A cliché opening to this article would be to claim that literary adaptation for stage is currently ‘in vogue’, both in Oxford and (gasp) outside of it, on the evidence of recent high-profile productions of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and Headlong’s 1984 alongside student performances of Gawain and the Green Knight and The Great Gatsby last term.
Yet arguably literary adaptation is less a trend than it is a tradition, the first adaptation on screen being 1900’s Sherlock Holmes Baffled, though it would be difficult to say which of Conan Doyle’s novels provided the inspiration.
Theatre was considerably ahead of the game (perhaps with an unfair advantage), with few of Shakespeare’s plays not being adapted from a source text. It is ironic, then, that we partially owe theatre’s current preoccupation with form to cinema. Just as theatre has become more spectacle-orientated as a reaction to how audiences are accustomed to receiving stories through a more cinematic form of presentation, commercial theatre is responding to a successful market that offers its audience something they already know.
This argument, that Hollywood’s appetite for sequels, adaptations and remakes is infecting theatre, is a cynical one. A similar accusation can be made of adaptations staged at Oxford – often a sure sell, they cater to an audience that is likely to lap up the literary. Yet this accusation, relying on the narrative of the ‘recent trend’ of literary adaptations, is in itself unoriginal and narrow-minded. Aiming to change your mind about adaptation are two productions being staged this term at the Keble O’Reilly – Lord of the Flies, and a completely devised production of Frankenstein.
For a start, accusing adaptation of laziness betrays a fundamental lack of understanding of its difficulties. According to Harley Viveash, director of Frankenstein, adaptations present a challenge, stretching the possibilities of what is stageable rather than being the easy option, as “they tell stories that are not originally for the theatre”. The interiority of a novel is something that’s hard to communicate on stage- such as the perspective of an autistic mathematical genius in The Curious Incident – and the attempt to do so forces a director to innovate, using the storytelling techniques unique to theatre.
Which raises the question: if it is such a challenge, why do it at all? For Dom Applewhite, director of Lord of the Flies, just because “books are considered the pinnacle of telling a complex narrative, this does not mean that they are untouchable- the stage is an immediate form, especially for actors.” After all, these are both texts that are absorbed in our cultural consciousness more than they are actually read- misconceptions over Frankenstein being the monster have been going since 1823 – and their theatrical adaptation is a chance to not only address the text but its cultural impact as evidenced by its many incarnations, which Viveash claims “have to be played with as much as the book itself, as another text that goes alongside it”. Consequently the devising process behind Frankenstein has drawn on the cast’s collective assumptions of the story, making the production a personal response but also a reaction to the text’s current cultural identity.
As Applewhite puts it: “No adaptation takes precedence over another, and each contributes to this conception of what the text represents. You’d hope that every adaptation you see explores elements you haven’t seen before of that text.” Adaptation is therefore for these productions an opportunity to reinterpret the storytelling tropes that their paradigmatic source texts first created, spawning countless imitators and reincarnations. Like the monster of Frankenstein, these stage adaptations are stories reanimated.
Lord of the Flies and Frankenstein are on at the Keble O’Reilly Theatre on Wednesday to Friday of 3rd Week 5th week respectively