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Coincidences, connections and prescient imagination propelled the story of extremism in The Dancer Upstairs from novel to screen, as well as its author, Nicholas Shakespeare, as Andrew L. Urban discovers on meeting the man, a distant relative of the Bard.

For lovers of crackerjack coincidences, Nicholas Shakespeare is a goldmine. They spill out of the tall, affable and ever-white-haired writer like loose change from a split purse. His English understatement prevents him from making much fuss about them, but even he has been surprised by some. Not least by the fact that when he wrote the novel that would lead to The Dancer Upstairs, he invented an illness – psoriasis - for his mysterious terrorist, which years later turned out to be verified by reality. The book was based on Abimael Guzmán, the real, secretive Latin American terrorist captured in September 1992; the novel, The Vision of Elena Silves, was published three years earlier. 

"captured in a room above a ballet studio"

“He was captured in a room above a ballet studio. One reason he had been tracked down was his illness. Sifting the rubbish bags, the policeman in charge of the case had discovered empty packets of Kenacort. The strange figure in the upstairs apartment, where the curtains were always drawn, suffered from extreme psoriasis. His body, like that of my fictional character, was covered in weeping sores,” recounts Shakespeare, as we sip flat whites in the Sydney office of his publicist. On the table is a pile of copies of The Dancer Upstairs which he is half way through autographing for yet to be grateful readers. This book, inspired by Guzmán’s capture, can be read on its own or as a sequel to The Vision of Elena Silves.

For a man who spends six months of each year – the warmer six – in a remote Tasmanian village writing in a small hut, he is remarkably outgoing and not at all grumpy. Indeed, his dry sense of humour and evident love of life seem in direct contrast to the picture of him hunched over a keyboard on a small island just up from Antarctica. (His wife, an ex speed skating champion and now a book illustrator, has use of the house itself, apparently, where she also looks after their two small children.)

Having adapted the book himself, Shakespeare is best equipped to answer questions about the screenplay. I raise the issue of place – or lack of it: the Latin American country in which the story takes place is not identified. It’s an amalgam, and he says that is because it’s “a deliberate attempt at representing all my experiences of growing up in South America. I was growing up in Brazil during the Death Squads; I was growing up in Argentine during the Dirty War; and I was growing up in Peru during the Shining Path.” The latter is most evident in the film.

"all extremism"

Shakespeare says it’s about “all extremism, as we now witness. It’s about South America and the recent past – but it’s also about the world and the present.” To have been specific would have turned it into a documentary, he says. “There are some things about the film that could be better,” he says, “like the English could be spoken better and the editing reflects his own dislocating timing… But that aspect was totally intentional.”

Soon after our interview, Shakespeare is heading back to his native England, and it’s impossible not to ask him ‘why Tasmania?’ “Because it’s the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen, having lived in several countries around the world.” His father was a diplomat, and the family travelled extensively. Latin America was a long stop.

“The reason I went to Tasmania is that in 1999, having just finished the biography of travel writer Bruce Chatwin and following in his footsteps for about seven years, and I just wanted to get away from him and as far away from England as possible. Tasmania is remote and I’d heard it was beautiful – and Chatwin had never been there. So I thought I could recover my heterosexual self, take my girlfriend and we went on a trek for week.”

They were indeed impressed, and saw a house for sale overlooking the Freycinet Peninsula; “it was exactly my idea of a writer’s paradise. And it was the exact amount of money – if we were to buy it – that the film [of The Dancer Upstairs] – if it were to be made, would pay for.” But this is just a baby coincidence to what was to come.

"these sizzled off the page"

Shakespeare, who had rented the house while putting in train the process of getting a residency visa, got back to England and told his father of his plans, whereupon his father produced a sack of letters (which had been gathering dust in a cellar) going back to 1769, mumbling something about a lost Tasmanian relative. 

“Most old letters are boring,” he says, “but these sizzled off the page! For instance there was one from a father to his son, saying ‘Son, you’ve spent the fortune you inherited, and your vile behaviour and your evil infamy means that your mother and I, unless you make repair, don’t want to speak to you again.’ The letter back from the son said ‘Dad, do what you like, tomorrow I’m going to France.’ Now this chap at age 16 had inherited about 10 million pounds, and got through it in two years.

“The next letters were from van Dieman’s land 20 years later…” Shakespeare’s curiosity was in top gear by now and back in Tasmania he went to the archives and asked around to discover that ‘this man’ was indeed well known, referred to as the Father of Tasmania, he had led the mutiny against Captain Bligh, he was the paymaster of the Rum Corps in Sydney, he was a judge advocate, he was the parson general – and then he went off to Tasmania, and was involved with the early days of the colony.” That was Anthony Fenn Kemp. 

He was Colonial Secretary and also referred to in papers concerning the alleged offer of a bribe to a certain A Moodie – and was, curiously enough, Aldous Huxley’s great grandfather, but Shakespeare was advised not to boast about his relative. “He was a complete rorter. He died in Tasmania aged 95. It was so weird to find a place I really wanted to live and find I did have a connection. Then in 2002, I discovered some other cousins on my mother’s side, who live up in northern Tasmania. Two old ladies who had my mother’s picture on the wall – and my mother had never heard of them.”

"how it came to the screen"

Having strayed somewhat from his novel and the film made of it, we turned the conversation back to The Dancer Upstairs and how it came to the screen. Shakespeare, cousin 13 times removed to William Shakespeare, tells the story as well as his famous cousin might. “I’d been on the trail of Guzmán for over 10 years and I’d gone off to India on a trek with my then girlfriend (the reader might note signs of a pattern here), and while there the book had come out to some nice reviews, but by the time I got back it had sunk without trace.”

Shakespeare was physically and mentally exhausted. “I’d put my life into this; I’d left a very good job as Literary Editor of The Telegraph in London, and I was poor. I was thinking how to survive, what was I going to do. Then one day at two in the morning, the phone rang; it was my agent in New York and he started waffling about some detail of the book’s American publishing date, and then sort of as an afterthought, he said ‘oh, and John Malkovich wants to make a movie of it.’ I sort of snortled, not in the mood to be teased, but he assured me it was true.”

Even at 2am, Shakespeare had the presence of mind - prompted no doubt by his financial plight - to immediately ask to write the screenplay, thinking that the film would probably never get made but at least he’d get some money to tide him over. Almost exactly 24 hours later, he was woken by his agent with the good news. “Then I am panic stricken because I don’t know much about movies and I’d never written a screenplay.”

An intensive schedule of watching movies and absorbing anything that might be helpful launched him into the process of turning his novel into a screenplay, including several trips to various places where Malkovich was working, like the set of Con Air, to discuss the various drafts. 

"We’re all linked"

It was in one of these conversations that Shakespeare learnt that an ex-girlfriend of his had later dated Malkovich. “We’re all linked,” he says philosophically. 

Yes, and sometimes the links have echoes: there is a scene in his novel (omitted from the screenplay ) in which a Moscow theatre is the setting for a terrorist attack; this was written almost five years before Chechen rebels kidnapped an entire Moscow theatre with cast and audience, in October 2002. Shakespeare recently learnt that Malkovich was supposed to have attended the Moscow theatre that night.

As a writer and documentarian, Shakespeare feels that “if the available facts are absorbed, perhaps anything you anticipate is likely to be close to the truth.” It’s perhaps the only rational conclusion he can come to.

Published July 3, 2003

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Shakespeare was born in Worcester, England, in 1957. He spent his childhood in the Far East and in South America where his father worked as a diplomat. After graduating from Cambridge University he worked as a journalist and was literary editor of both the Daily and Sunday Telegraph newspapers between 1988 and 1991. He wrote and narrated a documentary about Dirk Bogarde, for the BBC’s Arena series in 2001, which won the BAFTA Award for Best Documentary. His acclaimed biography of the writer Bruce Chatwin was published in 1999. The Dancer Upstairs is one of five books by Shakespeare.

The Dancer Upstairs

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