Denise Mina on Mrs Puntila and her man Matti
Award-winning Scottish crime writer Denise Mina speaks to the Skinny about gender swapping and power misuse in her latest work, Mrs Puntila and her man Matti, an adaptation of Brecht’s master and servant comedy
“I think the master and servant relationship is less formal since the Brecht era. However I don’t think much has changed,” says writer Denise Mina, speaking about her new adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s master and servant comedy, Mr. Puntila and his man Matti.
Originally written for a male lead, this gender-swapped version tells the story of Mrs Puntila (played by actress and comedian Elaine C Smith), an Argyll landowner who’s a ruthless and greedy tyrant when sober, but a generous and kind benefactor when drunk. Her shrewd chauffeur Matti (Steven McNicoll) spends his time extricating her from drunken mishaps while wooing her wayward daughter Eva, a match which will only be possible if Mrs Puntila can get over the class divide.
Born in East Kilbride, Mina is the author of a hefty list of plays, novels and comics, and is best known for her Garnethill, Paddy Meehan and Detective Alex Morrow crime series. She's worked with Smith – one of Scotland's most well-known performers – before, on Ida Tamson, a play adapted from a short story originally written for the Glasgow Evening Times. Turkish director Murat Daltaban, who previously directed Ionesco's multi-award winning satire Rhinoceros at the Lyceum, returns to Scotland to direct this new work.
“The decision to swap the gender of the main character was made by Zinnie Harris and David Grieg at the Lyceum. I think it’s a genius move," says Mina, when asked about this creative choice. “Although the whole play is about power misuse, Brecht didn't explore gender politics in his original version."
Mina challenges the perception of the female boss as being ‘softer’. “We’re inclined to believe that a female boss would be different to a male boss," she says. "But when we look at people like Margaret Thatcher we can see that this isn’t the case.”
Mina has been a fan of Brecht since she was 14 – an adaptation of The Caucasian Chalk Circle was one of the first theatrical projects she ever worked on. With this adaption she's remained faithful to Brecht's original, although aspects of her version aim to satirise the modern-day injustices and absurdities of capitalism.
“This version is a literal translation of the original script. I stuck to the original structure, but certain aspects were rewritten to highlight modern issues such as zero-hour contracts, food banks and contemporary politics,” she says.
Brecht wrote the original play in 1940 while living in exile in Finland during the Nazi period. It was based on another play called The Sawdust Princess by Finnish-Estonian playwright Hella Wuolijoki, with whom Brecht was staying at the time. Its protagonist Puntila was based on a cousin of Wuolijoki's former husband called Roope Juntula.
Juntula had become engaged with three village women and had also driven recklessly in the middle of the night to procure alcohol. Brecht went on to dramatise these events in his story.
Mrs Puntila and her Man Matti features the same plot development, but with a slight twist. “As opposed to getting engaged to three women, in the adapted version Mrs. Puntila hires three personal assistants at the same time,” says Mina.
The character of Puntila is warm, friendly and loving when drunk but cold, cynical and penny-pinching when sober. Does Mina think Brecht intended for Puntila to be viewed as an alcoholic?
“[I think that] he uses the shift of Mr Puntila’s character as more of a Jekyll and Hyde metaphor," she explains. "In this play, the use of alcohol is seen more as a metaphor for change."
The duality of the protagonist Puntila is an example of Brecht's use of the literary device, the split character. In The Sawdust Princess, Wuolijoki meant to dramatise alcoholism – she wanted to draw attention to what she thought of as as Finland's national drinking problem. But Brecht borrowed the tool in order to expose the callous carelessness of the rich, and to illustrate the farcical nature of the disingenuous ruling class.
“In this version, Mrs. Puntila’s consistent drunkenness is where most of the comedy lies,” says Mina.
Power misuse is the main theme of this production, and Mina particularly hopes that it will shed some light on the tactics those in power use to manipulate others.
“I hope the audience will understand the use of rhetorical tricks throughout the play. In this play, there are many tools employed [by the characters] to manipulate people," she says. "One of the main aims of this piece is to illustrate how the 1% in power manipulates the other 99%.”
Mrs Puntila and her man Matti, Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, 28 Feb to 21 Mar; Citizens Theatre @ Tramway, Glasgow, 25 Mar to 11 Apr
This new work is a co-production between the Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh and Citizens Theatre in association with DOT Theatre, Istanbul