Clash over the classics: A perspective on the adaptations vs. new works debate

There’s an interesting article in the Review section of today’s The Weekend Australian, about adaptations and their prevalence in Australia’s current theatrical landscape. Rosemary Neill asks if it is “a sign of the bankruptcy of original ideas, or [if] it heralds a confident approach to great works of drama?”
In the past two years in Sydney alone, audiences have been given the opportunity to see numerous classic plays in ‘updated’ or ‘new versions’ by various writers and directors (and writer-directors). Productions of Ibsen’s The Wild Duck, Gorky’s Vassa Zheleznova (as The Business), Chekhov’s The Seagull, Seneca’s Thyestes, Eugene O’Neill’s Strange Interlude, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, Euripedes’ Medea, and the forthcoming interpretation of Strindberg’s Miss Julie, have all been rewritten, adapted or reinterpreted from their original texts. While these have resulted in many critical and popular successes, is it hinting at a wider, more alarming problem – a dearth of ‘large-scale’ Australian works?


Night at the museum: Griffin’s The Bull, The Moon and the Coronet of Stars

As many a child does, I loved mythology, and all the many intricacies of which god sired who with whom, who did what where; all the gods, demigods and deities, heroes and heroines running around the place felling monsters and accomplishing miraculous feats… I don’t know if it was that I grew out of it or just stopped being obsessed by it all, but somewhere along the line it no longer held the appeal it once did. It’s all still in my head somewhere, all the stories about the gods and the apples, the world tree, the goat-men and the epic wars, all connected (like so many other things) by that wonderful red string. And then along comes this play, Van Badham’s The Bull, The Moon, and the Coronet of Stars at Griffin theatre; with its adaptation of the story of the minotaur into a contemporary context, it’s a bit like playing hide and seek in a labyrinthine museum of myth – you’re aware of something bigger going on in the story, but at the same time, you’re trying not to get caught up worrying about it all, because you still want to be told a story, you still want it to work its magic on you.
Like friends or lovers telling the story of how they met, the play’s genesis had many beginnings (as told on the Griffin blog in three parts). It was originally written as a short play inspired by a shard of pottery in Oxford’s Ashmolean museum; it started life as a double-dare between two good friends (the other half of the dare became Dance of Death for Melbourne’s Malthouse theatre); it started as a story told millennia ago, about a man who slew a bull, a woman who helped him find his way out again, and a man who loved frivolity a little too much. It’s an enchantingly beautiful play, told eloquently by Badham’s poetic language and performed superbly by Matt Zeremes and Silvia Colloca. Something strange is happening in the museum where Marion and Michael work. As Michael keeps guard, a monster appears along with an impossible situation. Marion flees, only to become infuriated by Mark, a sommelier, and have her world turn upside down as her emotions betray her. To quote the season book, “it will lure you into an orgy of antiquity, cupcakes and beachside frivolity [in] this delightfully debaucherous fairytale for adults.”


The new Elizabethans: Bell Shakespeare's Henry 4

I’ve never been a huge fan of Shakespeare’s History plays; they’ve always seemed a bit dull, a jumble of big speeches and set pieces interspersed with a lot of bickering and fighting amongst political factions. With Bell Shakespeare’s production of Henry 4, however, that has all changed. John Bell calls it Britain’s ‘national poem,’ and you could almost extend that to Australia, I guess. From its opening cacophony of drums and guitar, to the breaking of the set, the raucous rabble of the taverns and the streets, the political manipulating and the ultimate redemption at the end, I don’t think I’ve seen a Shakespeare play done as viscerally and as hauntingly poetic since Bell Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night in November 2010.
Written in two parts performed in 1596 and 1597 respectively, Henry IV was based on Holinshed’s Chronicles and an anonymous play, The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth. Part One deals with the rebel problem in the North, and Prince Hal’s rebellion against his duties; Hal, spurred into action by his father’s scorn, kills Hotspur at Shrewsbury, proving himself somewhat. Part Two sees Hal fall back into his old ways with his friends, while Falstaff is sent away to gather soldiers; upon the illness and death of Henry IV, Hal assumes the crown and becomes Henry V, banishing his old acquaintances. However so much the play appears to depict historical events, “to call any of [Shakespeare’s] plays ‘histories’ is somewhat misleading, because historical events and personages are so heavily fictionalised,” John Bell wrote in The Australian. “To the Elizabethans, history was a mix of myth, legend, folklore, moralising and propaganda. Historical figures and events [illustrated] moral treatises, patterns of behaviour, warnings of consequences and character archetypes.”