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Movies & TV

08th Mar 2024

‘Comedy isn’t trivial’ – Armando Iannucci on his hugely ambitious reimagining of Dr. Strangelove

Stephen Porzio

Tickets for the Irish run of the show, which will see Steve Coogan play multiple roles, are on sale now.

At this stage in his career, Armando Iannucci – creator of such modern comedy classics as The Day Today, I’m Alan Partridge, The Thick of It and Veep – wants to push himself out of his comfort zone.

Speaking about his upcoming stage adaptation of the classic movie Dr. Strangelove – which he is co-writing with the show’s director Sean Foley and will come to the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre next February – the writer-director tells JOE: “As you get as old as I am getting, you start to think: ‘Well, what’s different that I can do?’

“I don’t want to be doing the same thing over and over again. So it’s whatever that’s going to take you out of your comfort zone, so you’re not repeating. You’re not looking at a theme you’ve already looked at. Or you’re not trying the same tone that you’ve already done before. It’s about trying to experiment, keeping fresh, I suppose.”

It’s hard to get more ambitious than remaking Dr. Strangelove. The ’60s dark satire from legendary filmmaker Stanley Kubrick focuses on a crazed US Air Force general who launches a nuclear attack against the Soviet Union, as well as the various figures – including the US President, a former Nazi/nuclear war expert and a British RAF exchange officer – who end up scrambling to prevent a nuclear holocaust.

Widely considered not only one of the greatest comedy films of all time, but one of the greatest films, it is a tremendously tough act to follow – indeed, this new version of the story is being billed as the first play to be adapted from Kubrick’s work.

That being said, it is hard to deny that Iannucci seems like the perfect person to reimagine it based on the strength of his own aforementioned satires.

As for how he became involved in Dr. Strangelove, he says: “The producers of the show, they had previously done a stage version of [the classic satirical movie] Network and that was a huge success. And they’d been for years trying to persuade the Kubrick family to do Dr. Strangelove.

“It was them doing Network successfully that persuaded them [as well as] Sean’s involvement as director. He’s fantastic and has a great track record of doing comedies for the stage and really understands how to keep the funny moving and they all suggested me to write it with Sean.

“Sean was trying to get hold of me. I was in the middle of shooting other stuff… He said: ‘Can you ring me? I’ve got something to discuss,’ and I kept looking and going: “Okay, I wonder what that is,’ and then slightly forgetting to kind of follow up.

“I think he chased me for about three or four months. And then, he rang me up and said: ‘Would you like to do Dr Strangelove?’ and [I] went ‘Yes!’. I said: ‘Why didn’t you ask me earlier?’ So, to their great credit, they were very patient waiting for me to reply.”

Dr. Strangelove’s Sean Foley, Steve Coogan and Armando Iannucci

Discussing his favourite comedies – of which he cites Dr. Strangelove and Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator – Iannucci says he loves them because, though they are comedies, “they’re not afraid to take on big topics and big sweeping epic themes”.

“Comedy isn’t trivial. When you take a topic and make it the subject of comedy, I don’t believe you’re demeaning that subject. It’s just allowing you an unusual and unexpected way into it.”

He also tells JOE: “I am looking more at stories that aren’t necessarily meant to be always funny all the way through, where there are scenes and events in it that are serious. We did a bit of that with Death of Stalin.

“All the comedy was in the scenes within The Kremlin but all the scenes on the outdoors across the Soviet Union were deadly serious.”

Iannucci, who has stated that he wants to send audiences home “laughing and afraid” from his version of Dr. Strangelove, says that the story remains “so relevant”.

Dr. Strangelove will run in Ireland at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre

He explains: “It’s all about the dangers of various political factions – the west, America, the Soviet president, or the Russian president now – threatening each other, coming up with more complicated threats and goading each other to the point where circumstances just run out of control and there’s no way to pull it back.”

While Foley and Iannucci have kept the original’s ’60s setting, the pair have made some changes to the story to reflect modern day concerns.

“In the film, the Soviet premier who we never see or hear but he’s on the end of a phone is portrayed as a sort of drunk, kind of rather ineffectual person. Today, the Russian president is a different beast altogether,” Iannucci says.

“Although we’re still setting the action and events in the 1960s, we’re mindful of changes and adaptations we can make that point a bit more to like the present day situation. So, the Russian president is a lot more cold and terrifying and sinister.”

Also speaking to JOE about the relevance of the story, the play’s co-writer and director Foley says: “It’s a satire about procedures gone wrong that lead to armageddon.

“It’s a sort of office politics satire – everyone’s trying to one-up [each other]. It’s obviously a satire about the terrible situation of nuclear war… I’m sure were in a world in which we can imagine that again.

“Unfortunately, war never goes away and it’s certainly on our screens every night at the moment. So, it’s got that relevance.”

Another noteworthy and ambitious part of the play is that Iannucci’s frequent collaborator Steve Coogan will play multiple roles in it, just like Peter Sellers did so memorably in the Kubrick film.

Asked specifically which roles Coogan will play in the stage version, Foley and Iannucci say this is still being worked out, with the challenge trying to find ways for the actor to switch between characters live without the benefit of film editing.

“I mean, he’d love to play all the roles, including all the generals,” Iannucci states. “So, it’s a case of working out what is, what would be great to see but also what is the most achievable but the most satisfying kind of combination.

“That does involve us having to work out how can he be over there saying that as that character and then in 30 seconds time come on over there as the other character.”

Peter Sellers in Dr. Strangelove

Speaking about how Coogan is the perfect person to step into Sellers’ shoes, Iannucci praised the actor’s ability to inhabit and get “under the skin” of all the characters he plays.

“As someone who sat editing Alan Partridge, in an edit, you can sit and watch the same take like a hundred times and I’m still laughing the hundredth time of watching,” he explained.

“So, there’s something special about that level of performance I think. It’s a very rare thing to get. [There’s] only a few people I’ve had the experience of going: ‘I’m still laughing.’ Even though I know this back to front now, I’m still laughing.

“But also he’s a master of live stuff. His stage shows are ambitious and do involve changes and he’s not trying to trick you. He’s not like an impressionist trying to just take a hat off and put another hat on, change the voice. He wants to really personify these different characters.

“He’s done [The O2]. He’s done all the big theatres. He knows how to handle a massive audience so this for him, his challenge is now being able to take all that skill and all that ability and that comic kind of knowledge and instinct and give it to this story that we want to be funny but also have a huge impact emotionally.”

Foley was also full of praise for Coogan, stating: “I actually do think he’s very similar to Peter Sellers in that he’s an actor and comedian. He’s incredibly at adopting a variety of characters.

“He’s brilliant at finding the comedy within awkwardness and menace and [in] men who aren’t actually good at stuff… I genuinely think he’s totally the right person to do this.”

Armando Iannucci

As for what goes into making a successful play out of a beloved movie, Iannucci says: “It’s a combination of always remembering what it was about the original that made you want to do the adaptation in the first place.

“Why do you like it so much? What do you get out of it? What do you remember from it? What’s so special about it? At the same time, not being so respectful of it, like you treat it like a kind of very fragile vase that you don’t want to drop.

“I think you have to actually go: ‘Okay, but I’m now adapting this for the stage so I have to forget that it has this status as a movie.’ We have to make it come alive for the stage now so that involves changing something here or altering something there or extending something there or maybe making a little cut there and so on. But at all time maintaining the spirit of the original.

“So, if you’re writing new dialogue, it should feel as if it was part of the original. It shouldn’t jut out. It shouldn’t feel like it was stuck in from a different time and a different era.

“People coming to see the show, some of them will know the film very well and will be looking forward to seeing some of their favourite moments from the film. Others won’t know the film at all and will want to get a story or some will know the film but [will] want to see something new as well as the film. It’s trying to kind of answer all those different kind of demands.”

Dr. Strangelove is coming to the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre from Wednesday, 5 February until Saturday, 22 February 2025. Tickets are on sale now.

Visit the theatre’s website here for more details.

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