Room by Emma Donoghue at the Abbey

So last night I attended the opening of Emma Donoghue’s Room, the stage adaptation of her 2010 novel which later became an Oscar-winning film. It’s an interesting production, one that allowed me to pull together a lot of thoughts about this year’s Abbey season, while also raising issues in its own right.

When the Abbey’s new programme was announced, it was generally greeted with excitement, I think. The stage was being opened out to other Irish companies, there were interesting new productions to look forward to, and there was also the prospect of work by major artists like Lisa Dwan and John Tiffany. So all very good.

But there were reservations evident here and there, mostly on social media, and mostly asking one question: why were there so many adaptations? From No’s Knife to Room and on to Let the Right One In, we’re seeing plays being created out of works that existed in other media first – a development that  follows on from Marina Carr’s Anna Karenina at the Abbey last year, while also being mirrored in Selina Cartmell’s first programme at the Gate, which includes adaptations of The Great Gatsby, The Red Shoes and The Snapper. And the implication in some of those comments was that we were losing out in some way by being presented with such work.

But I’ve never really understood the prejudice against adaptations, which, apart from anything else, seems to ignore a lot of the history of Irish theatre. From its inception, the Abbey staged plays that took stories from one medium and placed them in another: even on its opening night it gave us On Baile’s Strand, an adaptation of Irish legend – followed later by Lady Gregory’s versions of Moliere, Yeats’s Oedipus, and many other versions and adaptations. We might also argue that what Synge did in writing Shadow of the Glen was a form of adaptation: he took an oral folktale and refashioned it for live performance. So I don’t think we should see this year as representing a major departure from the norm. Yes, it’s probably unusual that 2017 will pass without a play by Friel or Murphy or O’Casey or Synge at the Abbey. But we haven’t been starved of work by those writers and presumably haven’t heard the last of them either.

Internationally, there seems to be a much greater acceptance of adaptations, albeit that their prominence is driven partly by producers’ desire to manage risk by giving audiences already familiar stories. So right now we have 1984 on Broadway, for example – not to mention the multiple musicals that bring so-so Hollywood movies to the stage. But we can also point to companies like Shared Experience or Elevator Repair Service, which have found ways of giving theatrical life to well known novels. So there doesn’t seem to be quite the same level of resistance to adaptations elsewhere in the English-speaking world. (I should add here that there are many examples of adaptations on our own stages too at present – CyclopsThe LadykillersOnce the Musical and other productions.)

I also think there is an interesting coherence to this year’s Abbey programme, which, it’s becoming increasingly evident, focusses on the theme of entrapment. There’s a link to be drawn between Walsh’s Ballyturk and Arlington on the one hand and Room on the other: indeed, the conclusion of Ballyturk drew direct comparisons with Room when it premiered, and both can be linked back to the Fritzl case in Austria. But that theme of entrapment runs through the other productions: it’s there in Godot (“we’re not tied?”) and No’s Knife, and also is an important presence in Katie Roche and Let the Right One In. Even Ulysses is about entrapment: it’s about Molly in the bedroom, about the nets that Stephen needs to fly past, about the nightmare of history that he wants to awake from, about the idea of Dublin as a kind of Room that Bloom and Stephen keep circling,  like the double act in Ballyturk. The idea of marriage as a trap also runs through these plays (especially in Ulysses and Katie Roche), and it will be interesting to see how the presentation of Katie speaks to the performance of Molly Bloom when both characters appear at the theatre.

And perhaps in this programme there’s a subtle declaration of intent in relation to the Abbey itself. Enda Walsh’s various rooms have always seemed like metaphors for the theatre itself, the sense of entrapment felt by the characters acting as emblems of Walsh’s  willingness to push against theatrical form. It’s interesting that the first year of the new directors’ Abbey programme is all about the frustration of being confined to one space. The opening of Jimmy’s Hall in Leitrim and the national tour of Two Pints can be seen as evidence of a desire to get out of the Abbey in much the same way that many of the characters on the main stage this year are seeking to break free of their own boundaries.

Or maybe I’m reading too much into things.

But in any case, Room feels at home at the Abbey, both thematically and in the context of the theatre’s history and its possible futures. It is, it’s important to say, an international co-production, with lines delivered in English accents – and so there isn’t quite the sense of a community being in conversation with itself that was evident with, say, Ballyturk (which in its Galway premiere drew immediate comparisons to the Tuam Babies case). Instead, we are introduced to interesting non-Irish voices in the acting company – while also encountering the work of two excellent international designers in Lily Arnold and Andrezej Goulding. But the production does hit home (in all senses of that phrase) in another way: it’s a play by a female Irish author on our national theatre’s main stage. It would be great if it led to a re-evaluation (and revival) of Donoghue’s many stage plays, which are known less well than her novels.

But the key question for any adaptation is whether it is a success in the new medium in its own right  or whether it seems derivative of the original. What’s interesting about Room is that there are times when it is both of those things.

I’m sure somebody somewhere has probably written about the difficulty of adapting novels written from a first person point of view for the stage (as opposed to adapting third person narratives such as Anna Karenina or Les Miserables). The simplest and most common way of doing this is simply to put an actor on stage and have him or her tell the story directly to us. This is how Beckett’s prose has been performed, and it is what Annie Ryan did for A Girl Is A Half Formed Thing, for example.

But adapting the narrative is a major challenge for Room, which in the original is told from the point of view of the five-year-old boy, Jack, who is trapped in the Room with his mother. The brilliance of the novel lies in the extent to which we as adults know more about what is happening than the narrator himself does: we fill in blanks, place things in a moral or social context that the boy himself is too young to comprehend. And along the way we also see the world from the perspective of the child.

The novel thus captures how one of the gifts offered by parenthood is that our children allow us to learn about the world a second time, when we see it newly through their eyes (this is also one of the things that reading great novels can do for us). Room has the same gift to offer, allowing us to learn again the nature of reality as seen through the eyes of Jack. The book is both moving and revelatory from the extent to which it makes everyday things unfamiliar to us, and new again.

Staging the story means that we leave the boy’s mind and see the action instead as a representation of “reality”, with Jack’s perspective one of many that are dramatized in the play. In removing some of the interpretative burden from the audience, Donoghue  risks making the action seem excessively literal, then – a problem that she attempts to address by placing onstage an adult actor who is a version of Jack’s inner self. His actions mirror Jack’s emotional state, and he often narrates Jack’s unspoken thoughts and feelings, saying them directly out to the audience. He is in many ways a theatricalisation of Jack’s point of view from the novel.

Perhaps he could be described as something of a cross between two Friel characters: Gar Private from Philadelphia, Here I Come! and Michael from Dancing at Lughnasa. But he’s never quite one or the other. He’s not an adult looking back on his memories (as in Lughnasa). But because the role is played by an adult, he doesn’t feel like a private version of Jack either. One of the things that is significant about Donoghue’s child narrator of the novel is that (unlike Gar in Philadelphia) there is not a huge schism between his public and private self: one of the forms of violence that Old Nick inflicts upon him and his mother is to make that distinction between inside and outside seem null and void. Ultimately the presence of the adult version of Jack feels like it arises from a perceived need to have someone on stage who can enact elements of the story that are too complex for the child actors to perform. This feels like a compromise rather than an inherently necessary part of the theatrical composition.

Setting that aside, perhaps the most surprising element of the adaptation is the inclusion of a number of songs, which are performed to a recorded backing track. To be clear, this is not Room – the Musical, if only because in musical theatre the creation and refinement of musical motifs becomes a key part of the storytelling and character development, whereas here the songs feel incidental or contextual. But it is a play with songs. And that feels very strange, given the subject matter.

Room

A problem with these songs, for me anyway, was their use at times that often felt very inappropriate, including most notably in a scene in which Old Nick rapes Ma while Jack hides in a wardrobe. We see Old Nick arrive, remove his boots, engage in threatening chitchat, and get into bed. And then Jack (in the wardrobe) begins to count the squeaks of the bed’s springs. It’s a difficult scene to watch.

Midway through these events, though, the actor playing Ma breaks into song. And while I believe we were intended to see this moment as indicating Ma’s resilience and determination to survive – and her ability to separate herself from what was happening as a way of surviving – it felt inappropriate to the context. I think audience-members will have a variety of views on this scene, some positive and some negative. But one criticism could be that it risks inhibiting our apprehension of the full horror of what is being done to Ma. I was not ungrateful for that distraction last night, because I’ve read the book and didn’t particularly want to live with those experiences again. But I felt that the original novel made more demands upon us as readers.

I’m not suggesting that any subject should be off-limits for musical performance onstage: there is a fully orchestrated and choreographed scene of sexual assault in West Side Story, for example, while the song “Hello Little Girl” from Into the Woods plays very dangerously with multiple taboos around children and sexuality. But the reason those songs are effective is that they’re situated contextually, both in relation to the music and the characterisation. It may well be a failing on my part but I couldn’t work out what the songs were doing in Room or why they were needed.

And yet – there were moments last night when the production was outstandingly good. The use of projections on a rotating stage gives us a sense of the interior life of Jack (while also helping to mitigate some of the bleakness of the story). And notwithstanding my criticisms of the use of song, I was impressed by the exceptional sensitivity and integrity displayed in the treatment of the child actor who is present during the scene (mentioned above) when Old Nick rapes Ma. As in the original novel, it’s a movingly honest portrait of parenthood: of what we as parents give our children – and of what we receive from them – and of what we sometimes take from them too. It represents the simple human truth that parenthood involves a gradual letting go, an act that is both painful and a source of happiness. The honesty and insight in evidence here will resonate wherever this play is performed.

It’s also a play that deals fascinatingly with the workings of male power. There is the obvious sense in which the lives of Ma and Jack are completely at the mercy of Old Nick, who is as menacing offstage as when he is present (his cutting off of Room’s electricity, for example, is an act of intimidation that is partly fuelled by his absence: Ma knows that the only thing worse than Old Nick coming back is his never coming back). But that theme is evident too in the relationship between Ma and her own father, a well nuanced figure who initially expresses his outrage against Old Nick for what had been done to “his daughter” – as if the crime was against the father rather than Ma herself. There’s a lot of interesting material to work with here, both for the actors and the audience.

But the production is most successful in the performances by Ma (Witney White) and the three child actors who play Jack (Darmani Eboji, Taye Kassim Junaid-Evans and Harrison Wilding). There’s a very moving physical and emotional intimacy between mother and child, and I have never before seen a child actor carry as much emotional weight on a stage as I saw last night. Here the direction by Cora Bissett has to be praised. There is great eloquence in the choice of movements for Jack – the way he curls up while hiding in the wardrobe, the subtlety of his gradual development of an ability to use stairs in the second half of the play, the growing physicality of his interactions with his grandfather, the careful development of a repertoire of affectionate gestures between him and his grandmother, and so on. At the risk of offering what will surely seem like a backhanded compliment, I thought all of this was so good that the songs could have been cut (or not included in the first place), and I also wondered if the play could have been staged without the adult actor playing Jack (the actor himself is very good, by the way: I’m not criticising his performance). Yes, the total removal of these elements would leave gaps to be filled, and yes the subject matter is already difficult enough as it is and needs to be lightened or mediated in some way. But the strength of this production lies  in our being in the presence of these actors and empathising intimately with them. I wanted to have fewer distractions from that relationship.

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And this is where adaptations offer different experiences for audiences. Some people in the theatre last night will have read the book, others will have seen the film, some will have done both, and some will know nothing about the story at all. And inevitably your judgement of the action will be shaped to some extent by whatever version of Room (if any) you have brought with you.

But I don’t think this makes for any kind of second-rate experience. If Room proves anything, it is that we should see adaptations not as a lesser version of original stage plays, nor as being like a faded photocopy of a primary text. Rather, they need to be seen as an instinsic part of our theatrical heritage (especially at the Abbey), as having value in their own right, and as requiring a set of critical tools that will allow us to appreciate them for what they are and what they do. They are not inferior to original plays; they are just slightly different works of art.

So I left the theatre all the more enthused about the prospect of seeing how the rest of the year will pan out, with Gatsby, Jimmy’s Hall, Ulysses,  Let the Right One In, The Red Shoes and many other productions in other theatres on the way. It took me a couple of years after its publication to face up to reading Room, a novel which (like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road) I am glad to have read but will almost certainly never re-read. I would not let any such hesitation stop anyone from going to see this play, however. There is a lot going on here, and while I think it will evoke mixed reactions (it certainly did so last night amongst the people I spoke to or overheard) it also raises important issues about what we stage and how we stage it — about the voices we listen to, the questions we ask, the people we value.

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