How does a well-loved novel become a stage production without incurring the wrath of book lovers and theatre audiences alike? For Patrick Marber, adaptation is akin to a “ransacking” that turns one form into another. Sally Cookson has called it a “wrestling process”. Whatever the answer, turning great books into great plays is riven with risk, as director Katie Mitchell pointed out in 2006 when adapting Virginia Woolf’s The Waves. “Any attempt to dramatise a famous novel is perilous,” said Mitchell, who is now bringing a second Woolf novel, Orlando, to the Barbican, in London, this April.
She is not the only one braving difficult book-to-stage transformations. Several formally complex fictions are currently being reimagined on the boards, from Angela Carter’s magical realist short story The Company of Wolves, opening at the New Vic in Newcastle-under-Lyme in May, to Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, currently at the Royal Exchange in Manchester.
With The Waves, Mitchell began creating her own theatrical language, which would take audiences inside her characters’ heads. Now she has applied those techniques to Orlando. Produced by the Schaubühne in Berlin and adapted by her long-time collaborator, Alice Birch, the play uses technology to recreate a story in which the central adventuring hero travels across several centuries and changes sex.
“We have tried to do as much as the original ambition of the book. We are using live camera techniques: a film is being shot on ground level with a screen above it so the audience is watching a film plus the [live] shooting of the film.”
The production encompasses the same historical scope – nearly 400 years – and to conjure the sense of time passing on stage, there are more than 90 costume changes and the use of body doubles. “It has all the energy of the novel. Alice has really worked with time. It goes at the speed of the book and historical periods jump like lightning from one period to the next.”
Ironically, the central sex change in the novel – when Orlando wakes up to discover he is no longer a man but a woman – is staged without any technological aids but told matter-of-factly, just as in the book, says Mitchell. As Woolf writes: “Orlando had become a woman – there is no denying it. But in every other respect, Orlando remained precisely as he had been.” Mitchell and Birch wanted to retain this tone: “He wakes up as a she and gets on with life. The character absorbs the new female body and carries on living,” says Mitchell.
The contemporary resonances in the novel’s exploration of gender fluidity made it appealing to stage. Gender is unfixed in the play, with women in the cast playing men’s roles and vice versa. “It’s great that a conversation from then [the book was published in 1928] can still have a lively conversation with what’s going on now.”
Theresa Heskins found her own contemporary echoes in Angela Carter’s 1979 revisionist retelling of Little Red Riding Hood, which she felt was newly relevant and ripe for reinterpretation to a post #MeToo generation. She is adapting and directing The Company of Wolves, the story of a fearless young woman who is forced to bargain with a murderous wolf. She undresses for him in the hope of saving her life but ends up transforming into a wolf herself. “It is the classic story about not straying off the path, and also about a woman who wants to live as a wolf. She is an anarchist and rule-breaker. That’s what’s so exciting for us,” says Heskins.
There are scenes of sex and violence in the original that are tinged with Carter’s distinct brand of magical realism as well as narrative ambivalence and baroque writing. How to transform such a tricksy story that is only nine pages long to a full-scale theatrical production? And how to present its central, vulpine transformation visually?
Heskins has used Carter’s own dramatised radio version of the story as her starting point, adapting it slightly and adding a scene. “I wanted to stay faithful to Carter. I think she’s an amazing writer and I wanted to collaborate with her on this and preserve her authorial voice,” she says.
Like Mitchell’s, Heskins’s production creates its own theatrical language, but this show is based more on traditional techniques. She says the audience’s creative collaboration is more vital in bringing the fantastical story alive on stage than any technology: “Their imagination is the CGI and it is our biggest asset. You can do all sorts of things as long as you invite them to imagine.”
Chinese poles become visual symbols for the tree-filled forest and supernatural aspects are reflected in aerial silks and circus skills. Actors whose feet remain on the ground signify humanness, while those in the air represent humans turned into wolves. The production uses live foley sound effects to heighten audience sensitivity to sound, and a cast of wolves surrounds the audience as an outer circle.
In any adaptation there is the question of what to include and what to leave out. “A written story, even a short story, has plots and subplots which are very difficult to fit into a single theatrical event,” says Heskins. Andrew Sheridan and Bryony Shanahan agree. They are currently staging a new adaptation of Wuthering Heights and to stay faithful to the spirit of Brontë’s love story between Cathy and Heathcliff they rearranged its chronology, focusing on the first part of the book and changing its narration for greater dramatic effect.
“A literal adaptation wouldn’t work,” says Shanahan, the joint artistic director of the Royal Exchange and director of this production. “We invented ways to tell this story for the stage … but any departures from the book are there to bring us back to its spirit.”
The production captures the book’s anarchic, otherworldly essence with synthetic music in scenes when Cathy and Heathcliff are running along the moors. Live musicians appear on stage and poetry by Brontë and her father, Patrick, has been inserted into the script for added lyricism.
This production, says Shanahan, is less sanitised than previous, romanticised versions that amp up the central passion between Cathy and Heathcliff but gloss over the brutality that runs alongside it in the original text.
Sheridan’s adaptation, by contrast, shows the bond between Cathy (Rakhee Sharma) and Heathcliff (Alex Austin) with all its ferocious and feral edges. The book contains everything from spitting and slapping to the scraping of bloody wrists on window panes, the killing of animals, domestic abuse and shades of sadomasochism and necrophilia. The play does not shy away from these violent elements and comes with a content warning as a result.
Sheridan began working on the adaptation three years ago and read the book more than 20 times. The readings have drawn him close to Brontë and he thought it just as important to capture her “punkish” spirit in his script. “I became quite obsessed with her,” he says. “I felt she was standing over my shoulder. Every time I finished a draft, I fell into a fever … Emily Brontë always felt present.”
A key consideration for dramatists is whether to watch adaptations that have come before theirs or to eschew them for fear of polluting the purity of their vision. Heskins avoided the film version of Carter’s story, written by Neil Jordan and Carter, for fear of being unwittingly influenced. “It’s probably healthy not to look at what other artists make of it. If you do, you create a competitive edge,” says Mitchell.
But while purity of vision is vital, an adaptation should ultimately be free to be as faithful or irreverent as it chooses, thinks Shanahan. Because, as Mark Gatiss has said of his book-to-TV adaptations of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series, it is not just about “drearily reproducing” a classic. It is about bold reinvention too. After all, “no-one burns the manuscript”.