Barry Didcock

It’s a bitter, dark, snow-affected day in Edinburgh but inside the studio space of the Royal Lyceum Theatre the cast of the venue’s upcoming production have a toasty if slightly chaotic refuge.

The play they’re rehearsing is Mrs Puntila And Her Man Matti which, if you don’t know it, is by Bertolt Brecht, the German Marxist who fled the Nazis in 1933 and is viewed by many as the Godfather of political theatre. If you do know the play you’ll also know that in its original form the Mrs of the title is a Mr. Which brings us neatly to author Denise Mina, who has adapted the play to accommodate a female lead, and actress Elaine C Smith, who will take the role.

Mina, just off the train from Glasgow, breezes in with a sunny hullo and settles down at a table. Smith (to stick with the weather metaphor) arrives like a whirlwind, virtually mid-anecdote (something about the previous night’s Oscars) and takes a seat opposite. The anecdote continues with an observation about how much Mina reminds her of American comedian Kristen Wiig and how great Wiig’s Oscars ceremony double act with fellow Bridesmaids star Maya Rudolph had been. And so on and so on. (I’ll learn over the course of the next hour that Smith and Mina make a pretty decent double act themselves. “Just jump in,” is the advice they give me at one point when the torrent of words eases a little. Easier said than done.)

The two women first met a decade and a half ago. “My mum had just died,” says Smith. “I work everything out from when my mother died. It was that pivotal.”

The how/when/why story which knits the rest of the tale together twists this way and that, heads down a few blind alleys then detours back around again. So for the sake of brevity, here are the salient points. It starts with Mina’s aunt, a near neighbour of Smith’s in Shettleston, bumping into the actress in the area’s celebrated Calder Stores shop one day and thanking her for a review she had written of one of her niece’s novels. It continues with Mina then sending Smith a copy of a short story she wanted to turn into a play, and a note saying (as Smith remembers it): “I read somewhere that when Mario Puzo wrote The Godfather he sent it straight to Marlon Brando, so I’m sending this to you because I can’t think of anybody else that could play it”. And it ends with Smith taking the lead in that play, Ida Tamson, when it was performed at Òran Mór in 2006, and again when it was revived last year. “For the purposes of this interview, we’re great friends,” says Smith, beaming.

And now here they are again, putting Brecht onto an Edinburgh stage at the behest of playwright David Greig, since 2016 the artistic director of the Royal Lyceum Theatre. And why them? Because Greig saw Smith starring in Aladdin at the King’s Theatre in Glasgow, suggested to her that they work together on a Brecht adaptation – “He said: ‘We want to do this marrying of politics and culture and we want it bold’,” Smith recalls – and then agreed to her suggestion that Mina write the script. Completing the creative trio is in-demand Turkish director Murat Daltaban, founder of Istanbul’s DOT Theatre and the man who brought an acclaimed production of Eugène Ionesco’s absurdist fable The Rhinoceros to the Edinburgh International Festival in 2017.

Fatefully, when Greig rang Mina with the proposal she was actually in Berlin and had just bought tickets to visit the Brecht Museum, located in the house he occupied after he returned to live in East Berlin in 1949. The next day she sent Greig a photo of Brecht’s grave in the nearby Dorotheenstädtischer cemetery with the message, ‘Research so far: still dead’.

Gallows humour aside, the author admits to having an “intense” relationship with the German and his work.

“I grew up in South London and when I was about 15 my school had a very strict no smoking policy which I found rather restrictive, so I just stopped going to school,” she explains. In place of formal education she discovered a local theatre based in an old bakery and began working in it as a stage manager. It was there she first encountered Brecht in the form of his one of his most famous works, The Caucasian Chalk Circle. “It was very intense and it was really kind of formative because I liked theatre but I didn’t like realistic theatre and I didn’t like emotive theatre. So I’ve always really loved Brecht.”

Smith, too, is something of a Brecht nut. She recalls spending her formative years watching productions of his work at venues such as the Citizens Theatre. “I didn’t do any Brecht at school but at drama school he was the God in the 1970s, particularly if you were political,” she says. “And of course I started in political theatre. John McGrath gave me my first job, then it was Wildcat, and all I wanted to do was political theatre. So there’s a big circle in this for me over 40 years, or whatever. I wanted to be in theatre that said something.”

Brecht’s plays certainly do that. Written in 1940 and set in Finland, Mr Puntila And His Man Matti is a comedy following the titular character, an aristocratic land-owner, as he swings between sobriety and drunken-ness with his much put-upon servant in tow. Mina’s adaptation switches the action to Argyll and reverses the gender of the lead without losing any of the character’s obnoxious qualities. For Smith, that’s one of the most appealing aspects of the production.

“I was brought up in the 1970s an absolute feminist. Still am, nothing’s changed. But I’m no longer the feminist that believes women can’t be complete horrors. There was a thing where you protected women who got into power or were shocked that a woman would behave badly or sack her workers or whatever, so there’s something liberating for me now in playing this woman.”

Mina chips in. “Someone suggested doing an all-woman cast but you can’t do that now because of trans rights, and it’s not something you would have been aware of before – that a stated gender is, in and of itself, really problematic for some people. But actually from the text of the play, in this moment, it’s very important that Puntila is a woman because the sexual politics of the play are really problematic. In the original play Puntila often sexually harasses female members of staff, which was funny then but is now deeply problematic. So if Puntila had been male that would have been a very difficult navigation, I think”.

Another theme of the play is alcohol. Here again Smith thinks it’s appropriate that Puntila is a woman.

“What I think is really, really interesting is the role of alcohol in women’s lives,” she says. “I do my stand-up shows and 80% of my audience are women and I can’t believe the number of women that are carried out – not because I’m that bad but just because they’re steaming … I went to see [comedy duo] The Dolls as well and I was sitting in a sea of drunk women in the afternoon, at a matinee. Part of me is going: ‘F*** is that what we did? Did feminism just mean the right for women to get as pished and be as much of a pain in the arse as men?’”

But as much as the play is a collaboration between two Scottish talents with trenchant political views regarding their homeland, it’s also an international production which pulls in ideas and sensibilities from further afield and from ages past. Brecht, for instance, was an avowed Marxist who lived through the Weimar Republic and witnessed the rise of the Nazis and whose work drew on the traditions of commedia dell’arte as well his own theories about theatre. The play’s award-winning Turkish director, meanwhile, comes from an artistic environment in which intimidation of theatre-makers is commonplace and marked by what he has referred to in the past as “psychological repression”. In the teeth of that repressions his Istanbul-based company has put on plays such as Mark Ravenhill’s Shopping And F***ing, the Simon Stephens pair Pornography and Punk Rock and, tellingly, Anthony Neilson’s The Censor. All in all it’s quite a mash-up of influences and styles, which is presumably what David Greig intended when he commissioned the project. So how are the women enjoying the process?

“It has been a journey,” says Mina. “Murat’s doing things which are baffling and then suddenly you realise what it’s going to look like”. Smith is a little more earthy in her appraisal. “The first week I was going: ‘What the f*** have I done?’,” she laughs.

The fact that Daltaban works through a translator only adds to the air of creative chaos, but I get the sense from both Mina and Smith that it’s chaos of the energising and inspiring variety. Empowering too, in its way, and particularly well suited to Scottish theatre, with its strong roots in music hall, its love of panto and slapstick, and its more recent tradition in which actors and playwrights relish breaking the fourth wall and addressing audiences directly.

It’s a point that isn’t lost on Smith. “I say this as someone who adores English theatre but the tradition of English theatre is that you receive it. It’s reverent, but we’re quite irreverent.”

Across the table Mina nods. “I think here there is a distrust of reverence and also I think in all art forms people are more questioning of the high art/low art distinctions, so they’re less passive recipients of arts,” she says. “Theatre, for me, has to be irreverent. Brecht drew so much from music hall and he was very much a populist, but I’ve seen so much bad Brecht because it’s done with a hand on the chin.”

Ponderous, worthy and chin stroking this production is not. Brecht himself worried that he would only be seen as a writer of farce – “He thought it undercut how seriously he would be taken as an artist,” says Mina – but this production plays unabashedly to those farcical elements.

“People think more, particularly in Scotland, if you make them laugh first,” says Smith, who knows a thing or two about comedy. “They’ll hear it. I think Brecht was onto something. But I also understand why he didn’t want to be known as somebody who only wrote farce.”

I think about jumping in but instead I just let it run.

Mina: “It’s about the place of humour in culture. There’s this idea that humour cannot be profound, it cannot be significant, it’s a throw-away thing.”

Smith: “I think that still persists. If you are someone – particularly a woman – who smiles at the camera, then because we’re brought up to smile and make people feel comfortable you’re not really taken that seriously.”

Lunch break over, it’s back to the afternoon session, to Murat Daltaban and his translator and to the creative chaos which promises to make Mrs Puntila And Her Man Matti one of the highlights of the theatrical year. As for it adapter and its star, I don’t think there’s any risk of them not being taken seriously no matter how much they smile for the camera.

Mrs Puntila And Her Man Matti runs at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh until March 21 and then transfers to the Citizens Theatre Glasgow (March 25 to April 11)