Friday 31 August 2007

On adaptations and liveness

I had intended to spend today’s entry thinking about comedy. It is my comedy reviews from Edinburgh that are still gazing mournfully up from my computer screen saying, “Hey, what’s wrong with us? Huh?” as I resolutely fail to polish them off and file them. Comedy is bloody hard to write about. The main problem is that it is largely composed of jokes. Jokes are based on some element of surprise. It is the unexpectedness of a punchline - the neatness of the observation - that makes an audience explode into laughter. Therefore, repeating them willy nilly to give some idea of what’s on offer isn’t really an option.

When discussing this dilemma with comics in Edinburgh they agreed, saying that they’d rather not have a single joke from their act repeated in reviews. At the same time, there is often precious little else to discuss. There’s frequently no plot, no characters, no set - there isn’t even lighting or sound very often. So, many of the things that compete for the theatre critic’s attention are removed. It is material and the delivery thereof that is key; and when the material is secret that’s a pretty hard write. There’s also the fact that I’ve not had much practice at comedy reviewing. Although from the dark mutterings about one particular comedy critic in Edinburgh, who shall remain nameless, concerning his apparent laziness in just repeating swathes of a comedian’s set in lieu of much actual review, perhaps inexperience may be just the thing required.

Anyway, I’ve been diverted. Andrew Field, in his latest blog article, attacks a piece by Marcel Berlins from the Guardian in which the latter confesses himself to be disturbed by theatres making adaptations of films. I do understand where Berlins is coming from. It’s not that I think theatre shouldn’t "do" film - Field skewers him on all sensible points on this score - but I do find the current slew of film adaptations surprising.

As I noted yesterday, The Cut has been fairly stuffed with adaptations of European cinema’s best-loved recent transvestite melodramas. Birmingham Rep/West Yorkshire Playhouse boast a forthcoming Emma "Kneehigh" Rice adaptation of Brief Encounter (incidentally, would anyone else describe Emma Rice as having a "lush romantic sensibility"?). Meanwhile, following the success of The Producers, the West End is awaiting the arrival of what feels like dozens of adaptations of films into musicals (to which Berlins does not object) with Broadway’s Hairspray (which has already been transformed back into a film) and Desperately Seeking Susan (turned into a Blondie jukebox musical) opening in the next month.

Granted, Brief Encounter was a film adaptation of Coward’s one-act stage play Still Life in the first place, which maybe legitimises attempts by theatre to reclaim it. But even so, I can’t help but feel a little underwhelmed at the prospect. For heaven’s sake, it’s Kneehigh: I’m not sure Laura Jesson (Celia Johnson) will cope well with Mike Shepherd in his y-fronts. Moreover, you’ll note that Still Life and Brief Encounter are different titles. Some acknowledgement, perhaps, that the two items are different products. Berlins is correct to note that theatres, when doing these adaptations, do seem to retain the titles of the plundered artefacts for ease of advertising. After all, if you’re significantly adapting one work with the aim of making something new, shouldn’t you stick your neck out and call the new thing something, uh, new? Or is this the area in which the British finally get all European on an original text and claim some sort of auteur-ship in a way which, by and large, our directors don’t with text-based plays - e.g. Shakespeare - without the addition of "On...", "...Project", "Escaping..." or similar?

In passing, I find fascinating Berlins’s assertion that he doesn’t "object to plays made into films, of which there are thousands, many of them clearly better in their new guise." Which films is he thinking of? Almost without exception, every film that has been made from a play in the past decade has endured reviews which all contain the same chestnut "does not escape its theatrical roots" or some variation thereon - The Libertine, The History Boys, Closer, Some Voices, Mojo, etc. the list just goes on. The only unqualified success I can think of is The Madness of King George [III], and that’s going back a while.

As Field notes: "The original still exists... - Berlins talks as if they've made the Young Vic's version of All About My Mother from the dismembered remains of every print of Almodovar's original film." So why would anyone get antsy about an adaptation? Berlins does so because he thinks it’s not theatre’s job. This point is moot to say the least. Berlins is a (very fine) legal correspondent who happens to like a film and doesn’t want to see it spoiled. He then extends this anxiety well beyond its remit into a plea for theatres to produce more new writing, so it seems silly to engage with him on arguments about what theatre should "stand for". (Field, incidentally, estimates the National’s ratio of new to old plays at 10% new to 90% extant. I am reliably informed that the actual ratio is closer to 50-50).

But the point Berlins inadvertently raises - concerning cinema’s fixity versus theatre’s de facto fluidity - is a fascinating one. One of the only things of value that I found in the recent Roger Scruton book that I read for Culture Clash was his interesting observation that pop music was a medium defined by its fixity. Scruton doesn’t know enough about pop music to make this assertion stick (think of all those gigs, bootlegs, unreleased demos and cover versions before claiming that the pop song is defined by its existence in a single recording), but the fact that pop music, and similarly cinema, can offer something even suggesting a definitive article is a stark contrast with theatre (and by extension sheet music/folk music/opera etc. which only exist properly in performance).

Theatre’s own relationship with fixity is quite problematic. Chris Goode’s description (you’ll have to scroll down - the entry is "Straight back down, y'all, straight back down to earth", on Monday, May 28, 2007) of the technical set-up for Speed Death... in Plymouth is a good example:

'Like most machines, this machine has no intelligence within itself... There is something incredibly estranged about [its] experience. That radio that Gemma turns on in scene 7: that's the DSM, who can just about see and hear the performance, slightly anticipating the motion of Gemma's thumb and saying "Sound cue 18 [or whatever] -- Go!" to the sound operator, who is one floor up and listening to the DSM's voice on headphones, and cannot see and can barely hear the performance, and whose job it is then to press the button that launches the sound effect of the radio which then plays from a speaker in roughly the right area of the stage, at a pre-ordained volume level and for a pre-determined duration. This is what "she turns on the radio" now means.'

And Chris is pretty rigorous about this sort of thing. In Edinburgh one very popular Fringe First winning show I saw was I Wish I Had a Sylvia Plath. This consisted of an (un-mic-ed) actress performing in front of, and with, a video film playing on a giant screen that took up the whole back wall of the set. The acting also took place in the face of a loud barrage of pre-recorded sound over which she had to provide the voices for the on-screen actors herself. There was so much that took place on the screen, it often felt that the removal of the sole live element would not have deprived us of very much (even less if there had been a soundtrack). More significantly though, the actress could do nothing to interfere with the speed of the film. If she wanted to go faster, she couldn’t. If she wanted to pause for a laugh, she couldn’t or she would have been out of sync. Even in less extreme examples (the use of recorded music or voiceovers) theatre’s increasing use of technology - wonderful though it can be - is forever chipping away at the idea of liveness, and introducing fixed elements.

The obvious answer, and one to which many theatre-makers are increasingly turning, is to become a kind of "liveness" zealot. In extreme cases - and don’t get me wrong, it’s an aesthetic of which I’m very fond - this sees lighting and sound desks operated on stage, all lights visible and even foregrounded, and an explicit acknowledgement of the stage effects being employed. Even the National is very canny about having its musicians unobtrusively visible as they provide the live incidental music in the Olivier, although it tends to shy away radicalising the same option in the more conventional pros. arch Lyttleton and studio Cottesloe spaces. I’m not sure that it is absolutely necessary for everyone to adopt this approach to forestall the calcification of theatre as a live medium. After all, another growth branch in theatre is the ultra-technical show - think The Elephant Vanishes. There is room for all sorts of different approaches as long as those in control don’t lose sight of what’s important and accidentally create something from which the removal of all human involvement would make no significant difference.

Following yesterday’s brief excursion into my limited acquaintance with Godard, this discussion recalls another of his films: One Plus One - his film of the Rolling Stones recording Sympathy For the Devil intercut with footage of leftist militants - as a fixed article recording the gradual evolution and eventual fixing of another fixed article, all made to look as live and inventive as possible. It is an interesting second front to consider.

Finally, in an extraordinary attempt to make this look like a well thought out and tidy article, I’m currently listening to Love Songs You Can Dance To, the new album by The Popsocks - recorded pop music by Stefan Golaszewski, one quarter of the comedy sketch group Cowards. It’s not live, but it is very funny and sweet. And I'm not going to tell you any of the jokes.

Edit: Mark Shenton's Stage blog today offers an even broader context of how much new work this autumn is an adaptation.


Andrew Field said...

Another book for your list of Things You Should Read - "Liveness" by Phillip Auslander. Makes some interesting points about the redundancy of the notion of livness these days. Not sure I entirely agree but its worth a read.

National may well be 50/50 - it just feels a lot less as the new pieces are generally so utterly forgettable. And if you throw in the Old Vic as well I think that probably bumps the ratio up a bit.

If you're at all interested I have a paper lying around somewhere on the development of the use of cinema in theatre and what I think it has the potential to do. If you're interested, you understand, or you're having trouble sleeping.

Andrew Haydon said...

Pretty sure I've at least flicked through the Auslander book - it's certainly where I got the word "liveness" from. Although, in common with most of what I read at uni. I don't remember much about it. And yes, I'd totally be interested in reading your paper on cinema and theatre. Whizz it over...