BYLINE: Laura Burgoine
Gonzo journalist Hunter S Thompson famously said that no one could honestly explain ‘the edge’ “because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over”. That’s not stopping Lou Stein from taking a stab at it though. The director and founder of Notting Hill’s Gate theatre is bringing a new theatre adaptation of Thompson’s epic novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: a savage journey to the heart of the American Dream, -befittingly- to the dark, abandoned tunnels beneath Waterloo. To quote the Kentucky-born writer again: when the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.
Fear and Loathing is a wild ride that famously begins with two bags of grass, 75 pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half full of cocaine, and a whole galaxy of multi-coloured uppers, downers, screamers, laughers…and also a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of Budweiser, a pint of raw ether and two dozen amyls. Thompson admits he and his lawyer didn’t really need all those substances for their trip but once you get locked into a serious drug collection, the tendency is to push it as far as you can.
“The story is so entertaining and fantastic, whether you take the questions it poses seriously or not,” Lou begins. “Fear and Loathing isn’t just about taking drugs; that would be like saying Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is just about drinking. It’s set against the background of the Vietnam War and is incredibly insightful about its time. It goes back to the idea of individuality.”
When the New York-born director first adapted the gonzo journalist’s novel for the stage in 1982, Thompson promised to come and see it performed in London but warned if he didn’t like it he would tear the theatre apart. His threats weren’t to be taken lightly either. This was a man who used to waltz into Rolling Stone editorial meetings carrying a live python around his neck, set off fire extinguishers in restaurants, blow up cars and typewriters on his fortified compound in Colorado, and who once surprised Jack Nicholson on his birthday by leaving a frozen elk’s heart on his doorstep while he sat outside in his jeep with an amplifier blaring an audio recording of a pig being eaten alive by bears while Thompson fired shots from his pistol. Fortunately for Lou, the eccentric southern gentleman loved the stage adaptation; the event also marked the author’s first time going to the theatre. “He was just laughing the whole way through and he said to me afterwards ‘it’s like my life coming back at me’ which I took as the greatest compliment,” Lou recalls. Thompson’s ultimate faith in Lou came when he gave him the rights to Fear and Loathing, before he died. “People thought he was this crazy, gun-toting mad person but he was the opposite of mad,” Lou reveals. “He was an astute journalist and a serious writer. He was always after a story and at his best he wrote in gonzo and raised that question of ‘what is a journalist? Am I covering the story or is the story covering me?’”
Lou was commissioned by Island Records to create a spoken word version of the book in 1996 and since the author’s suicide in 2005 he says there’s been renewed interest in Thompson’s work. “People went from thinking ‘who’s interested in this ‘70s book?’ to a lot of people reading it and still talking about it. This book still has something to say and it challenges people to look at their own individuality,” Lou explains. “Hunter was the truest man to himself I’ve ever known. I always thought if I had another shot at this play I’d want it to be in a dis-used theatre or warehouse created from scratch and have people seated in an unconventional way. It’s really kind of an anti-theatre play and people will expect experimentation.”
Fans of the good Doctor need not be convinced, but those unfamiliar with his work should follow his words: buy the ticket, take the ride.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is at the Vaults, Leake St, SE1 7NN, from January 28-March 8. Tuesday – Friday at 7.30pm; Saturdays at 6.45pm and 9.15pm. Admission: £25. https://www.thevaultfestival.com/