This term will see two literary adaptations staged at the Keble O’Reilly, Oxford’s highest-profile student-only theatre. In an attempt to escape the method of interviewing that tells you nothing you can’t find out on a Facebook event, I met up with the directors of Lord of the Flies and Frankenstein (Dom Applewhite and Harley Viveash respectively) for an informal conversation about the nature, challenges and rewards of literary adaptation.
Luke Rollason: It’s a clichéd claim to say there’s a current ‘trend’ for literary adaptation, but it’s a convenient point for us to start on considering the huge popularity of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, and Headlong’s adaptations. Do you think this is new ‘trend’?
Harley Viveash: One of the things I’d been reading building up to Frankenstein was a book by Mike Alfred called Then What Happens, and the thing that he claims is special about adaptations is that they offer opportunities for innovation in theatre, because these are stories that are not designed originally for the theatre. That this transition isn’t natural or easy can lead to interesting choices. Often the very personal nature of a novel is something that’s hard to communicate on stage, like a story from one person’s perspective, and exploring ideas of perspective is something we are focusing on in Frankenstein.
LR: The way modern theatre is made- as a spectacle- is highly influenced by how audiences are used to receiving stories in the cinema, and I’m wondering if you think adaptation in theatre is following a cinematic precedent for giving audiences what they know already? If books are so brilliant at telling a dense narrative, why put it on stage?
Dom Applewhite: That’s kind of to imply that, if books are the pinnacle of telling narratives then therefore they’re untouchable. The thing is with stage is it’s so immediate, perhaps even more so than film, especially for actors. And both have been adapted before, as well as having their narratives reproduced by other texts.
LR: Do you think that’s part of what appeals to you about staging an established literary text? I mean, both are absorbed into cultural consciousness but not necessarily read…
HV: Well for me those cultural misconceptions are really important, especially as we’re updating the text. We’re not creating a world in which Frankenstein already exists, but you have to be aware in a modern world there are already these versions of Frankenstein out there- you think of Frankenstein as Boris Karloff- and I think these have to be played with and addressed as much as the book itself, as another text that goes alongside it.
DA: I think it can also get really indulgent if you ignore preconceptions that people have. For me it’s more about trying to reinterpret, not necessarily what people already think about the characters, but more general storytelling tropes- because what’s central to the book is questioning what is good or ‘civilised’ and what is evil.
LR: Talking about tropes, these are both texts which I think are very formative to our culture; we all studied them at school, and many of the more clichéd elements of both are only clichés because of these texts. What you’re playing with is not necessarily that text but more how people relate to those texts, how that text has been interacted with and interpreted.
DA: I always think no adaptation takes precedence over another- it can be the most amateur production but it contributes to the conception of what the text represents and its cultural importance, however that person interprets it.
HV: It’s not often done in Oxford, but I think the great thing with devising an adaptation from scratch is it gives a lot of different voices that as the play goes on work more and more in harmony and eventually everyone contributes to the same idea. What I hope we’ll create is a version of this story that is not a definitive version of it but it’s an alternative version, that could only come out of the circumstances of being here, at this time, with these people.
LR: To play devil’s advocate briefly, why call it ‘Frankenstein’? Doesn’t there come a point where you’re basically writing a new play?
DA: I think it says immediately “there is more to this novel than what you think.” You’d hope that every adaptation you see explores elements you haven’t seen before of that text. But I think it’s important to acknowledge that this is a personal response, we should never pretend to be the definitive version, and nobody should be scared to say “well, I see it like this”.
LR: What challenges or advantages come from a text with characters already established in an audience’s mind? Is it any different from working with an established playtext?
HV: I think the difference is people’s assumptions about play characters are often based on other performances, how that character should be performed, but people are protective over novel characters because reading a book is such a personal experience. With Frankenstein’s charactersour source is less the novel but our understanding of it, using improvisation to build these characters from scratch around the story. So, one of the decisions we’ve made is that the monster doesn’t have a physical deformity but he accidentally makes himself a monster by interacting with people in a way he doesn’t realise is violent. Even when he has assimilated he acts in a very assumed way that is slightly unnerving. And that’s a distinctive decision but it’s a decision we feel fits in with the story well.
LR: Are there boundaries to what you can do to a text?
HV: As long as you address what the change does and you’re aware of that then I think it justifies it in terms of that performance, it might not be a decision that people like but that reaction in itself is a comment upon that text’s continuing reinterpretation.
(Lord of the Flies and Frankenstein are on at the Keble O’Reilly Theatre in 3rd Week and 5th Week respectively)