From page to stage

By Monica Prendergast, October 2014

Adaptations—from Jane Austen, C.S. Lewis and Mitch Albom—are on stage in October.

This month in and around Victoria we can catch three productions that fall under the category of literary adaptations. Adapting novels for the stage has a long tradition in theatre. This summer I saw an adaptation of Booker Prize-winning author Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall in London, staged by the Royal Shakespeare Company. A three-hour sweep of storytelling about the court of Henry VIII, the show was terrific. Well acted and directed with a quick pace and wonderful period costumes. I was taken into the world of a favourite novel and delighted in seeing this world unfold before me. This same company’s production of Charles Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby was mounted in the 1980s and proved to be an international hit. Audiences enjoy seeing popular classical or contemporary novels translated for the stage, but there are significant challenges for theatre artists who tackle this task.

Reading is a kind of “theatre of the mind” in which we have the freedom to cast the key roles, hear the characters’ voices, create the settings. When moved into a staging process, these individual interpretations become collective. An ensemble of artists create their own version of a novel, hopeful that audiences will agree it is a worthwhile one that does not contradict their own too much. Alternately, a theatre company may wish to create a more unique adaptation that contests a safer approach. Whatever the choice, the focus is on crafting dialogue and effective staging that is visual as well as auditory. Over-reliance on narration, for example, can risk making an adaptation boring. The root meaning of the word theatre is the Greek word theatron, or “seeing-place.” In theatrical versions, we need to see the novel as much as to hear it. And the pictures we may have in our mind about the story are the ones we bring into the theatre space with us. How might these understandable preconceptions prejudice our watching?

Local playwright and long-time artistic producer of Intrepid Theatre, Janet Munsil, will show us how she has dealt with these tasks. Langham Court Theatre launches its season with Munsil’s version of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, directed by Judy Treloar (October 2-18). Munsil was commissioned by Theatre Calgary and the National Arts Centre to write her adaptation for a joint production in 2012. It has since been published and also produced at Capilano College in Vancouver and in Saint John, New Brunswick. Her version won the Calgary theatre critics’ award for best play last year. We can look forward to what has been described as a “fluid” staging of the trials and triumphs of the Bennet family, and the central love-hate romance between Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy.

The second literary adaptation on this month is C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, at UVic’s Phoenix Theatre (October 9-18). This is the Phoenix’s Spotlight on Alumni production and features BFA acting graduates Mack Gordon and Kaitlin Williams in a two-hander version of the beloved children’s novel. 

How can the fantastical landscape of Narnia and its inhabitants possibly work on stage with only two actors? A fair question, but this is a remount of a successful Pacific Theatre production from Vancouver that has gathered good critical and audience response. These two actors are playing multiple roles in a storytelling style with simple staging. Watching actors shift in and out of various characters can be a very effective way to stage complex tales, as this morphing offers both visual and intellectual stimuli for audiences. Unlike the recent screen version of Lewis’ novel that does all the imagining for you, here we can expect an experience closer to the act of reading, more intimate and more open. 

Pacific Theatre is a professional company with a Christian mandate, so I am curious to see if and how those underlying religious metaphors in Lewis’ novel are emphasized. Aslan the lion is a Christ-like figure who is sacrificed and resurrected for the sake of the adventurous Pevensie children who enter Narnia through a wardrobe. Western literature has no shortage of figures of this kind, rooted as our culture is in the biblical tradition. The question for an audience is how lightly or heavily are these themes handled, particularly in the context of a 21st century ever more diverse and secular world? For me, a universal sense of wonder, adventure, and discovery is at the heart of Lewis’ Narnia books while the Christian subtext is there to absorb or ignore, whatever one’s position may be. 

That question of using a light touch or a heavy hand when approaching literary themes is also relevant in the third adaptation on offer this month. The inmate-run prison theatre company William Head on Stage (WHoS) is presenting its own collectively created version of Mitch Albom’s The Five People You Meet in Heaven. Albom made about a zillion dollars from his first populist book Tuesdays with Morrie (which has been successfully adapted for the stage), a memoir of his weekly visits with his dying former professor. Five People was his 2003 follow-up and also racked up millions of sales. 

Albom’s story is about an old man, a war veteran named Eddie, who is killed saving a young girl in the amusement park where he is employed. He finds himself in a kind of limbo where he meets five people whose lives he has affected in certain ways, either by accident or design. In the course of these encounters, Eddie comes to realize how his actions have had lasting impact on the lives of others, and he enters heaven with an appreciation of this lesson finally learned. 

While Albom’s moral-driven writing is not really my own cup of tea, there is no denying its mass appeal. The men at William Head came across the book in the prison library and it resonated with them at a deep level. Their actions have had devastating consequences for them, their victims, and the families on both sides. It is clear why Albom’s story was their choice for WHoS annual production at William Head Institution in Metchosin (October 10-November 8).

This is likely the boldest adaptation of the three to see, with the built-in challenge to make moral concepts dramatic. WHoS has joined forces with a group of local theatre artists called the Prison Theatre Collective. Led by director/facilitator Kate Rubin, this group included designers Carole Klemm and Poe Limkul, musician Katrina Kadoski, and writer/actor/facilitators Kathleen Greenfield, Ingrid Hansen and Anne Cirillo. WHoS has been doing both adaptations (Gormenghast, 2011; The Hobbit, 2012) and original ensemble creations (Chalk, 2010; Fractured Fables, 2013) over the past few years with many of the same community artists involved. 

Rubin and her collaborators have worked this summer with the WHoS ensemble to elicit the inmates’ own stories in response to Albom’s novel. Audiences will experience an immersive interpretation, set in an amusement park and retitled Time Waits for No One: A Prison Play. This will be an interpretation of no small significance for the performers. And if the adaptation works on stage, for us too.

Monica reviews theatre for CBC Radio’s On the Island (FM 90.5), teaches and researches drama/theatre education at UVic, and accompanies her husband, sons, and/or friends out to theatre or dance productions on a regular basis.