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
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?’’
Steve Le Marquand and Blazey Best rehearse
with director Simon Stone for a Belvoir
production last year