Adapt or die

Adapt or die

It is not the strongest or the most intelligent who will survive but those who can best manage change – Charles Darwin


I’ve just spent two weeks playing the prosecuting counsel in a stage version of To Kill A Mockingbird so I’m no stranger to an adaptation. Harper Lee’s novel (one of the most famous novels ever written) spawned an equally famous film starring Gregory Peck. Further proposed adaptations are carefully scrutinised by the Harper Lee estate and only those deemed to be adhering closely to the original are allowed to proceed – fortunately Tower Theatre’s version was one of them. 70% of the performances sold out so it would seem that there is a healthy appetite for crossover material. Novels are serialised on TV (most things by Andrew Davies), musicals are formed from unlikely literary works (Les Mis anyone?), opera has regularly raided the classics for inspiration, films are incestuously recycled from previous versions (just how many versions of A Star Is Born are there?). It certainly used to be the norm that any big stage production eventually made it to the silver screen (Sound of Music, My Fair Lady etc.) but of late there have been many examples of doing things the other way round. Reproducing hit films on stage has become a growth industry typified by the version of the late 80’s biggie Rain Man which I saw last night. Here’s my review:

The Classic Stage to Screen Theatre Company (part of Bill Kenwright’s empire) has the avowed intention of transposing cinematic works to the stage. Rain Man is its inaugural production and has been touring the country since August. This week it reached Richmond Theatre where it generally provided a slick and rewarding evening’s entertainment.
The storyline is probably famous enough not to need summarising here but suffice to say it is a narrative focusing on two brothers initially unknown to each other. They embark on a physical and emotional journey from Cincinnati to Los Angeles getting to know each other and, in the younger brother’s case, himself a little better .
Older brother Raymond is an autistic savant with a plethora of verbal and physical tics who has been shut away in an institution for most of his life, placed there by a father who was ashamed of his son’s disability. Played sensitively yet with a fine sense of comedy by Matthew Horne it would be easy to make Raymond a figure of fun but the production resists this and encourages sympathy for and empathy with this naturally shy though fiercely intelligent man. Horne’s constant rocking yet almost deadpan delivery demonstrated the inner turmoil of the character and it is to his absolute credit that thoughts of Dustin Hoffman’s portrayal in the film were quickly erased.

Charlie, the younger brother, has his own internal struggles. He is an acquisitive go- getter of the late 1980s with issues about proving himself to his hard hearted father and who suddenly finds himself caring for a relative he never knew he had. Charlie, in fact, goes on a much deeper and personal journey than Raymond. Initially he only wants to connect with Raymond to get his share from the fortune that the recently deceased father has left the older sibling. Gradually though the “rain man” (the younger Charlie’s mishearing of “Raymond”) begins to work his unintentional magic on his estranged brother. This provided a good level of challenge for Ed Speleers moving from being a selfish money grabber to a truly concerned relative. Speleers successfully channelled some of the easy charm of film predecessor Tom Cruise but like Horne found many ways to make the part his own. The opening scene in Charlie’s car dealership where he and his two employees wheel and deal on telephones demonstrates just how closed in by his own manias Charlie is – in this sense the two brothers are not quite so far apart as one might at first suppose.
At the heart of the film is the road trip the two brothers take across America with many of their exchanges taking place inside a car. There was, thankfully, no ham fisted attempt to reproduce this aspect on stage with relevant moments being transposed into motel rooms en route. That said the play’s excision of the travelling metaphor meant that a crucial dimension was lost. There was also some loss of pace in the first half as the various locations were brought on and off stage. I felt the second half with fewer scene changes was much stronger as the play concentrated more and more on the interaction and blossoming relationship between the two main characters.

In many ways the play is an extended duologue between these two central figures. There is some interaction with other characters but most of these are, I’m afraid to say, largely forgettable. Although there was absolutely nothing wrong with the way other parts were played, indeed they were executed with an eye for detail, there was little that remained in the memory at the end of the evening. The late 1980s macho provenance meant there was particularly little for Elizabeth Carter and Mairi Barclay to work with – the girlfriend, the waitress, the secretary, the hooker. This clearly betrayed the origins of the piece as being stuck in a particular time and perhaps a few more liberties could have been taken with the original. The costumes and props (loved Charlie’s mobile phone brick) were bang on and there was fun to be had with some “I remember those” moments. However, I’m not so sure that younger members of the audience might have fully understood some of the American culture references from thirty years ago.

The writer is credited as Dan Gordon, though perhaps he might better have been credited as editor as the script seemed to be a filleted but almost word for word reproduction of the screenplay. Indeed on a quick fast forward viewing of the DVD, I was surprised just how much had been culled directly from the film version. Not only were large chunks of dialogue lifted wholesale but the costumes all seemed very familiar and even the introductory music at the top of the play was a carbon copy. The last scene of the film was omitted from the stage version; this, I think, was a smart move, as this allowed the play to finish on a tender note of togetherness as the two brothers physically came together. This suggests that further departures from the original might have been beneficial. The evening raises all sorts of questions about the desirability of transferring quite so directly from screen to stage – perhaps one that the production company will consider in more detail after this initial and largely successful outing.*

So as hinted at above is there a place for stage versions of films? On balance I’d say it depends very much on the production. It does seem, as was the case here, a little fruitless to simply reproduce en bloc something which was always going to be more successful in another medium. To truly engage and enthral, a live version has to do something else or the audience might just as well sit in comfort at home and watch the original. Even when there is a rigid “script” to adhere to it is about interpretation; for instance with a familiar orchestral score or a Shakespeare play it is all about the conductor/director and musicians/actors approach and delivery. So if staging films is going to be a trend let’s aim to add to the experience rather than simply reproducing it.

*This review first appeared on the website of Sardines Magazine.

2 thoughts on “Adapt or die

  1. Really really interesting. I saw the Rainman film at a tender age and most of it was lost on me. Want to see it again now I understand it more! I’m not sure that was your intention though…

    P xx


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