Why are there so many adaptations in contemporary Irish theatre?

I’ve written a bit recently about my concerns about contemporary Irish playwriting. But there is a form of writing that appears to be thriving at present: adaptations.

This is something that was mentioned quite a bit at the Synge Summer School a few weeks ago, when several of the writers present spoke about how they’re being commissioned to write adaptations of novels quite regularly, but are struggling to have their original plays put on. We’ve also seen writers moving from one medium to another – turning a successful play into a musical or film, as Enda Walsh has done with Once, for example.

There’s quite a lot of interest in the topic of adaptation at the moment: I see a lot of academic articles about it, and think I’m right in saying that Palgrave Macmillan recently commissioned a book series on the topic of adaptation in theatre and performance. And certainly over the last few years I’ve seen some great adaptations. The most memorable was Gatz from Elevator Repair Service, but there have been others.

Most interesting in an Irish context is Frank McGuinness, who (as I’ve written before) has had to go abroad to produce all of his original new plays since 2002 – but whose adaptations of John Gabriel Borkman and The Dead both did very well on the main-stage of the Abbey. (though I see today that his new play will appear on the Abbey stage – great news)

I just had a quick glance at the Abbey’s online archive, and was surprised by how many adaptations there have been on the main stage since 2005 (Ben Barnes’ last year in the job). By ‘adaptation’ I mean a new version (usually by an Irish writer) of a non-Anglophone play OR a staging of a story originally created in some other medium. The list is quite interesting:

  • A Doll’s House 2005 (Abbey)
  • A Cry From Heaven 2005 (Abbey)
  • The Importance of Being Earnest – With Prologue by Conall Morrison 2005 (Abbey)
  • The Bacchae of Baghdad – Euripides’ The Bacchae in a new Version 2006 (Abbey)
  • A Month in the Country 2006 (Abbey)
  • Hedda Gabler 2006 (Abbey)
  • The Playboy of the Western World – A New Version 2007 (Abbey)
  • Three Sisters 2008 (Abbey)
  • The Last Days of a Reluctant Tyrant 2009 (Abbey)
  • Christ Deliver Us! 2010 (Abbey)
  • John Gabriel Borkman 2010 (Abbey)
  • The Government Inspector – A new version after Nikolai Gogol 2011 (Abbey)
  • The Picture of Dorian Gray (2012)
  • The Dead (2012)

Many of those productions were excellent – I was very impressed by Kilroy’s Christ Deliver Us, and loved the visiting production of Hedda Gabler in 2006.

Likewise in the Peacock we had terrific adaptations such as Chuck Mee’s Big Love and the Company’s As You Are Now So Once Were We.

Over at the Gate, there have also been many adaptations: McPherson’s version of The Birds, Joseph O’Connor’s My Cousin Rachel, Ann-Marie Casey’s Little Women, and even the current Arthur Miller version of Ibsen’s Enemy of the People.

In informal conversation with friends, the view is often expressed that the large number of adaptations in our mainstream theatres is a result of risk management. Theatres stage what is familiar for the same reasons that movie studios commission sequels and remakes, the argument goes – because audiences can’t reliably be depended upon to give the unknown a chance.

Another factor, I think, is festivalisation: literary adaptations are particularly popular on the Festival circuit at the moment, and I think that’s because something like The Great Gatsby is so familiar to audiences everywhere that it is able to transcend or sidestep the kinds of cultural barriers that sometimes impede the reception of work as it travels around the world.

But I think there must be more to it than the management of risk.  What is it about our writers that so many of them at the moment are interested in re-imagining what we think we already know? Is there a link between what our ‘established’ writers are doing with adaptation and what emerging companies are doing with devising? And why do we continue to value adaptations less than original works – to assume that a new original play by McGuinness is inherently more valuable than his (excellent) adaptation of The Dead?

I’m not sure. With the launch of this year’s Dublin Theatre Festival programme imminent – and with the launch of the Fringe programme looming – I expect that we’ll be hearing more about this topic during coming months.

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An Enemy of the People at the Gate

A couple of weeks ago I reviewed An Enemy of the People at the Gate Theatre for Irish Theatre Magazine. It’s a good production and I’d encourage people to see it.  Below is an excerpt from the review. The original with images and a full list of cast and crew is online here: http://www.irishtheatremagazine.ie/Reviews/Current/An-Enemy-of-the-People

Ibsen’s 1882 An Enemy of the People is sometimes described as a problem play, in that it dramatises a  debate between two brothers about the nature of morality and individual responsibility. But that term might obscure the fact that it’s also quite a confused play: Ibsen himself was unsure whether to see it as a comedy or something more serious.

It has many of the ingredients of a Restoration-style romp (improbable entrances and exits, characters hiding behind screens to eavesdrop upon others). Yet it also has what Ibsen called a “serious basic theme” – namely, the question of what happens when an individual forces a society to accept as true something we would rather ignore. In exploring that issue, Ibsen was responding to the public outcry to Ghosts, a play notoriously described as an “open sewer” and a “loathsome sore unbandaged” by scandalised critics. Ibsen’s hero Dr Stockmann is thus often seen as a surrogate for Ibsen himself, and the play’s suggestion that the truth must be told, whatever the cost, is often viewed as Ibsen’s defence of the necessity for plays like Ghosts. But because of that identification between the writer and his hero, it’s sometimes forgotten that Ibsen was ambivalent about Stockmann, describing him as “an oddball and a hothead”, while also acknowledging that there was much to admire about him.

READ THE REST OF THE REVIEW HERE: http://www.irishtheatremagazine.ie/Reviews/Current/An-Enemy-of-the-People