What defines the fantasy genre? Generally, what happens within the pages of such books is impossible, and closing the book returns us to a different and more straightforward world.
Fantasy stories travel, spanning whole worlds (sometimes crossing into more than one) and hurtling through time. And the characters: they’re rarely familiar and true to life (“my auntie always gets like that during family dinners”) but instead stretch the imagination (“my auntie always rides her unicorn like that”). A talking bear whose soul is intertwined with his armour, or a stubbornly loyal piece of luggage that stalks its owner through the Discworld.
If you move beyond the normal worries of ‘the wrong casting’, any character can be easily brought to life on screen. A point in time and space can be realised by good VFX or location shoots. Middle Earth is found in the tree-green mountains of New Zealand where Andy Serkis capered in a lime green suit. You can adapt any book with ease in the cinema. The stage is a very different beast – and one that’s physically present rather than imagined.
The challenges of putting a much-loved book on stage can be solved by perseverance and ingenuity. To adapt a more ambitious novel– one that leaps places and periods and involves a cast of characters you’d never find in everyday life – is a labour of love.
For the team behind His Dark Materials: Part One, running in 5th week at the Keble O’Reilly, love of the original novels is exactly what drives the project. I remember the books for bears and pine martens and tearing open the Aurora. His Dark Materials, using the script first performed at the National, will rely on costumed actors, puppets and a fast pace to ultimately split open the universe on the O’Reilly stage.
In contrast, Orlando comes to the O’Reilly in 6th week, relating Virginia Woolf’s 800-page ‘biography’ of a fantastic figure who lives for five hundred years and changes gender partway through. Orlando is often considered to be one of Woolf’s masterpieces, for its powerful exploration of gender through time as well as its ambitious sweep of history. To match Woolf’s gliding movement through time, the production is consciously theatrical: the storyline conveyed through a chorus surrounding Orlando, and the changing settings by projection and costume.
English students helm both productions, but the stories they tell are childhood favourites or literary masterpieces. If you’ve never got round to reading the book, head to the O’Reilly in 5th or 6th week and sample some of England’s greatest literature and its impossible words brought to life on stage.