HOOKED on CLASSICS

Adap­ta­tions dom­i­nate Aus­tralian theatre. Is this a sign of the bankruptcy of orig­i­nal ideas or does it her­ald a con­fi­dent fresh ap­proach to great works of drama? Rose­mary Neill in­ves­ti­gates

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover Story -

DAVID Wil­liamson has seen many fads come and go dur­ing his marathon ca­reer, so in his fifth decade of craft­ing plays, it takes a lot to star­tle him. Even so, the vet­eran drama­tist con­fesses he was ‘‘ a lit­tle shocked’’ when he read the brochure for the Melbourne Theatre Com­pany’s new pro­duc­tion of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard.

This Rus­sian clas­sic, one of the most per­formed works in the global reper­toire, opens in Au­gust and is billed as be­ing ‘‘ by Si­mon Stone af­ter An­ton Chekhov’’. Chuck­ling softly, Wil­liamson says: ‘‘ To me, Chekhov was one of the great theatre writ­ers of all time. It did take me aback a lit­tle to see Chekhov rel­e­gated to an af­ter­thought in the ti­tle. Such is the star sta­tus that some­one like Si­mon Stone can com­mand.’’

Stone is a 28-year-old di­rec­tor and writer who has built a stel­lar ca­reer ‘‘ steal­ing’’ from and ‘‘ cor­rupt­ing’’ — th­ese are his words — the theatre’s mas­ter play­wrights: he rewrites and di­rects their dra­mas and claims pri­mary au­thor­ship of them. This year he will adapt and di­rect an­other clas­sic, Au­gust Strind­berg’s Miss Julie, for Syd­ney’s Belvoir theatre. This claus­tro­pho­bic study of class, de­sire and gen­der is sim­i­larly listed: ‘‘ By Si­mon Stone, af­ter Strind­berg’’.

Stone has also claimed an au­thor­ship role in his re­vamped ver­sions of Hen­rik Ib­sen’s The Wild Duck and Eu­gene O’Neill’s Strange In­ter­lude. As fast-talk­ing as he is brash, he de­clares: ‘‘ I’m steal­ing what­ever I need to steal and cor­rupt­ing what­ever I need to cor­rupt to en­ter­tain an au­di­ence . . . I have no in­ter­est in hon­our­ing a set of ideas [an orig­i­nal playscript] that be­long to the past of an au­di­ence.’’

Stone’s con­tentious ‘‘ ev­ery­thing’s up for grabs’’ ap­pro­pri­a­tion of fa­mil­iar classics is part of a wider dra­matic shift in the Aus­tralian theatre to­ward adap­ta­tions — a trend that is alarm­ing and alien­at­ing some of the coun­try’s most ac­com­plished drama­tists. Th­ese play­wrights feel drama­tists, along with orig­i­nal Aus­tralian plays, are be­ing marginalised, while adap­ta­tions of pared down, sexed-up classics — of­ten de­vised by au­teur di­rec­tors — pro­lif­er­ate and are mar­keted as cut­ting edge.

The phe­nom­e­non has be­come so en­trenched, many theatre com­pa­nies and even arts fund­ing body the Aus­tralia Coun­cil main­tain adap­ta­tions of for­eign classics should be re­garded in many cases as new Aus­tralian plays. (Un­der Aus­tralia Coun­cil rules, com­pa­nies are al­lowed to ‘‘ self-as­sess’’ whether an adap­ta­tion qual­i­fies as a new Aus­tralian work.)

More­over, if a clas­sic play is out of copy­right — if 70 years have passed since the author’s death — the adapter of­ten earns the same roy­alty (10 per cent of box of­fice) as the writer of an orig­i­nal play would. Yet Stone and other adapters in­ter­viewed for this story agree ‘‘ it’s harder to write an orig­i­nal play than it is to write a ver­sion of some­one else’s play’’.

Does the plethora of new takes on old work sug­gest a bankruptcy of ideas in the theatre or a hark­ing back to pre-copy­right days when, as Stone puts it, Shake­speare ‘‘ stole other peo­ple’s sto­ries and never paid them a cent’’? Does the adap­ta­tions craze point to a riska­verse cul­ture re­luc­tant to take a punt on un­known work, or does it her­ald a fresh con­fi­dence in the in­dus­try’s ap­proach to revered — but some­times arthritic — classics?

In the film and vis­ual art worlds, bor­row­ing from or pay­ing homage to ear­lier masters is com­mon­place, so why is the trend prov­ing so di­vi­sive in the theatre?

Part of the an­swer lies in the sheer vol­ume of ren­o­vated classics — the trend has swelled from a trickle to a del­uge — be­ing staged by sub­sidised com­pa­nies. This year the Syd­ney Theatre Com­pany will stage four adap­ta­tions; the lat­est is a new pro­duc­tion of Jean Genet’s The Maids, jointly adapted by com­pany boss An­drew Up­ton and the icon­o­clas­tic di­rec­tor Bene­dict An­drews. This show, which opens on June 8, has max­i­mum star wattage: Cate Blanchett and Is­abelle Hup­pert will play the eerily un­hinged maids who fan­ta­sise about mur­der­ing their mistress.

Be­tween April and the year’s end, Melbourne’s Malt­house Theatre has pro­grammed 10 pro­duc­tions, five of which will be adap­ta­tions. Just one of 13 works in Malt­house’s 2013 sea­son is a new, text-based Aus­tralian play. At the State Theatre Com­pany of South Aus­tralia, four of nine main­stage works are adapted from ex­ist­ing works. Bris­bane’s La Boite Theatre will present two adap­ta­tions, while Syd­ney’s Belvoir and the MTC will each stage three re­worked texts. The Queens­land Theatre Com­pany un­veils its all-in­dige­nous adap­ta­tion of Ber­tolt Brecht’s Mother Courage — set in a dystopian fu­ture where war is waged over min­ing — this week­end.

In­deed, there is enough bor­row­ing and re­pro­duc­ing to make a post­mod­ern the­o­rist’s pulse quicken.

Malt­house has just staged an adap­ta­tion of an adap­ta­tion: Aus­tralian play­wright Tom Hol­loway’s new trans­la­tion of Friedrich Dur­ren­matt’s Dance of Death, which is based on a Strind­berg play. Two tour­ing Bri­tish pro­duc­tions — One Man, Two Gu­vnors and A Clock­work Or­ange — are both adap­ta­tions, while Ing­mar Bergman films are en­joy­ing a re­vival not at art-house cinemas but on lo­cal stages.

Even in the up­start in­de­pen­dent sec­tor it seems theatre-mak­ers would rather riff on ex­ist­ing works than cre­ate their own scripts from scratch. The MTC is host­ing a fes­ti­val of in­de­pen­dent theatre, high­light­ing the pro­duc­tions of five promis­ing fringe ensem­bles. It’s a rad­i­cal move for a flag­ship com­pany, yet most of the works to be show­cased are based, to some de­gree, on ex­ist­ing ma­te­rial, from Greek myths to the French erotic novel Story of O.

Lead­ing play­wright and screen­writer An­drew Bovell says the adap­ta­tions fad un­der­lines how many Aus­tralian theatre com­pa­nies are more in­ter­ested in di­rec­to­rial style than en­gag­ing with big, con­tem­po­rary is­sues and telling the national story.

‘‘ There is a gen­er­a­tion of di­rec­tors who are less in­ter­ested in [orig­i­nal, Aus­tralian] con­tent than they’ve ever been,’’ he says.

‘‘ What can a stage adap­ta­tion of a Bergman film pos­si­bly add to the world that the film hasn’t al­ready given, ex­cept to demon­strate the tal­ent of a par­tic­u­lar di­rec­tor and de­signer and cast?

’’ Cul­tur­ally, it’s much more rel­e­vant to com­mis­sion a new work by an Aus­tralian writer on the same sub­ject if the sub­ject is what mat­ters. But does the sub­ject . . . the con­tent re­ally mat­ter any more?’’

Of a Sales­man Death

Steve Le Mar­quand and Blazey Best re­hearse

with di­rec­tor Si­mon Stone for a Belvoir

pro­duc­tion last year

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