|Profile: Patrick Marber
|by Tim Adams of the Observer
Patrick Marber knows
exactly what he is capable of. His new play, Howard Katz, which opens at the
National Theatre next month, is the story of a man who at the age of 50 leaves
his wife and kids and 'throws his life in the air to search for his soul'.
Marber tells friends that he wrote it 'to give myself a warning'. Patrick
Marber is 36 and currently lives happily in London with his actress girlfriend
and his West Highland Terrier.
This time, it seems, he's getting his
self-help in early. Marber's first play, Dealer's Choice, about a poker game,
was, in part, an exorcising of gambling demons. He had been in the habit,
before he wrote it, of losing in one night up to £10,000 he didn't have.
He had tried Gambler's Anonymous but found drama more effective: he'll hardly
ever play for more than £1,000 these days, and it's all his own money.
His second play, Closer, brought
him nearer to home. 'In the summer of 1996, a bit of life happened to me,' he
explained, deadpan. 'Romantic stuff, a series of events in my personal life. I
thought, this is good stuff, I can use it.' The play, a savage, compressed
comedy of sex and betrayal, threw up a series of epigrams for modern romance -
'Kind is dull, kind will kill you. Anyone can be fucking KIND' - and left its
audience with a lasting image of love. 'Ever seen a human heart?' it asked. 'It
looks like a fist wrapped in blood.' When Closer transferred to Broadway, the
New York Times critic observed that 'Mr Marber is a dramatist to make Racine,
the classic chronicler of fatal passion, seem like an optimist.'
said that when he wrote the play he had come to the conclusion that 'there is
no such thing as an honest relationship. The best you can hope for is an honest
relationship with yourself'. He long ago decided that the best way to pursue
the latter was to write about it. His subject has always been how much of
ourselves we are prepared to risk giving away, and the consequences of that
self-exposure. He writes, in other words, like a poker player.
tempting to think of his character at the card table as revealing. The
columnist Victoria Coren recalls how, as a player, 'he always reminded me of
the opening lines of Cincinnati Kid: "He was a tight man. Everything about him
was close and quiet, his gestures were short and cleared with no wasted
Anthony Holden, who also shares Marber's obsession,
suggests that 'his is the definitive poker face, often hidden behind a plume of
cigarette smoke. For a witty guy, he can be quieter at the table than you might
expect (much like his friend David Mamet)'.
Marber's weakness is that
he sometimes gambles on hands he shouldn't. 'People like Patrick and me,' says
Holden, 'who play poker to escape from the rest of our lives, tend occasionally
to play too loose for the hell of it: it's a chance to defy rules we're not
supposed to defy in other areas of life.'
Writing is, of course,
another option. Marber grew up in suburban Wimbledon, but wished he could say
he came from Camden Town or Islington. His father worked in the City; Marber
knew, he says, from the age of 10, that words might prove an escape route. In
his teens he was the kind of boy who would go to the National Theatre on his
own and sit in the foyer writing notes in the margins of Camus or Bukowski.
At Oxford he was inspired by the Marxist critic, Terry Eagelton, and
made an assault on his shyness by becoming a stand-up comedian. 'He had a big
coat, too,' remembers one friend. 'And he tried that enigmatic, brainy thing.'
Eagelton recalls Marber as not a brilliant student 'but someone with a
lot of imaginative flair, and always this wry and melancholic air'. He went to
see him a couple of times in a revue called Dross Bros, which Marber performed
with his friend, Guy Browning.
'It was a kind of toothless satire,' his
tutor recalls, approvingly. He wouldn't have singled out Marber for greatness.
'He was too modest to have that theatrical flourish,' says Eagelton, 'like you
saw, say, in David Hare.'
After university Marber followed his
ambitions single-mindedly, writing and procrastinating by day, gambling at
night. Having split up with one girlfriend, he went to Paris for six months,
found a garret, and wrote the bulk of a sub-Martin Amis novel, which has never
seen an agent's desk. At around this period Terry Eagelton bumped into him
walking along the South Bank in London carrying 'an enormous suitcase', like a
clown or a refugee, looking forlorn. 'He told me he had his "Children's Comedy"
work in the case' Eagelton recalls, a little protectively. And then: 'I'm very
pleased things have turned out for him as they have.'
| As a comedian
Marber was lucky and unlucky enough to share billing with Steve Coogan and
Eddie Izzard. It gave him a sense where his talent lay. His break came when he
joined up with Coogan and some Oxford contemporaries, led by Armando Ianucci,
to write the inspired spoof news show On the Hour for radio. Marber seized on
one of Coogan's half-realised caricatures, an East Anglian sports reporter, and
sketched out a detailed biography for Alan Partridge. Since then, as his
creation might have it, the smell of greasepaint has become his literal oyster.
Working on Alan Partridge, Coogan and Marber were for a while the
perfect comedy writing duo: deeply competitive, pettily knowledgeable of each
other's weaknesses. Coogan suggests that Marber 'was always very aware that I
was a more talented performer than he was'. Marber, for his part, has pointed
out how Coogan 'recognises that his brilliance is imitative. All he needs is
direction in life as in art.'
They both were more than smart enough,
too, to escape from this relationship before they became Derek and Clive. David
Schneider, who worked alongside them on The Day Today, suggests that of 'all of
us, it was clear that Patrick was probably least satisfied with Light Ents.
Very tight one liners were his thing then and his work still carries the same
structure and tension'.
For Marber, being a playwright was also a
chance to further loosen up, to become more honestly himself. 'It is my life's
project to throw away my bags of irony,' he claims, and for all the wonderful
smart-arsery of his radio and television work there has always been a humane,
almost sentimental undertow in his writing.
|In a column he wrote
in The Observer, at the time he was writing Dealer's Choice, he tried more
personal voices for size. In some, he'd make up lists like Woody Allen's from
Manhattan - 'I like wearing ties worn by my grandfather who died before I was
born. I like the clavicle, skimming stones, the absurd pomposity of the FA Cup
draw, the idea of playing strip Cluedo' - experimenting with confession.
Behind his dryness, Marber gives the impression of vulnerability, of
old hurts. Some acquaintances find him aloof; but friends assert his
generosity. One, who went through a tough spell, mentioned how Marber had,
among other things, sent him a reading list that was 'spot-on, from Graham
Greene to Roland Barthes' to help him through the worst of it.
opportunity to work through what he characterises as his own '10-year
depression' was provided for Marber by Richard Eyre, a die-hard fan of Alan
Partridge, who gave him a unique amount of time and space at the National to
develop first Dealer's Choice (which explored, tellingly, the relationship of
an indulgent, controlling father and a profligate son) and then Closer, which
he ended up directing, too.
Betting duty will be abolished, perhaps as
soon as the autumn, to be replaced by a 15 per cent tax on bookmakers' profits.
'If they hadn't done anything,' says Done, 'the number of betting shops would
have been halved within five years. Now, I believe there will be an increase in
the number of shops. It's an exciting time. I can't wait to get to work in the
He is, by all accounts, an obsessive rewriter, ruthlessly
shedding favourite lines for the sake of the whole: 'If it stops changing, it's
dead.' He is as hard, or as clear-sighted, about the shape of his life, too.
Courted by Hollywood since the extraordinary success of Closer he has decided
to wait his moment to up the ante, and continue to learn his stagecraft, stay
in control. 'Delete,' he says, 'is still my favourite key.'
DoB: 19 September 1964
Educated: Oxford (English)
the Hour, The Day Today, Knowing Me, Knowing You, After Miss Julie
Theatre: Dealer's Choice, Closer,