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?

Perhaps the poster-boy for this phenomenon is Simon Stone, the director responsible for half the productions mentioned above. When he presented The Wild Duck at Belvoir in 2011, I was quite taken with his (re)interpretation of Henrik Ibsen’s 1884 play. However, as the years and his productions have come and passed, and I’ve seen all of those presented at Belvoir (along with his stage-adaptation of Bergman’s film, Face to Face, at Sydney Theatre Company in 2012), I have come to realise that there’s something else going on in these ‘new versions’ of classic works. There is a very distinct view or presentation of the world that comes across in these new versions, and I’m not so sure that I’m comfortable with it. On the one hand, I’m all for the reinterpretation of existing works, if it means that audiences will then go back and look at the original, try and work out what was changed, and whether it works or does not, what impact it has upon an understanding of the original. Conversely, I believe that there are some texts which should not be messed with in this way. New translations are all well and good, but when a writer/director starts pushing their own interpretation of a play onto an audience and calling it the same thing as the original, then I have a problem.
Adaptations in general, and not just of plays, are fine, so long as audiences are aware that they are seeing an adaptation of an existing work; that the production they are watching also exists in another form in another medium. In the article in The Weekend Australian, Stone claims “it’s harder to write an original play than it is to write a version of someone else’s play.” I’d disagree – while an ‘original’ play is new, created from scratch so to speak, a new version of an existing work must not only honour the original but bring something new to it, open up another dimension within the existing work that can be explored, plumbed, traversed, dissected, studied under the lens of a new production. And it is not any old person who can do that; it takes skill, determination, insight, research, and perhaps most of all, respect. As one of the characters says in Andrew Bovell’s adaptation of Kate Grenville’s The Secret River, it’s a matter of “give a little, take a little… That’s the only way.” I’m with Bovell when he says “it’s probably harder to write a good play than it is to direct one.”
Ultimately though, I think I’d prefer a new ‘original’ work to a new ‘version’ of an existing work. A new work, when it’s well-written and directed, stands taller and prouder than a new version, no matter how accomplished, audacious, or poetic the version may be. New works should tell new stories, even if they use existing stories to help them in their telling, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Sometimes, as in the case of Van Badham’s The Bull, The Moon and the Coronet of Stars, the use of Greek myths only serves to enrich and deepen the play’s magic, mystery, charm, and poetry. It’s a big story, a big bold audacious crazy story, told by two actors – a big story on an intimate scale – and it loses nothing in its telling. There’s a thrilling sense of danger about new original works, they walk on a knife’s edge – will it work? Will it survive? What will it say about us, here, now? – and you never quite know which way it’s going to go. As a character in Tom Holloways’s Love Me Tender says, “I think it is the best time to bring a little girl into the world.” You could say the same about a new original work. There’s a hunger for it, for new stories told in new ways, “new forms” of storytelling, like those Konstantin craves in The Seagull.
 “You know what?” Lee Lewis, Artistic Director at Griffin Theatre Company, says when asked about the notion of a new version being classified as a new work. “They kept the titles, so it’s still an old play reworked. There’s incredible courage that writers of new works have, to put a new title out into the world and have no association that the audience can fall back on to. I think it’s very brave, and I don’t think adaptation is as brave.”
Adaptations of existing works can only go part way in solving the problem. What we need are new stories, new stories for a new generation of theatre-makers. As Miranda might have said in The Tempest, “O brave new world, That has such stories in’t.” 

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