniently coincides with Lang’s own personal vested interests. I have not yet made my mind up about the Rogers character. Initially I wondered what would drive someone to pursue such an unsuitable relationship? Then I realised it was same as me liking doughnuts. Sandel represented temptation, temptation Rogers could not resist even though he knew it was bad for him, in the same way that I can’t resist eating doughnuts!
Has the way you interpret or play your character Lang developed or changed since Edinburgh? If yes, how?
CF: My portrayal of Lang is constantly evolving. I have not looked back at the Edinburgh script and I am coming to the London production fresh. This London production of Sandel has a new script and two new actors. Having two new actors in the roles of Sandel and Rogers creates a new dynamic and I am responding to the different ways JL and AC are playing their respective roles. This will make for a slightly different Lang.
How did you research what it was like to be a young man growing up in the 1960s, especially in the context of a choir school and Oxford colleges?
JL: My research was easy! My parents were students at Cambridge in the early 1970s and so I asked them about their lives and experiences at that time. They told me all about college life, including all the rules and regulations and curfews. College life for students was much more restrictive than it is now.
AC: I researched the daily life and routines of a choir boy within a choir school. I found the diary entries fascinating and was struck by all the rules, regulations and restrictions, and the traditions the choir boys had to abide by. From reading these diaries I developed the idea that, for Sandel, Rogers was a chance to break all the rules and represented a very personal bid for freedom.
CF: I visited my local library and found a long-forgotten book about queer life in the 1960s. The book had not been taken out for so long that it was gathering dust! The book gave me a fresh insight into what it was like to be gay at that time, when practicing homosexuality was still a criminal offence which could send you to prison.
I loved the afternoon I spent with the Sandel cast and crew – both conducting the interviews and watching them rehearse. And I am really looking forward to the Sandel Press Night on Thursday 22 May so I can see the fruits of their labours and once again experience the sheer joy and delight of seeing the novel Sandel brought to life on the stage.
Sandel plays at Above the Stag Theatre, Vauxhall, London from 20 May to 14 June 2014.
I will be reviewing Sandel for Vada Magazine in a couple of weeks.
Angus Stewart’s novel, Sandel, long out of print, was republished by Pilot Press last year.