Terri Dunbar-Curran

THREE elderly former opera singers are whiling away their day on the terrace of a retirement home when a character from their past breezes in and disturbs the peace.

Can they set their differences aside long enough to put together an act for the home’s gala concert celebrating Verdi’s birthday?

Penned by Sir Ronald Harwood and first staged in 1999, Quartet delves into the eccentricities that go hand in hand with old age. Pieter Toerien will present the comedy at Theatre on the Bay from tomorrow to April 7, with West End stars Gary Raymond, Delena Kidd, John Fraser and Wanda Ventham, under the direction of Richard Digby Day.

The story began a decade before Harwood wrote it, when he saw the documentary Tosca’s Kiss on BBC, about Casa Verdi, Verdi’s house in Milan that had been turned into an old-age home for opera singers.

“The film haunted me and I never forgot (it). I thought about it often and some years later I made a note: ‘Idea for play – home for old opera singers, end with the Quartet from Rigoletto.’”

When the time was right, he sat down to shape the idea into Quartet.

Often a writer will insert themselves into their work, consciously or not, a phenomenon Sir Ronald recognises in his writing of this production: “I am in a way all four characters but then I’m all the characters in all the plays I’ve ever written.”

Not only that, he says all of his plays and screenplays seem to be centred in the worlds that concern him, so they do not differ too drastically from one another.

Quartet is less political than some, but it deals with performing artists about which I seem to write often – The Dresser, Being Julia, Taking Sides. I believe performers – actors, singers, dancers – to be among the most courageous and decent people in society.”

Schooled in Cape Town, Harwood relocated to London to pursue a career in theatre and spent some time at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and the Shakespeare Company of Sir Donald Wolfit. Since then he has penned more that 21 stage plays and 10 books, with screenplays such as The Browning Version, Roman Polanski’s version of Oliver Twist, The Pianist and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.

He was knighted for service to theatre in 2010.

Harwood has been fortunate to see Quartet performed around the world. “Milan was especially memorable because the Italian actors were so in tune with the operatic elements in the play. Also, on the night my wife and I saw it, there were residents of the Casa Verdi in the audience. We met after the performance, which was a huge honour. They were all very complimentary.”

He also mentions the Finnish adaptation of the play, which has been on the schedule of the Helsinki City Theatre since 2002. “And all shows have been sold out – so of course I like it a lot!”

No matter the stage or language, Harwood still has one favourite part: “Verdi’s quartet, of course.”

Quartet has been adapted for the big screen. Directed by Dustin Hoffman, it is scheduled for release in the US this year. Harwood says such an adaptation is an involved process.

“It would need a book to explain. In fact, there is a book about the way I adapt for the screen! I was able to introduce more characters, a range of musicians and singers, which couldn’t be done on stage. I was involved with choosing the director, but not much in the process of the filming, which is intolerably boring.

“I have now adapted four plays into movies. The rule is always the same: preserve the heart of the play but remember you’re writing a film.”

Harwood is writing a new play and discussing ideas for another movie with Polanski.

And who is this staging aimed at? “The ideal audience is them what pays their money to come and see it.”

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