A novel experience
Michael Billington wonders how you successfully put fiction onto the stage
Where would we be without fiction? TV, cinema and theatre continually plunder novels in their search for new material and the results can be startlingly good. I saw nothing better on TV last year than The Night Manager, which gave a John le Carré novel a sheen of glamour. The movies have also lived off novels since their inception: a random list of my own favourites would include The Big Sleep, based on raymond Chandler; The Servant, adapted from a book by robin Maugham; and David Lean’s version of Dickens’s Oliver Twist.
The theatre has also not been slow to turn to fiction and the great russian novelists have provided a particularly rich source. Over the years, I’ve seen adaptations of all the Dostoyevsky novels, erwin Piscator did a famous staging of War and Peace in Germany and, even now, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, in a new version by Marina Carr, is playing at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin.
The French have also yielded handsome pickings. Arguably the best stage adaptation of all time was Christopher hampton’s version of Les Liaisons Dangereuses: an epistolary novel that few of us had ever read was turned into a masterly study of coldblooded aristocrats treating sex as a form of military strategy.
A glance at London theatre today also shows its reliance on fiction. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time is a brilliantly clever version of a Mark haddon novel. The Woman in Black, based on a 1983 Gothic novella by Susan hill, has now become the second-longest running play in the West end after The Mousetrap.
New adaptations continue to prove popular. A version of Khaled hosseini’s bestseller The Kite Runner has just opened at the Wyndham’s after a successful provincial tour. David hare’s remake of a Simenon thriller, The Red Barn, has recently ended a packed-out run at the National’s Lyttelton Theatre. The jauntiest musical in London, Half A Sixpence, is also based on h. G. Wells’s Kipps.
This tells us several things. We all need stories. Fiction often has a richness of texture you don’t find in many plays. There is also a pleasure to be got from seeing well-loved books given dramatic form. I wouldn’t deny any of this, yet I also think there are problems in turning novels into plays. One of them was articulated by a fine critic, T. C. Worsley, in a 1950 review of Jean-louis Barrault’s production of Kafka’s The Trial. ‘Novels,’ he wrote, ‘are not in general well suited for stage adaptation for the prime element in the novel is the stream of time—the gradations of growth. And this theatre cannot properly represent. It can make effective enough play with sudden jumps of time but the slowly accumulated details of change—these it cannot capture.’
Those words came back to me while watching Matthew Spangler’s Kite Runner. The novel spans a quarter of a century and all the action is seen through the eyes of Amir, an Afghan refugee now living a successful life as a physician in California. however, the whole point of the story is Amir’s continuing sense of guilt over his betrayal of his inseparable childhood companion, hassan, who was the poor, illiterate son of the family servant. It is that desperate need for atonement that drives Amir back to his native country, now dominated by the Taliban, at the start of the present century.
In short, this is a classic example of a novel in which time is a major factor, but how do you put this on stage? Mr Spangler’s version, originally created for an American university, is loyal to the structure of the book in that all the action is seen through the eyes of the narrator, Amir.
Ben Turner, fretful and anxious, makes a persuasive hero, Andrei Costin is touching as the infinitely trusting hassan and Giles Croft’s production is clear, straightforward and unfussy and shows the action shifting from Kabul in the 1970s, where kite-flying was a major event, to the gaudy glamour of a hippieish San Francisco.
however, the adaptation’s very fidelity to its source makes it an unsatisfactory play. To be specific, everything in the story leads up to, or away from, the pivotal
moment in which the young Hassan is sexually assaulted by a brutal gang and Amir stands passively by. This is the determining moment in Amir’s life and haunts him for the rest of his days, but the action is so discreetly staged, it loses much of its impact. It also simply becomes one incident among many in a crowded story. The crucial giveaway is that Amir, as narrator, repeatedly begins a sentence with ‘And then…’. Drama depends less on a chronological record of events than on registering the impact of a particular moment.
As a play, The Kite Runner is serious, worthy and offers a timely reminder of what Afghanistan itself has suffered. What it doesn’t do is capture the emotional impact of its source.
The case of The Red Barn is slightly different. The original novel, Simenon’s La Main, is, again, a first-person narrative. All the events are seen through the eyes of Donald Dodd, a smalltown Connecticut lawyer whose life has been filled with a corrosive envy of an old friend, Ray Sanders, who enjoyed a formidable success with women. We know, virtually from the start, Donald’s role in Ray’s mysterious disappearance, but where the book is subjective, Mr Hare’s play was objective. It became, in fact, a psychological thriller in which we gradually discovered the truth about Ray’s disappearance and saw Donald’s fatal attempt to emulate his friend’s sexual swagger.
It might have worked as a play in a production as lean and taut as Mr Hare’s script, but what happened in reality was that Robert Icke’s production and Bunny Christie’s design treated the whole thing as if it were a surrogate film. The set contracted and expanded as if trying to simulate close-ups and long shots. Scenes cut quickly from a Connecticut clapboard house to a Manhattan apartment. Light and sound were elaborate and filmically used.
One of the main consolations was the presence of Elizabeth Debicki, who brought her own peculiar enigmatic mystery to the role of Ray’s wife. It was Miss Debicki, of course, who was at the centre of The Night Man
ager, but where that was a classic example of an adaptation that added richly to its source, The
Red Barn seemed to dilute the psychological acuity of Simenon’s novel.
It confirmed that what Worsley called ‘the gradations of growth’: the ultimate strength of fiction and very hard to reproduce on stage.
Mystery: Elizabeth Debicki in The Red Barn
Did The Kite Runner fly at the National?
Les Liaisons Dangereuses was recently revived to great acclaim by the Donmar, starring Dominic West and Janet Mcteer