As the stage adaptation of Matt Haig's Reasons to Stay Alive opens in Sheffield - we talk to director Jonathan Watkins

Rehearsals for the stage adaptation of Matt Haigs Reasons to Stay Alive, directed by Jonathan Watkins.
Rehearsals for the stage adaptation of Matt Haigs Reasons to Stay Alive, directed by Jonathan Watkins.
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Twitter has been pretty good to Matt Haig. The former York bestselling author uses the platform, often a receptacle for the worst of humanity, to great and positive effect

Earlier this week the hashtag #worldsuicidepreventionday was trending to mark the date on September 10. Haig was busy retweeting moving stories of people who contacted him to share their own journeys of surviving their personal hell and coming out of the other side.

In rehearsals for Reasons to Stay Alive at Sheffield Theatres.

In rehearsals for Reasons to Stay Alive at Sheffield Theatres.

The reason Haig has become patron saint of people who know about the depths of depression and how to survive it is because of quotes like: “You will one day experience joy that matches this pain.”

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It’s one of the many aphorisms that appear in Haig’s Reasons to Stay Alive, a book that is endlessly quoted online by people who have survived a dark night of the soul.

It’s easiest to explain the book, the reason Haig wrote it and the reasons for its great success by quoting the tweet that appears on the top of his homepage, in which Haig writes: “20 years ago this summer I nearly died by suicide in Ibiza. I knew I had no future. I know I’d never be happy again. Today I am in France. With family. And dog. Enchanted. I am alive. I am happy. In the future that couldn’t exist. The impossible happens via living. Stay.”

It is the sort of simple and powerful message that crops up all the way through Haig’s Reasons to Stay Alive, the 2015 book that pushed him into the stratosphere of the popular literary world.

Sheffield-born Matt Haig.

Sheffield-born Matt Haig.

Not a self help book exactly, the Observer described Reasons To Stay Alive as ‘an intensely individual, creative response to a period of profound crisis and an account of what pulled one man back from the brink’.

A popular book then, but one that defied narrow categorisation. Not something that would be an obvious candidate for stage adaptation.

A sort of self-help book that is intensely individual doesn’t have West End writ large all over it.

That said, one of the biggest hits in theatre of the last 20 years was a book about a teenage maths obsessive with Asperger’s and nobody could have predicted The Curious Incident of the

Dog in the Night-Time would have had a life as a live piece of work.

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Perhaps Haig’s book is ripe for stage adaptation after all. It certainly seemed that way to director Jonathan Watkins.

The Barnsley-born dancer and choreographer has previous form here. In recent years he has adapted both George Orwell’s 1984 and Barry Hines’ Kes as dance pieces, the former for Northern Ballet which went on to win Best Classical Choreography at the National Dance Awards and Best New Dance Production at the South Bank Sky Arts Award.

Haig’s book would appear to be in safe hands as it makes its journey to the stage.

Like the book, Watkins’ production appears already to be something that will defy simple categorisation.

“It’s a play in 18 scenes with movement and music,” says Watkins.

So it’s a dance piece? “No, there is some movement in it.”

A physical theatre piece then? “Not exactly, it’s a play. These days we want to label everything. Matt himself said that he didn’t want the book to be categorised as a self-help book – he describes it as a non-fiction book based on his experiences – but it’s not a memoir.

“I wanted the adaptation to echo the experience I had when reading the book, which is that it isn’t something simple a straightforward.”

Creating a ‘hybrid’ piece like this is something that not many theatre artists have the licence to create.

Watkins earned the right with the success he made of 1984 and Kes. Haig himself has given his seal of approval to both Watkins and the project.

“The way Matt wrote the story struck a chord with so many people. When we met I told him why I wanted to adapt the book and how and he said he was on board with the way I wanted to tell it.

“It really struck a chord with me as well, but the thing that I wanted to understand most of all was how I wanted to tell this story. Some things present themselves to

me and it’s obvious that they will work as a dance piece, but it felt like this demanded something different.

“At the end of the day, though, it’s all storytelling. I’m always interested in telling a story, the only thing that changes is how I tell that story.”

So 18 scenes it is, with a script by the highly regarded April de Angelis, and occasional ‘interventions’ as Watkins characterises them.

“The book is full of practical advice and there are some comedic moments in there as well as Matt’s real stories.

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“That’s what I want the experience of watching the play to reflect. It’s quite a cinematic way of moving through the story.”

For Watkins there is one key thing that links Kes, 1984 and this latest project: passion.

“I tell the stories that I am passionate about and that I am drawn to,” he says.

“That can be for all kinds of reasons, but as long as it’s a story that I believe in and want to tell, that’s the main thing. I’m inspired by all kinds of things and Matt’s story and this book are pretty inspiring.”

World premiere and then touring Studio

The world premiere of the first stage adaptation of Matt Haig’s Reasons to Stay Alive (adapted by playwright April de Angelis) is being co-produced by English Touring Theatre and Sheffield Theatres.

After opening at Sheffield Crucible Studio (September 18-28, sheffieldtheatres.co.uk) it will head on a national tour going to Huddersfield’s Lawrence Batley Theatre (October 8-12, thelbt.org), York Theatre Royal (November 5-9, yorktheatreroyal.co.uk) and Leeds Playhouse (November 12-16, leedsplayhouse.co.uk).

For full details visit www.ett.org.uk