The British theatre director Lou Stein recalls how his friendship with the famous hedonist beganby Lou Stein / January 28, 2014 / Leave a comment
Hunter S: “If I don’t like what you’ve done with the book, I’m going to tear your theatre apart”
It was 1982. The Gate Theatre, which I had founded in Notting Hill, was expanding to inhabit a second home in Battersea. To launch the new theatre, I needed a play with the punch of a highly sprung jack-in-the-box. The idea of adapting Hunter S Thompson’s outrageous journey into the heart of the American Dream, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, seemed ideal. But first there would be Hunter Thompson to deal with. I contacted the book’s British illustrator, Ralph Steadman, and he passed me Hunter’s Aspen phone number with an ominous warning to be prepared for all eventualities.
By the time I finally reached Hunter on the phone, rehearsals were about to start for this new stage production of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. He ended the conversation with a warning. “I’m coming out to see it: If I don’t like what you’ve done with the book, I’m going to tear your theatre apart.”
Hunter kept his word. He turned up for rehearsals clutching a large glass of Chivas Regal and ice. The performance awkwardly ground to a halt as he surveyed the set. “I’m Hunter. Don’t worry about me. I’ll just sit here and watch,” he said. The actors looked at me nervously before carrying on.
Now, as I prepare a freshly imagined version of this production for the 2014 VAULT Festival, I wonder how a new audience, many of whom wouldn’t have even been born when it was first staged, will respond. The book is a requiem for the acid generation of the 1960s in America. But, in the current landscape of relentless conformity, its message of subverting the status quo has more relevance than ever. And I now have the added benefit of having met Hunter and worked with him on various adaptations of his iconic book.
The centrepiece of the original production was a stage version of the Red Chevy which Raoul Duke, the Hunter alter ego in the book, and his drug-addled Attorney drive to Las Vegas in. Hunter was intrigued by this piece of stagecraft. During the break, he wandered around the set and climbed into the Chevy. He pretended to zoom around in it, enjoying the ride like a child in a fairground bumper car.
During the opening night performance, Hunter was in a mellow, even gregarious, mood. I watched him closely, and he was clearly savouring the experience of seeing his memories played out before his eyes. Watching the actor who played Gonzo, he laughed out loud, slapping his thigh and splashing Chivas Regal around wildly, christening the newly upholstered theatre seats. Later that evening, in a nearby pub, Hunter was told it was last orders. He swiftly ordered five pints for each of us. The UK’s archaic drinking laws became the subject of an excoriating piece he wrote about the absurdity of the curfews.
I ended up spending much of the next fortnight with Hunter—partly to keep him company and to steer him through the phalanx of journalists, broadcasters and fans who were trying to get a piece of him. He had nothing but contempt for this kind of adoration. Time Out magazine had hastily commissioned Hunter to produce a cover story on whatever he wanted to write about. In return they paid for his all-expenses stay in Claridges—a deal they quickly regretted. The bill was astronomical and the story only materialised a few hours before their deadline for publication—dictated into a Sony cassette tape recorder. It was largely inaudible.
Hunter was ruthlessly mischievous when targeting his victims, but he also had a streak of the Southern gentleman in him. He respected my actors and their craft, and was utterly charming to them. However, if the show hadn’t been to his liking I do believe he would have torn the theatre apart.
Spending time with him rid me of the drug-crazed image which was constantly promoted in the media. His wicked sense of humour and his intolerance for the senseless rules and fashions of this world deepened my understanding of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in new ways.
That was 32 years ago. I met Hunter several times over the years as I worked on various incarnations of Fear and Loathing. After wondering whether the play would resonate with a 21st century audience, I decided that Hunter’s voice continues to have something to say to us. Fear and Loathing is not just about the excessive consumption of drugs and pointless hedonism. What Hunter espoused here, and did so throughout his life, is to go a little wild and find your inner gonzo. As the man himself said: “Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming ‘Wow! What a Ride!’”
Lou Stein directs Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas at the VAULT Festival, 28th January–8 March 2014, Price: £25 (including £1.50 festival charge). For tickets and more information visit https://www.thevaultfestival.com/fear-and-loathing/