Story master

23rd June 1995 at 01:00
When Nigel Williams adapted Lord of the Flies for a performance by his sons' school, William Golding came to the first night . . .

And did you enjoy being little savages?" said Sir William Golding to the cast of the King's School Wimbledon production of Lord of the Flies.

"Ye-eahh!" they said.

"Ah!" said Sir William, "but I don't think you'd enjoy being little savages all the time would you?"

The 30 or 40 small boys looked at him. This was the autumn of 1993 and Bill had been 40 years out of teaching. He was a Nobel prizewinner. He had written what many (including me) think the greatest novel in English since the Second World War. But he was still a schoolmaster and the kids knew class when they saw it.

"Er . . . no sir . . ." said one of them.

Bill grinned then.

"Well done!" he said.

There were many pleasurable things about adapting Lord of the Flies for the stage. And many unpleasurable things too, like talking to a lot of unprofessional professional directors and God help us the Royal National Theatre, but the greatest pleasure was seeing my stage version performed at my sons' school in Wimbledon, and having the performance witnessed by a man I only learned to call Bill a few short months before he died.

William Golding, as Ted Hughes pointed out at his memorial service, was a novelist whose work has a Shakespearian grandeur, and the high seriousness of his tragic vision is something you rarely find in contemporary fiction. In adapting his work for the stage I was forced, not to invent exactly, but to find a language that matched the violence and the drama of his imagination. It is King Lear rather than Nigel Williams or Stephen Poliakoff. And, these day, where else to do a serious play but in a school?

"Would you like to sign the visitors' book?" said Colin Holloway, the headmaster. (I have always been a little frightened of Colin Holloway. He is a serious character and, as my own father was a headmaster, I am always a little over impressed by the profession).

"Of course!" said Bill.

With his white sailor's beard, canny expression and solid, physical grace, he didn't look at all like an author. He looked as if he had just come back from a round the world sailing trip. He had a peasant simplicity too - the aspect of a man who lives off the land and knows the value of things.

Bill Golding was, in spite of his great fame, not an arrogant man. He was, in my brief experience of him, interested in people, not as fans or material, but because he thought of himself, not as a guru or a celebrity, but as one of them. He went through to the headmaster's office and dutifully signed the visitors' book.

I still didn't know what he thought of the show. He had sat next to me in the King's Wimbledon Hall while Alan Dennis's production went on and he had listened patiently while I had told him that the King's College Junior School English master was five times as intelligent and theatrically skilled as your average Royal National Theatre director, but he hadn't yet said what he thought of it.

I was a little worried about what, down in Wimbledon, we still call the scenery.

One of my main aims in adapting the novel was to try to realise the complexity of his intentions. The way in which Golding uses myth and naturalism calls for the kind of seriousness of theatrical language that has all but vanished from our stages. When it appears it is usually howled down as pretentious or cried up as significant. What Golding's book has is a real knowledge of its subject - schoolboys - and a real conviction that they can represent more than the things they seem. They are animated by an important debate about power, democracy and the good or evil that is within men's hearts, but they are also, all too vividly, real boys of the kind you might find in any prep school today, 40 years after the book was written.

He once said to me that one of the main aims of his book was to tell the story of the breakdown of English parliamentary democracy. "Don't make them into little Americans, will you," he added.

As we worked on the show Bill had been as sweet and generous as only a good teacher can be about the language I had chosen for our children ("I think the way you make them talk is amazing" he wrote to me once) but the final test - whether the thing actually worked when you sat in a darkened room watching it with a few hundred Wimbledonians - had not yet been passed.

When Bill had signed the visitors' book, we all went out into the playground. His wife Anne Golding, who had said to me in Brown's Hotel, a week earlier: "Mind how you go on that bicycle we are getting rather fond of you," was looking studied and neutral. Had she hated it? Or was it just that, in a long and extremely interesting life she had just seen too many young men drop off the perch. She had told me, the first time we met, that one of the first people she walked out with had died in the Spanish Civil War. I looked, nervously across at my publisher Matthew Evans. Matthew, a man who enjoys other people's discomfort the way some people enjoy Christmas, grinned. "I don't think I have ever seen you look so nervous, Nigel!" he said.

I didn't tell him until later that Bill had spent much of the second act with his head in his hands. I was far too frightened to ask him what he thought of the proceedings. In fact, by now, I assumed that my version of his masterpiece had taken the same route to hell as the two film versions, of which he, purportedly, disapproved.

Instead I joined my wife as the Golding party headed towards the car park. Was it, perhaps, my son? Had Jack screwed it up? Should I have cast him as Simon? Was the thing unstageable? Was it the stage itself (put together, the night before, by the King's College Wimbledon stage crew, a hardened body of men that I think included Mr Ned Williams, my eldest son)? Should we have done something more elaborate than a papier mache pig? Was a red reflector, a torch and some silver paper really enough to give the impression of a bonfire big enough to roast a pig? Had Nugent remembered his line?

As the party walked away from the school, Matthew walked back to me. He had the airy, casual stance of the born negotiator. He was drawing deeply on a cigarette. I looked, nervously, back towards Bill and his wife, who were deep in conversation.

"What does he think?" I said.

Matthew grinned.

"Basically," he said, "he thinks it's OK."

I am 47 years old. I have written 10 or 15 plays many of which have been performed all over the world. I have stood up in the Theatre National Populaire and had a whole theatre applaud me - perhaps under the mistaken impression that I was Howard Barker. I have been fashionable and unfashionable. I have been praised by Michael Coveney and slagged by Benedict Nightingale. And, frankly my dear, I don't give a damn any more. But I have never known an excitement as pure and simple as I did that night. It was my boys' school. It was my adaptation. But (and this is the most important thing) I had received the approbation of a writer whom I have admired since I was 12 , a writer who started me out writing, a writer who I wish was still here to praise or blame what I have done to his masterpiece, a great Englishman - Sir William Golding.

The play has been rescued from the Royal National Theatre and (thanks to Adrian Nobel and Elijah Moshinsky) is to be performed at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford - this summer. But, sadly, Bill won't be there to see it. There is a sense in which, as far as I am concerned, it is already all over . . .

Nigel Williams's adaptation of Lord of the Flies will be staged by the RSC at The Other Place, Stratford, between July 31 and September 7.

William Golding's posthumous novel, The Double Tongue, was published this week by Faber and Faber.

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