Ask Lyn: Are there too many stage adaptations? cover photo

Ask Lyn: Are there too many stage adaptations?

Ask Lyn: Are there too many stage adaptations? cover photo

"Dear Lyn, I read an article recently in which a critic was complaining that musicals were crowding out original straight plays, but doesn’t that also apply equally to adaptations? There are loads in London over the next few weeks..."

"...Sometimes they are both musicals and adaptations at the same time. Isn’t adaptation always a bit dull?" - Jules, Stockwell

Dear Jules,

There is no right kind of theatre. No form is inherently superior over another. If you really think adaptation is always theatre’s poor relation, like some dowdy Jane Austen heroine, get ready to have your mind blown over the coming months. First off is Isobel McArthur’s Pride and Prejudice (Sort Of) at the Criterion, a very clever show that originated in Scotland and offers Austen’s story through the eyes of six young female servants of the era. Looking into next year Jeff James’ funny, sad and insightful staging of Persuasion arrives at the Rose in Kingston, which is showing signs of a real renaissance under new artistic director Christopher Haydon.

Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women gets a musical makeover at the Park Theatre in November, and it becomes Little Wimmin in the hands of the glorious irreverent Figs in Wigs at Battersea Arts Centre later this month. Two wildly different approaches to the same novel. What’s not to like about that?

Little Wimmin by Figs In Wigs.

The last part of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy, The Mirror and the Light, has just opened at the Gielgud, where it will be followed by To Kill a Mockingbird. Then there’s the transfer of the NT’s successful staging of Neil Gaiman’s the Ocean at the End of the Lane opening at the Duke of York’s on October 23. Oh, and don’t forget the glorious Matilda at the Cambridge and Les Misérables which is back and playing at the Sondheim. I could go on. And on.

Not all these shows will be to your or my taste, and who knows whether Victor Hugo is turning in his grave or applauding loudly, but the proliferation of adaptations doesn’t necessarily point to theatre-makers lack of imagination (although it’s true that audiences do rather like a familiar story) but rather is an indication of how sophisticated adaptation has become in recent years with some of our most exciting theatre makers from Sally Cookson to Katie Mitchell and Marianne Elliot choosing to work in the form.

What they and artists like McArthur and Figs in Wigs are doing is very far from simply trying to replicate the book on stage. That way is doomed to dullness. The literary is seldom exciting when theatre-makers resort to the literal. The private experience of reading a book and watching theatre-- a public, communal experience-- are entirely different. Words and stories lie flat on the page; in theatre they must be sculpted.

Persuasion adaptor Jeff James is right when he talks about how adapting a book for the stage, however you do it, “is doing violence to the original,” but when that act of violence is done with flair, imagination and respect and not too much awe it can be thrilling theatre. What some may see as cultural vandalism can be an act of love, and a transforming one at that which keeps the novel alive in people’s minds, makes them see it differently—like looking at a painting from an entirely different angle--and introduces the novel to new audiences.

In any case, almost every theatre production is, to some extent, a form of adaptation and translation whether its a Greek tragedy or the plays of Shakespeare. The latter was an adaptor par excellence taking stories he and his audience would already be familiar with and rewriting them for the theatre from his own unique perspective and harnessed to the power of his theatrical imagination. We don’t go “Oh that Romeo and Juliet is a terrible rip off of Arthur Brooke’s 1652 poem” because narrative is not the only reason we go to the theatre and Shakespeare demonstrates that adaptation is –at its best--a form of theatrical alchemy.

Theatre only moves forward when it plays with new forms and those forms are as likely to emerge from familiar source material as they are from an original play. So, bring on Jane Austen and Louisa May Alcott and let them loose on stage, free them from their bonnets and stays, and prepare to be surprised.

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Lyn Gardner
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