Hunter S Thompson’s gonzo classic ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’ is one of the most iconic pieces of journalism of all time; a sprawling, hilarious diatribe on the failure of the American Dream that Thompson wrote in response to an innocuous sports writing assignment. It’s hugely famous to this day – not least because of the Johnny Depp-starring 1998 film – but what’s less well remembered is the hit 1982 stage play. As the show’s creator prepares to revive ‘Fear and Loathing…’ as the headline event in this year’s hip underground Vault Festival, we bring you a brief history of a counter-culture classic.
1971: The trip begins…
Notorious ‘gonzo’ journalist Hunter S Thompson heads to Las Vegas, supposedly to write a 250-word story about dune-buggy racing for Sports Illustrated. Instead, he freaks out, takes every single drug imaginable and turns in ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream’, a trippy novel-length treatise on the failures of ’60s USA.
1981: Fight at the Gate
Hip fringe theatremaker Lou Stein needs a ‘big’ show to open his tiny new Battersea theatre, The Gate. He decides on ‘Fear and Loathing…’ and approaches Hunter for the rights. Amazingly, Thompson accedes, but warns Stein: ‘I’m coming to London and I want to tell you something: if I don’t like your fucking play, I’m going to rip your new fucking theatre apart.’
1982: Fear and Loathing in Claridge’s
Stein persuades London’s coolest magazine Time Out to put Thompson up at Claridge’s for a fortnight, in exchange for him writing a cover story to publicise the play. Thompson doesn’t write the story, but does rampage around London on Time Out’s expense account, becoming increasingly angry at English drinking laws after he misunderstands them and demands 12 pints at last orders. He does, however, like Stein’s play.
1982: Call the police
‘Fear and Loathing’ is a massive stage hit – and Stein finds himself fielding begging requests from the likes of Sting, desperate to get in. But a West End transfer fizzles out after a couple of months: ‘I got seduced by the West End – it was the wrong place for an anti-mainstream show,’ says Stein.
1998: Johnny Depp, look away
The Terry Gilliam mind-bending film adaptation of ‘Fear and Loathing’ opens to tepid reviews, but Johnny Depp’s portrayal of drug-crazed sports journo Raoul Duke – together with Benicio del Toro’s zany lawyer Dr Gonzo – gives the film lasting cult status.
2014: A long strange trip
The film has become a stoner classic, but as this most disenchanted of decades wears on, the time is ripe to return to the political message in the madness. So Lou Stein has resurrected ‘Fear and Loathing’ in an immersive production as the centrepiece of hip underground (literally underground) arts festival Vault, complete with new illustrations from Thompson’s cartoonist Ralph Steadman. ‘I want to undo the mistake I made with the West End,’ Stein says. ‘This is where is should always have played.’