ADAPT AND SURVIVE
Joyce MacMillan talks to David Edgar about novels on stage.
If the great novel adaptation is playing an ever greater role in British theatre - and a brisk trawl through this year’s Fringe programme reveals well over a dozen. then the playwright Davrd Edgar must shoulder a good deal of the responsibility. It was with his fantastically successful version of Nicholas Nickleby, written for the Royal Shakespeare Company in the early 1980’s, that the classic adaptation finally arrived as a respectable and money-spinning feature of British subsidised theatre. But despite widespread misgivings about the underlying reasons for the adaptations boom — many pundits have dismissed it as evidence of a failure of nerve on the part of companies unwilling to bet their shirts on brand new work, and of audiences too timid to risk their ticket-money on an unfamiliar title — Edgar, who now sits on the board of Birmingham Rep as well as continuing his writing career, sees it in a much more positive light. ‘Put it this way,‘ he says, ‘anything that diminishes the number of new plays done is to be regretted. But if it’s a choice between a good adaptation by a living writer or yet another revival of some ancient theatrical standard like The Importance of Being Earnest, I‘d rather have the adaptation every time.
‘Theatres do adaptations for several good reasons— first, because they see themselves, quite rightly, as having a duty to serve the community including schools, and in Britain that means looking at classics of the novel as well as of drama. Two, because adaptations do well, and that’s a legitimate consideration. But three, because I think in the post-Nickleby era adaptations have become artistically respectable. It began to be seen that good adaptations could make statements about the work, rather than just providing a medium through which it’s conveyed to the audience in a palatable form.’
And Edgar expands on this last point, explaining how he changed and developed the tone, the storyline and the authorial standpoint of Nicholas Nickleby until the play emerged as a piece ‘about Dickens’, a powerful dialogue between actors and author, past and present, about the adequacy ofthe novelist‘s famous moral indignation as a response to the social conditions he described. ’In fact.’ Edgar continues, ‘I think this involvement of the theatre with novel adaptations reﬂects a renewed interest in the 19th century generally. There a sense of the period around the 1830’s — when Nickleby was written — having been the beginning of a great cycle which is now drawing to a close, the age of the industrial revolution, of the move to the cities. That whole Victorian cycle is now being reassessed, politically, economically, ethically; but it wasn’t a very strong period for drama, so if theatre wants to join the debate, it has to confront the novel, which was the dominant form of the time.
‘Beyond that, I think theatre possibly requires shape to an extent that prose doesn’t. It’s a sparer, leaner medium, and plays — even Nickelby — tend to be so much shorter. So novels with that big, filmic meandering quality you find in. say, Hardy, must be terrifically difficult to get on stage. Not that I wouldn‘t like to try, of course.
GRAPES 0F WRATH
‘We’re unique- I don’t think, ior better or tor worse, any one else does quite what we do. We're an American company that does pretty well 100% oi its work here in Edinburgh’, says Rob Mulhoiland oi American Festival Theatre, celebrating six consecutive years on the Fringe with an adaptation by two Scottish-based authors, PeterWhitebrook and Duncan Low, oi Steinbecks’s great American novel, THE GRAPES 0F WRATH.
Steinbeck’s critical esteem may be a little rocky these days, but there is no doubt that the story oithe Joads’ epic migration irom the Dust Bowl oi Depression Oklahoma to the degradation oi the workcamps in the supposed Promised Land oi Caliiomia, is ingrained on the American consciousness.
‘Such a speciilcally American book we thought would be a wonderiul challenge’. says Peter Whitebrook who was well aware oi the ditiicultiesthat would lace a British writer tackling this work. ‘ltwas like writing in a diiiereni language, but the dialogue in the book is so muscular, so Biblical thatyou iind yourseli thinking in those rhythms’. the task oi writing the Grapes oi Wrath irom a Scottish perspective ior an all American cast does seem to have inspired both the authors and the actors- as Peter Whitebrook puts it “Part oi the challenge and anxiety is presenting it through an American company. i'm asking a group oi people with speciiic cultural aiiiliations to it and whose own iamilies rememberthose times, to take the play home.‘
0 Grapes oi Wrath, American Festival Theatre, Netherbow Arts Centre (venue 30) 10-29 Aug. 3pm. £3.50 (£3). [Fr]
MILL ON THE FLDSS
‘I’II leave it to your imagination to decide how we got a Sumo wrestling scene into MILL ON THE
ADAPTED FOR STAGE 1., . . .. ..
FLOSS, ’says Jonathan
Holloway, whose company Red Shiit has built a considerable reputation ior bringing radical adaptations oi classics to Edinburgh. This show, which has enjoyed great success on tour and In London, Ieatures iamiliar Red Shiit elements such as role-changing and ensemble theatrical eiiacts, but also otters naturalistic acting, period costume and an almost realistic Constable-esque setting.
Allis not what it seems, however. The Mill On The Floss is ’culturallyiamiliar territory which we would like to render uniamiliar,’ explains Holloway, ‘subverting the cosy notions we associate with Sunday attamoon television.’
So the overall eiiect is ultimately surprising, dislocating and alienating; emphasising the content oi the piece: in particularthe theme oi sexual oppression which lies at the heart oi eorge Eliot's novel. Robin Brown’s adaptation places Marian Evans (the real Eliot) on stage to act as narrator thus the Victorian novelist is allowed directly to address sexual attitudes
in the mam-(Andrew Bumet)
o The Mill on the Floss (5.15pm) and In the image oithe Beast (8pm) 7 Randolph Place (venue 8) 2254202. 9-29 Aug. £3.75 (£3.50) [Fr]
Theatre ACT are this year mounting a production oi Alasdair Gray’s story oia young Scottish Calvinist on the make in London. THE FALL OF KELVIN WALKER was originally conceived as a TV play which Gray subsequently converted into a novel - this new production is not the
original TV play but a new and substantially rewritten stage adaptation by the author. ACT Director, John Davies, believes that his company’s production ‘emphasises the mock moral-tale aspect oi the novel, and its Everyman style' and considers it to be ‘a sort oi Scottish version oi “LuckyJim".’
’What we’ve tried to do is translate an author's very distinctive voice in the novel and to iind a parallel iorthat on the stage— obviously you have to reveal the narrative in action so the narrative actually takes place in the dialogue. It's much more interesting to look at and more inherently dramatic than the majority oi adaptations'. (Giles Sutherland)
o The Fall oi Kelvin Walker, Theatre ACT, 32a Broughton Street (venue 101 ) 7—30 Aug 7.55pm. £3 (£2) [Fr]
Those who don’t titterover their comilakes with the eiemaliy-nude George and Lynne may be iamiliarwith Steve Bell’s sharp political satire ‘ii. . .' inThe Guardian. New, thanks to Principal Parts, we can see the stage version, THE LIFE AND TIMES OF MAGGIE AND DENNIS ACCORDING TO STEVE BELL. Fans oithe daily strip will be overjoyed to see that the monkey and a penguin or two are at large, escaping the coniines at their frames and wandering aboutThe Guardian, ‘challenging all the issues and attempting to radicaiize a liberal paper’. The cast have worked closely with an interested Bell, and to avoid dating themselves have been improvising the script up till the last moment. Meanwhile, the Red Theatre Co’s THE BALLAD 0F HALO JONES has been adapted irom one oithe best strips to appear in the award-winning comic 2000 AD. The iirst prolect oi the London company, it was adapted by Andy Veal and director Elliott Stein, who opted to use the stories oi Alan Moore virtually as a script. Severe problems can be expected when adapting a science iiction epic to the stage, hutthe group stress that the characters are strong enough to carry it. ‘The characters are real people and easy to identity with,‘ says Veal. (Mab) o The Lite and Times etc, Principal Parts, Roxburghe Hotel, 38 Charlotte Square (venue 24), 228 7069. 17—20 Aug, 12.30pm. £3 [Fr] 0 The Ballad oiHalo Jones, In The Red Theatre Co, Theatreworks, York Place (venue 114) 557 5151.10-15Aug.10.30am; 17-29 Aug, 0.30pm. £2.50 (£2 SUPDl lFrl
MARQUEZ AND THE INNDCENT
Taken irom the short story by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the Portobello Sherpas’ INNOCENT ERENDIRA attempts a translation oi the Nobel prize-winning South American’s lucidly enchanting prose to the theatre space.
‘What's so wonderiul about the Marquez style,’ explains director Michael Mulkerrin, ‘isthe real emotions involved: real love, real anger, real hate. Atthe same time though, there are these beautiiui moments oi dreaming, as it he's capturing a time now lost when people were almost on the iringes oi being magicians.’ An Imaginative, highly versatile set, and a richly evocative iive soundtrack are both striking elements in a production which Iiits much oi its dialogue irom the text to remain asialthiul as possible to the original. Which in turn, created iriction with the writer's literary agents over authorisation, a problem that evaporteted as soon as Mulkerrin got in touch with the man himseli: ‘He was enthusiastic because we weren’t sending it up or toning down the material. He seemed to like our approach because we are taking the whole thing seriously. Iwas delighted by his reaction.
(Trevor Johnston) - innocent Eredira, Portobello Sherpas, Theatre ACT, 32a Broughton Street (venue 101) 9-29 Aug (not Mons 17, 24) Noon-1.15pm. £3 (£2). Tickets 5571785. 0 JANE EYRE ‘From hopelessness to happiness in 09 minutesi’ Red Rose Theatre, (venue 00). 556 4385.10-15 Aug 8.15pm; 17-22 Aug 2.15pm; 24-29 Aug 6.15pm. £2.50 (£2) [Fr] 0 CAMILLE Dumas’stragic, romantic tale oia consumptive heroine in a ‘iree’ adaptation. Demarco Gallery (venue 22). 557 0707. 9-29 Aug. 1.45pm. £3 (22). [Fri 0 CITIZENS In at the deep end- Balioonatlcs put an episode oi James Joyce’s ‘Uiysses’ on stage! Balioonatlcs, Crown Theatre, (venue 53). 10-22 Aug. 11pm. £3 (£2.50). [Fr] 0 CATCH 22 Joseph Heller's brilliant satire on WW2 American military adapted by Flexible Theatre Co., Masonic Lodge, (venue 41) 225 7294. 24-29 Aug. 9.55pm. £3 i£2l [Fri 0 LORD OF THE FLIES Exeter University Co tackle William Golding’s irightening portrayal oithe beast within. Exeter University, Theatre West End (venue 126). 17-22 Aug. 1pm. £2 (£1.50) [Fr]
The List 7 — 20 August 11