Clua visited Cambridge on the 4th of May for the first ‘Annual Lecture on Catalan Culture’ at Fitzwilliam College.Photo by Inês Goes-Marlière

Guillem Clua’s Smiley has had a very long run. The play-turned-Netflix show originally premiered in 2012 in a small theatre in Barcelona. Clua had written it for a playwriting competition, which he ended up losing to the already internationally lauded Jordi Galceran.

Smiley tells the story of Àlex and Bruno, whose relationship begins when one of them dials the wrong number while trying to leave a voicemail for their ex. This sparks the two men’s first meeting, but this encounter is far from a love at first at sight affair. In fact, the pair of them initially can’t stand each other, with the gym-obsessed bartender, Àlex, finding the cinephile architect, Bruno, insufferably pretentious, and Bruno feeling that Àlex is completely estupido. Of course, following in the tradition of a romcom, this does not stop the leading duo from engaging in a hateful romp in the sheets and then falling for each other.

Smiley was Clua’s first attempt at writing a comedy, having been until that point mainly a writer of ‘very good but very tragic stories’, as he tells the audience of the first ‘Annual Lecture on Catalan Culture’ at Fitzwilliam College on the 4th of May.

Clua begins the talk by admitting that he didn’t anticipate the success Smiley would have. The play had run for years, been translated into multiple languages and been performed in various different countries, before he was courted by Netflix, who wanted to turn the play into a series.

“Clua later asserts that ‘theatre is like a cockroach after a nuclear explosion’, in other words, indestructible”

The idea of transitioning Smiley into a new medium felt natural to Clua, as he remarks that, “in the history of cinema, the most successful screenwriters were often playwrights”. As an example, Clua cites the moderately well-known William Shakespeare, “who has inspired over 1700 films to date”. In fact, he continues, “with the creation of cinema, it was widely thought that theatre would die and film would take its place”. This did not happen. Nowadays, Clua affirms that he thinks the two mediums are in “a healthy open relationship”.

He later asserts that “theatre is like a cockroach after a nuclear explosion”, in other words, indestructible. This is due to the limitations (such as the inability to control the viewer’s gaze through shot-sequences) and intimacy (the physical proximity) theatre brings, which “just cannot be recreated elsewhere”. Moreover, cinema and theatre have diverged over time into “two very different languages”.

When translating a play into a TV show or a movie, Clua claims “the golden rule is that you must show more than tell in your script”. In practice, this means understanding that cinematic language allows you to “get to things quicker”, because in theatre, “you need a lot more dialogue to explain what is happening off-stage”. In Smiley, this led Clua to replace certain monologues with visual montages of the exchanges that were initially being described.

Another key change Clua made when converting Smiley into a series was complicating the plot in order to turn the 90-minute play into a stately 280-minute show. During this process, Clua says “learning to make things difficult for your characters is like a TV writer’s ABCs”, because, “if your characters end up happily together at the end of episode 1, that’s great, but you still have seven more episodes to fill…”. To do this, Clua recommends adding more characters to the storyline, but more importantly, adding generous sprinkles of conflict to the plot— as achieved in Smiley by giving Àlex and Bruno rivalling love interests who mysteriously keep bumping into each other.

“Clua’s oeuvre is a testament to the very ‘healthy open relationship’ the interconnected mediums of theatre and cinema have always indulged in”

The originally Catalan-speaking play also had to be, quite literally, translated in order to include both Catalan and Spanish, as “the Netflix producers wanted to represent a bilingual Barcelona”. To make this new bilingual aspect of the show as uncomplicated as possible, Clua says he simply decided to “make one of the families Catalan-speaking”. He stresses that “there was no commercial pressure imposed by Netflix to have the show include more Spanish than Catalan”, but that it merely worked out that way, “because it’s very hard to have two languages share equal screen time, as it can easily feel unnatural”. He confesses that, “I knew that no one (in Spain) would be happy no matter what language ‘dominated’, but it was a personal decision”.

From a linguistic perspective, Clua also adds that the option of having subtitles is one of the biggest freedoms that comes with writing for streaming platforms like Netflix, as a wider audience can indulge in international media in a way they cannot with most theatre, giving languages like Catalan some well-deserved exposure.


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But, beyond these changes, Clua translated many aspects of the play directly to the show by using cinema’s very own tools to render Smiley more TV-like. For example, through the show’s heavy use of split-screens, Clua was able to retain scenes in the play that included characters being in different places on stage simultaneously. One gem that Clua preserved using this technique was a scene that saw a tearful monologue share the ‘stage’ with a sex montage.

Overall, Clua’s oeuvre is a testament to the very “healthy open relationship” the interconnected mediums of theatre and cinema have always indulged in. It also demonstrates the important influence theatre continues to have on the plots and practices of popular shows and movies on the telly.

Clua specifically points out Fleabag, which he describes as being “a great example of someone converting a monologue into a very successful show”, because, after all, “that’s the reason she [Phoebe Waller-Bridge] is talking to the camera all of the time. These adaptive decisions are not arbitrary”. As Clua and his work make abundantly clear, nor are his.

Smiley is available to watch on Netflix