"I Rewrote Withnail And I As A Queer, Feminist Play"

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Last Updated 06 June 2024

"I Rewrote Withnail And I As A Queer, Feminist Play"

Maria Telnikoff, writer of Withnail and Without Nail, explains why she decided to rewrite the classic 1987 film.

Two women sat on a doorstep al la Withnail and I
Chakira Alin and Rachel Andrews are Withnail and Without Nail.

"We've gone on holiday by mistake!"

Bruce Robinson's 1987 film Withnail and I  — starring Richard E Grant and Paul McGann as the hapless, eponymous leads — is a cult classic. The tale of two struggling, drug-addled actors living in their Camden flat at the tail end of the 1960s, who wind up imprisoned in the countryside with a randy old uncle, has won the hearts of audiences for almost four decades.

Capturing both the ludicrousness and the seriousness of the creative endeavour with a unique, bleak humour, the film is both timeless, and something of a period piece. Despite their crumbling apartment, the protagonists are privately educated at Eton and Harrow. Withnail has a rich Uncle Monty who they can go to for support when times get tough. Crucially, both 'Withnail' and 'I' are privileged, white men who enjoy (and, of course, squander)  all the benefits that stem from this.

I thought it was time to reimagine the story — with a queer, feminist response.

Withnail and Without Nail follows the lives of two female actors, Christie and Nell, in their 20s — jumping from joy to despair as they navigate the ups and downs of the artistic lifestyle. A stand-out moment in the play is when the pair decide they're going to cycle to Glasgow because they want to get out of London. Other highlights include foraging in Epping Forest and a spontaneous rendition of Oedipus Rex.

It's a radical departure from the original movie, yet brings the film's central question into focus: What is the reality behind the romantic notion of a 'struggling artist'? And crucially for this production, what does it mean to be a struggling artist today amid a cost-of-living crisis and with funding for the arts at an all-time low?

A montage of pictures of Camden People's Theatre
Withnail and Without Nail is on at Camden People's Theatre as part of the Camden Roar festival, running 4-23 June.

In Withnail and Without Nail, there is no expensive education, no rich uncle, no male privilege. It felt right to make an interpretation which honoured the anarchic spirit of the original but showed the complexities that come with that, when one isn't from such a privileged background. The team is comprised all of early-career, female artists and we want to create work which draws attention to the realities of the 'struggling artist' lifestyle through satire and silliness. As for our twist on the title: it imagines what the story might look like if it weren't Withnail himself. It is also a bit of a covert reference to the queer themes of the play (the gays that get it get it!).

One more thing: the Camden of Withnail and I is a bit of an illusion. Although set in Camden, it was mainly filmed in Notting Hill. Our play takes place in the Camden People's Theatre — in the real Camden — not to mention one of the finest theatres available to humanity.

Withnail and Without Nail is on at Camden People's Theatre as part of the Camden Roar festival. The show is on 13-14 June, and the festival runs from 4-23 June.