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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
Nathaniel Dean, Ursula Yovich, Rory Potter and Trevor Jamieson in
earlier this year