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The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover Story -

Bovell is not against adap­ta­tions per se. Nor is he speak­ing out from a po­si­tion of griev­ance, of be­ing over­looked: he has just adapted the John le Carre´ novel A Most Wanted Man for a forth­com­ing film of the same name star­ring Philip Sey­mour Hoff­man and Rachel McAdams. And his stage adap­ta­tion of Kate Grenville’s Booker Prize-short­listed novel The Se­cret River wowed crit­ics and sold out in Syd­ney, Perth and Can­berra ear­lier this year.

‘‘ The box of­fice fig­ures bear it out that Aus­tralian au­di­ences want to see Aus­tralian work,’’ he says with an air of fi­nal­ity.

Nev­er­the­less, the high-pro­file play­wright is con­cerned the seem­ingly in­sa­tiable ap­petite for re­worked for­eign classics is squeez­ing out com­mis­sions for am­bi­tious, large-scale work by es­tab­lished lo­cal drama­tists. The STC’s com­mis­sion­ing of The Se­cret River, which fea­tured 23 char­ac­ters, an in­dige­nous nar­ra­tor and new dia­logue in an in­dige­nous lan­guage, was the grand ex­cep­tion. Bovell, the writer be­hind the award-win­ning film Lan­tana, has also been com­mis­sioned by Bri­tain’s National and Chicago’s Step­pen­wolf theatres to write an epic play span­ning four decades of Amer­i­can po­lit­i­cal his­tory; it’s the sort of play, he reck­ons, that would not be done in Aus­tralia.

But Stone, whose up­dated classics have of­ten won lav­ish crit­i­cal praise and in­dus­try awards, ar­gues the rise of adap­ta­tions is cre­at­ing a ‘‘ re­nais­sance in the theatre’’, as th­ese pro­duc­tions ex­pand the bound­aries of form and sto­ry­telling. The prag­ma­tist in him con­cedes it is eas­ier to at­tract big-name ac­tors and au­di­ences to classics than to new plays. He de­nies he has ne­glected Aus­tralian work, point­ing out he di­rected Lally Katz’s hit play Neigh­bour­hood Watch in 2011. He ar­gues more fund­ing is needed to de­velop lo­cal plays and that play­wrights should spend more time in re­hearsal rooms hon­ing their the­atre­craft be­cause ‘‘ more of­ten than not, they write bad plays’’.

Re­garded as one of the coun­try’s hottest di­rec­tors, Stone doesn’t like the word ‘‘ adap­ta­tion’’, main­tain­ing many of his up­dated classics ‘‘ are closer to an orig­i­nal play than an adap­ta­tion’’. So why not give them new ti­tles? ‘‘ I sup­pose it’s a mar­ket­ing tech­nique,’’ he ad­mits, be­fore contradicting him­self and adding: ‘‘ Ti­tles are largely ir­rel­e­vant.’’ He goes on to tell Re­view that ‘‘ ev­ery play ever writ­ten is a re­write of some­thing’’, even if the work in ques­tion is a new play drawn from a drama­tist’s life.

The adap­ta­tions boom ex­poses a deep schism be­tween ad­vo­cates of di­rec­tor’s theatre, where the text serves the au­teur’s whims and ideas, and a more tra­di­tional writer’s theatre, where the di­rec­tor and pro­duc­tion team serve the writer’s vi­sion. In an in­ter­view with me last year, ac­tor Colin Friels claimed theatre was in the dol­drums, partly be­cause of a ‘‘ huge’’ shift to an adap­ta­tion­sheavy, di­rec­tor-led ‘‘ de­signer theatre’’ that had lit­tle to say about how we live now. ‘‘ I wish it would get some sort of ill­ness and die,’’ he de­clared.

Wil­liamson has de­scribed his forth­com­ing play Ru­pert, about this news­pa­per’s pro­pri­etor Ru­pert Mur­doch, as a big-can­vas work. It will pre­miere later this year at the MTC, which un­der new artis­tic di­rec­tor Brett Sheehy is bol­ster­ing its com­mit­ment to new Aus­tralian work. Even so, Wil­liamson says that com­pared with 20 years ago there is a marked re­luc­tance by many lead­ing theatre com­pa­nies to grap­ple with new Aus­tralian plays on their main stages. He ac­knowl­edges state theatre com­pa­nies have less fund­ing than they once did to de­velop new work, but adds sar­don­ically: ‘‘ When they can’t find the an­cient Greeks, they’ll find a good novel to adapt.’’ Clas­sic plays, he says, ‘‘ do speak to us . . . but they never to me speak with the im­me­di­acy of a con­tem­po­rary play about what’s hap­pen­ing out there’’.

Ge­of­frey Ather­den, play­wright and cre­ator of the much loved Mother and Son tele­vi­sion sit­com, says the theatre ‘‘ is not quite the writer’s do­main that it used to be. There’s a lit­tle bit of a bat­tle be­tween writ­ers and di­rec­tors for promi­nence.’’ Like Bovell, Ather­den is not op­posed to adap­ta­tions — he is talk­ing to Syd­ney’s En­sem­ble Theatre about adapt­ing a Henry Law­son story. How­ever, it both­ers him that some theatre com­pa­nies now define re­worked for­eign master­pieces as new Aus­tralian works. Ather­den com­pares this to Aus­tralian TV net­works claim­ing New Zealand pro­grams as lo­cal con­tent. ‘‘ We all know it’s a bit of a cheat,’’ he says point­edly.

Clearly, there are adap­ta­tions and adap­ta­tions. For The Se­cret River, Bovell re­shaped a 334-page novel into a dif­fer­ent form. Stone and co-writer Chris Ryan de­vised a new struc­ture and dia­logue for the ac­claimed The Wild Duck, which is now tour­ing Europe, but kept Ib­sen’s ti­tle, themes and char­ac­ters. Other adap­ta­tions may sim­ply in­volve a new trans­la­tion or ju­di­cious up­dat­ing of a text.

Last year, Stone’s fast and loose ap­proach to clas­sic scripts landed him in hot wa­ter when he di­rected a pro­duc­tion of Death of a Sales­man for Syd­ney’s Belvoir theatre, with Friels in the lead role. He changed the end­ing — and ul­ti­mately the mean­ing — of Miller’s sear­ing ex­co­ri­a­tion of the Amer­i­can dream. Tipped off, Miller’s es­tate forced Stone to re­in­state the orig­i­nal con­clu­sion, or Re­quiem.

Far from be­ing hum­bled, Stone tells Re­view that if this work were not un­der copy­right, he would restore his in­vented end­ing, even though some drama ex­perts main­tain it didn’t make sense. With ris­ing in­dig­na­tion, Stone in­sists ‘‘ au­thor­ship only be­came sacro­sanct when Walt Dis­ney in­vented copy­right’’. He says di­rec­tors should be ruth­less with their own and oth­ers’ writ­ing, ‘‘ be­cause at the end of the day it’s an ac­tor and an au­di­ence, it’s not a writer and an au­di­ence . . . and any­thing that pro­tects an author be­fore it pro­tects the life of theatre is a mis­guided idea’’. Stone con­sid­ers it "ridicu­lous’’ that Death of a Sales­man, one of the 20th cen­tury’s key works, can­not be ‘‘ raped and pil­laged’’ un­til 2075, 70 years af­ter Miller’s death.

Bovell counters play­wrights such as Miller have the right to say ‘‘ don’t touch my work’’. In his Fox­tel Screen­writ­ers Ad­dress ear­lier this year, he said: ‘‘ Si­mon, un­doubt­edly tal­ented . . . hasn’t earned the right to change Miller’s mean­ing.’’ He said it was ‘‘ a mark of dis­re­spect’’ for Belvoir to have pro­ceeded with Stone’s changed end­ing with­out ob­tain­ing per­mis­sion from Miller’s es­tate ‘‘ and if any play­wright has earned re­spect, it is Arthur Miller. There is a cru­cial dif­fer­ence be­tween reimag­in­ing a play for your own time and place and chang­ing the mean­ing of the work . . . To change the mean­ing is to claim au­thor­ship.’’

Bovell also said there was a school of theatre in Aus­tralia that claimed ‘‘ a play has no in­her­ent lit­er­ary value. It is sim­ply a work­ing doc­u­ment, a step­ping stone to­ward the re­al­i­sa­tion of a di­rec­tor’s vi­sion.’’ I ask him whether he con­sid­ers Stone’s at­ti­tude to­wards play­wrights ar­ro­gant. ‘‘ I’m not gonna get into that!’’ he replies, laugh­ing warily, though he does say ‘‘ the whole ‘ af­ter Strind­berg’ thing I find kind of pre­ten­tious’’.

Like Stone, Up­ton has an im­pres­sive track record as an adapter. And he has claimed that ‘‘ lit­er­a­ture, which is all well and good in the book club and the stream­lined cur­ricu­lum . . . does not count for much in theatre’’. The

The Se­cret River

Nathaniel Dean, Ur­sula Yovich, Rory Pot­ter and Trevor Jamieson in

ear­lier this year

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