Image courtesy of ING Nederland/Flickr.
Adapting from novels and films has long been a part of the theatrical tradition but there is arguably a need to discuss whether or not we have become too reliant on them.
Looking at how adaptations are faring at the awards, we can make broad strokes about their dominance on the stage. A quick look at the Tony Award winners list from June 2015 will tell you that Best Play went to The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time which, incidentally, also won the Olivier Award for Best New Play in 2013. This year’s Best Musical award went to Fun Home, an adaption of Alison Bechdel’s memoir. Best Musical Revival, Best Leading Actor and Actress in a Musical, Best Leading Actor in a Play and a further thirteen Tony’s were won by Curious Incident, Fun Home and other adaptations this year. That’s nineteen of a total of thirty awards given.
Should this be viewed as a problem? Done well, an adaptation can be mesmerizing. It can create a new dimension to the original that seemed virtually impossible from the outside to all but the creators of the show. Think War Horse and The Lion King with their dramatic use of puppetry on such a large scale. Think Les Misérables and the incredible feat that turned Victor Hugo’s epic novel into one of the most successful musicals of all time.
However, failing to bring something unique to the stage version is a trap too easily fallen into. Recycling the same dialogue and attempting to exactly recreate the film set leads to mediocre theatre that, I hesitate to note in fear of sounding cynical, will no doubt still pull in a reasonably packed audience of fans of the original. Playing it safe in this way is not in itself a bad thing: it keeps people coming to the theatre who might not otherwise do so. Of course, the familiarity of the name of the show on the flyer entices people to spend money on a ticket that they might be less willing to part with for an unknown show.
The problem with this attitude though is that there is a world of difference between the three or four adaptations that win big on Broadway and at the Tony Awards and the reams of book or film adaptations that dominate local British theatres all year round. Since September Edinburgh has seen The Bodyguard, The Lord of the Flies, And Then There Were None and Shrek the Musical hit theatres with varying degrees of success. It is easy and comfortable to spend the evening watching a stage performance of a well-known book or film, there is almost a sense of a buying a ticket with an insurance policy as one knows there is little chance that the show will be actively bad. Sometimes the adaptation is phenomenal but often not.
It is difficult to know whether or not the excess of stage adaptations in Edinburgh is driven by audience preferences or theatre companies themselves choosing to promote this type of theatre. Whilst both presumably feed into each other surely, somewhere down the line, this complacency must be damaging for playwrights’ opportunities to showcase new writing. Thus, whilst it is unlikely that we will ever stop loving and enjoying adaptations, perhaps the theatre industry does need to consider how they can refocus a greater portion of their resources on new writing.