A novel ex­pe­ri­ence

Michael Billing­ton won­ders how you suc­cess­fully put fic­tion onto the stage

Country Life Every Week - - Performing Arts -

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

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