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« Philistines | Main | Chatroom/Citizenship »

September 08, 2007


John Morrison

Of course you're right, Andrew...and so am I. It's horses for courses..and I am a big fan of updating (The Alchemist, The Man of Mode) for some plays. What impressed me about Thea Sharrock's approach to the Emperor Jones was that nine directors out of ten would have shied away from doing it as written, but she took a gamble on the original text and it was a brilliant success. Do go and see it if you haven't yet done so. A further plus point -- it lasts only 65 minutes! My attention span in the theatre is now much better since I sat for 12 hours through Le Soulier de Satin in Edinburgh three years ago. Everything else now seems mercifully brief by comparison.

Andrew - a West End Whinger

You're right, of course, John.

And so am I.

I'm being irresponsibly selective in choosing cases to back up my argument. I would be appalled if someone tinkered with Tennessee Williams (other than maybe to pare it down to two hours. Modern audiences - by which I mean "I", of course - don't have the attention span they did in the fifties) or Chekhov (ditto).

I agree that a text can provide a "climbing frame" on which to build a production, but if they are old, rusting and no longer quite fit for purpose, some repairs may well be in order; indeed, it may be gross negligence not to.

Can we agree that SOME plays shouldn't be tinkered with and agree to disagree which plays?

John Morrison

Andrew, your comment has prompted me to clarify what I really think. I don't think a play script is sacred -- that's putting it too strongly. I accept the pragmatic argument that if something works well theatrically, then do it. But there is a difference between theatre and film in the way scripts are treated. Screenwriters sign away their rights in exchange for a fat cheque, playwrights don't and have a veto over changes to their text. That's a legal and contractual difference that applies to works in copyright, but even when copyright has expired, I think respect for the text and its integrity is a useful artistic principle. The text is the climbing frame on which the director and the actors do their gymnastics. I also feel that respect for the text doesn't cease to matter when the play is translated from another language. Sometimes an adaptation can be a good idea and plays can be reinvented or cut, but inserting new material is a different matter. When the rewriting goes beyond a certain point (as with Philistines) the new author should put his or her name on it and take the credit or the blame. My comments about directorial egos were prompted by memories of some ghastly and pretentious shows I've seen at the Edinburgh festival over the years, brought over from Europe (where the egos of directors can operate untrammeled by any need to put bums on seats because of generous subsidies). That's why Thea Sharrock's approach gets my vote. If there is going to be rewriting, then it should be better than the original. Having read both Gorky's original text of Philistines and Andrew Upton's version, it's clear to me that the former is a much more subtle piece of writing. My final argument is that some plays are easier to reinvent than others. Katie Mitchell's Iphigenia was fantastic but her updating of The Seagull was misconceived. It's easier to update the ancient Greeks (I'm looking forward to seeing Alan Cumming in the Bacchae) or Shakespeare, but very risky to try the same trick with Ibsen, Chekhov or Gorky.

Andrew - a West End Whinger

Hmmmm. "a desire to respect the author's text rather than stamping her directorial ego all over it" - are those the only two options, John?

Surely it's the duty of a director to produce the best experience possible for a contemporary audience and if that involves tinkering with the play, so be it. I don't think that texts are sacred.

Would you feel the same way about a movie remake?

The difference between the two is that in the case of a play the text is the only bit of it which exists when it's not actually being performed, but I don't think that makes it sacred.

How far are you going to take this? Would you have preferred Philistines to be produced in its original language (bad example as I know you would have been in your element there)?

Speaking for the Whingers, we'd be more than thrilled to see a return to the Victorian approach to Shakespeare - cut it down to just the good bits.

Of course, this isn't a very fashionable idea, but one's ideas of what theatre is are just that - fashions.

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