Tag Archives: classical adaptation

Give Me Your Hands


On adaptation and versions of Shakespeare and particularly Russell T Davies Adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream on BBC4. This I discover was actually made in 2016.


There are lots of reasons to edit and transpose in Shakespeare. I am certainly not averse to it and have a whole chapter on the subject in ‘What Country Friends Is This?’ my new book to be published by NHB later in the year. Michael Chekhov wrote, way back in the middle of the 20th century, that Shakespeare often needed editing and shaping for a modern audience. But as Peter Brook warned in Evoking (and Forgetting!) Shakespeare, to modernise, cut or transpose meant that you had to be fully aware of the consequences.

There are lots of things we might challenge in the Dream; the over-arching idea that heterosexual love and marriage was the natural and only way out of conflict; that it is ok for the ruler Theseus to conquer  the Amazons and then to marry their queen whilst the blood is still soaking into the battlefield; that it is ok to have the king of the Fairies to destroy the environment and fight with his queen over possession of a changeling boy and then to get his revenge by bewitching her into having sex with (essentially) an animal.

All of these problems were faced head-on in a feast of pyrotechnical skill and pace with clever editing and truncating of plot, and some very nice use of language (though of course the edits were enormous). It opened us to different sorts of love, which was great. But for me it did not fully work in a very fundamental way. I want to look at just a couple of things.

At the centre of this problem are the roles of Theseus and Hippolyta, to my mind two of the most underwritten parts in Shakespeare. Unless they are played by the same actors playing Titania and Oberon who play out the warring conflict of Theseus and Hippolyta in a poetic way, then they are nearly always unsatisfactory. Davies’ solution to this was a bold one. He made the kingdom of Athens a totalitarian state, Theseus a fascist madman and Hipployta a kind of fairy creature (I won’t elaborate in case you haven’t seen it) . I remember when I worked on this play in ’08 I toyed with something similar but felt that unless I changed the play completely, it simply would not carry through. In the TV adaptation it meant (and this is not a bad idea) what happens in the forest somehow liberates and frees everyone in Athens itself. That is intrinsic to the play but somehow does not always happen in production.

The speech of Theseus in Act V “I never may believe these antique fables” where he decries and rubbishes the lovers’ story of the forest and love and imagination in total is the complete opposite of what the play is telling us. Shakespeare had great faith in romantic love, even though everyone does not end up a winner (look at Twelfth Night). So, if we are looking for a polarity, this cynical, superior, materialistic speech is a dynamic to explore and set against the thrust of the play. When I did a production of this play in 08 I gave that speech to Egeus, who is the one person in the original who is not happy about the young lovers’ decision. He was mobbed and pursued by the fairies and chased from the stage. To keep the speech with Theseus makes it completely unbelievable that he would pardon the lovers for the transgression and have them marry with him.  In answer to this criticism you might say to me, “this is a fantasy”. Yes it is a fantasy but one that needs an emotional logic for the actors to play. For John Hannah I really felt for a moment his characterisation was squeezed by the demands of the adaptation.  Had he somehow made it look that his decision to pardon them was in order to make his own marriage look acceptable, I feel this would have gone with the concept. In other words, that he needed those young lovers to legitimise his own marriage.

A similar problem occurred with Titania and Oberon. By cutting the changeling child and making the argument between Titania and Oberon about Titania’s love for Hippolyta (a neat idea considering how badly Theseus treats her), that idea needed to be followed through in Oberon’s character trajectory. Despite some beautiful moments, the character of Oberon who should go on this big journey in the adaptation was lost. A key moment was a line change in Act 4 Sc3  “Oh how mine eyes do loathe his visage now” which Titania says when she awakes from the enchantment when she sees her ass-headed lover, but it was changed to “Oh how mine eyes do loathe thy visage now” as a jibe to Oberon but said as a joke…. So hey presto, he puts her under a spell to humiliate herself and she says, ‘ha, fair cop,love!” It was another moment where a decision made in the adaptation did not for me sit well with the actors.

Like many adaptations, I felt somehow that in some of these crucial journies and atmospheres director, writer and actors were not quite on the same page. So despite some great energy, for me this made it rather superficial. Why, for instance were the mechanicals not terrified at the Duke’s Palace when they did the play? An atmosphere was explored here later in the scene but they should have come in with this expectation that, though this was an honour, it was dangerous. Having said this, the adaptation and the acting hit some really good notes, not least Flute’s final speech as Thisbe (Which, by the way, we would have been much better to stay with rather than constantly cutting back to the demise of Theseus – you need to see it).

Though I liked Maxine Peake (Titania)  and  Nonso Anozie (Oberon) for me the acting that sat best with the adaptation was Puck (Hiran Abeysekera) , Lysander (Matthew Tennyson), Hermia.(Priska Bakare)  and finally  Flute(Fisayo Akinade).

The one thing that really annoyed me though was the continual music track. For me the words are music enough, at least for some of the time.






Adapting with Chekhov

office copy

In 2003 I directed a production of  Kafka’s The Trial in an adaptation by Steven Berkoff for the Cuirt Festival of Literature with Galway Youth Theatre. It was a success. We revived it, took it on tour to England and got an incredible review in the Irish Times by the late Eileen Battersby.

Berkoff’s stark version is intensely theatrical, a full throated ensemble version of the text and the young actors threw themselves into the performance with enthusiasm and precision. Berkoff demands an ensemble be onstage throughout and be focussed, disciplined and inventive. In that we were extremely successful.  However, looking back, the adaptation itself has a hard unbending edge to it from the very beginning and affected where we went with it.

I remember reading the novel before I did the production and really missing the kind of mysterious depth I feel is in it, a kind of overwhelming onset of thick darkness as if the unfortunate Joseph K is drowning and cannot escape. There is the feeling of a labyrinth in it, different from the empty doorframes Berkoff used in his adaptation and we used for ours. In the novel K is a much more likeable chap than the uptight guy created by Berkoff. I never saw his own production so maybe I am misjudging it. But for me that harshness in the adaptation meant that the production was hard to evolve. It was hard to make a journey. Indeed, the way it seems in the adaptation it seems like it is K’s nightmare which does not give the other characters anywhere to go. As we were working from that adaptation, I got the actors and designer to embody that view, which was theatrically effective, but also lost something.

Maybe you always lose something when you adapt. I have been interested in adaptation for a long time, having, in another period of my life, written a lot of plays and made a number of adaptations for theatre companies in Ireland and the UK. Right now I am writing a book about Shakespeare and part of it is about editing and transposing; how it can be successful and how it can be a disaster.

I was teaching Ensemble and Devising at NUI Galway for many years and over my final years with Ensemble, more and more of my Chekhov training was coming into my approach; imagination, qualities of movement, atmosphere, gesture and composition were incorporated as other things were let go. Composition and Form are particularly important as there is such a danger in adaptation and devised work that a piece can lose its thread and become shapeless.

I have always been a big believer that the Chekhov Technique is not only for regular plays but for a much wider body of work, and more people are using the work in that way. So in the weekend of May 17th -19th for Chekhov Training and Performance Ireland  I want to look at episodes in this novel, The Trial, and explore them through the Michael Chekhov technique, to see if we can find something different, something deeper. One thing I have found with the Technique is that I always discover something new with anything we look at in these courses.

If you wish to attend, email chekhovtrainperformireland@gmail.com to place a deposit and book your place. The weekend is being held at NUI Galway, runs from May 17-19 (The 17th is only a short evening session). The cost is €90 for the weekend.



Essence – Making Classics Meaningful for Today

As I was contemplating and imagining my next production, I suddenly got an image of the opening of the play which was radically at odds with anything I could possibly have considered in my rational mind. It was truly something that came from somewhere else, from my creative imagination, and completely blew me away. It came from a consideration of a beginning that fulfilled an atmosphere I felt was present in the text, and the unexpected character who presented me with this alternative provided me with a possible ending. This did not involve altering the text in this case other than some editing. More to the point, it takes the play in some respects into a different direction, one not contemplated by the playwright, and it made me consider the role of director writer and performer, and where our boundaries are when presenting our alchemical response to the text.

I love to work on classic plays because they reveal to me, my actors and more importantly the audiences, ways of dealing with the world of the present . The creative team take the play and build a bridge to now. This is for me a more powerful way to explore drama than with the plays of the present which are limited by the fact that we can often consider them only in a more literal sense simply because they tackle head on and realistically an issue which is now in the news. They do not leave the audience’s imagination the freedom to fly so easily, because they are taken up with these immediate materialistic issues. This is not a criticism, just an observation.

Classic plays are not showcases to show how well I can direct or the actors can act, how quirky and different we can be, or how ‘relevant’ just for the sake of it.  To start with, I don’t think you can force relevance. You can foster it, and bring an aspect to the fore, sometimes it just emerges from the depth of the team’s response. Basically though, if it isn’t there for you as the director, then why are you bothering to waste time and energy doing the play at all? If you are adapting the text as a writer then you can write your version and draw those modern parallels on a textual level which can then be expressed in the production as ‘a version by’. I remember the Financial Times reviewer compared my own writing process, when I wrote an adaptation of a Jacobean drama ‘from within’. to that of Howard Barker who identified his involvement clearly and distinctly.

When I was writing more, I did a number of adaptations of classic texts. In The Old Law by Middleton and Rowley, a Jacobean tragic comedy which deals with Euthanasia and the rule of law, performed in 1990 at the Lyric Studio in London by Commonweal Theatre Company, I took the play and wrote in quasi-Jacobean verse some substantial scenes which were my own invention, enmeshed within the original. Because the play was little known I had wonderful fun developing the underwritten female characters and in a strong final scene exploring a government’s responsibility to create laws that encouraged the individual to be responsible and humane, rather than the then current leader of the UK, Margaret Thatcher , who was encouraging us all to believe ‘ there is no such thing as society.’

The Old Law - my adaptation not our 1990 production in London  but at MIT 2006

The Old Law – my adaptation not our 1990 production in London but at MIT 2006

I was both lauded and criticised in the press for taking advantage of the fact that this was a little known play and with some clever writing, no one would know the difference between my own work and the original playwrights’ so I could steer the plot or put words into the characters mouths which were radical and not in the original. To my mind the adaptation, though a little long, built a bridge to the present day and was a perfectly valid exploration of the play. It was also clearly advertised as an ‘adaptation’. The original play (not my adaptation) was performed in 2006 at the Royal Shakespeare Company and I have to say was a somewhat patchy affair. The plot was bumpy ( something I didn’t quite resolve in my adaptation either) the women characters less significant, the play less of an exploration of morality, capitalism and society. Importantly it asked no questions, just presented a lot of bad behaviour on the part of the mostly evil characters. It was for me a museum piece.

A provocative version of a play of course does not necessarily need to happen on a textual level, but in terms of context or casting. Contextualising in a concrete way can of course be dangerous as the play can become less important than the strange context in which you place it. I remember attending a number of auditions for a production of Macbeth set in a concentration camp. I can only imagine how overwhelming this context must have been to the play. Peter Brook, in a short wonderful book called Evoking Shakespeare, makes a strong attack on modernising Shakespeare through the trappings of motorbikes and leather jackets arguing that these attempts to build the bridge between play and audience can often obfuscate and trivialise the play’s meaning, and I heartily concur. The plays have an integrity of their own, don’t they?

I can remember at a conference several years ago being slapped down by a well known director who did radical adaptations of classics in Europe because I was espousing the view that you could not just do what you liked with a classic text just because the author was dead, in order to create trendy new productions to bring young people into your theatre, and then call the play by the same name. It is essential you call it a ‘version’ or ‘adaptation’ otherwise are you not conning the audience to expect something they are not going to get?

At the end of the day there is an important consideration of artistic integrity at work here, and at the risk of sounding ethereal it is about being in touch with my creative spirit. If I feel that my vision is truly new or makes the play more open and holistic or relevant to the audience then i must go ahead . But as Brook says, you have to be careful because what you need to understand is not simply what you gain but what you lose by jettisoning some of the writer’s obvious intentions. Maybe losing whatever-it is is worth it, but to be aware that it is lost is the important thing. If my choice comes from an ego trip, or a superficial desire to do something different, or just to get more bums on seats, then the choice will always be thin. Go carefully and treat the work with respect; I guess that’s it.

Adapting and Distilling the Duchess of Malfi


Condensing Malfi to a tighter text for 8 actors whilst at the same time maintaining what I believe is the thrust and shape of the play has been an interesting challenge. For me one of the most important factors is to maintain the atmosphere and dark philosophical Vision of a critical elitist world which crumbles and sinks into the mire of its own madness and violence, taking almost everyone with it.

It is delicate work . I have already returned some text I had sliced away.

I have done a lot of adaptations over the years, since I worked on Celestina, De Rojas extraordinary play/novel for the Actors Touring Company, and adaptations for Commonweal of Faustus and The Old Law, A Jacobean play by Middleton and Rowley. The latter involved me in writing a version of the play , with my own scenes and speeches, developing the female characters in particular. This incensed some of the national right wing critics who were annoyed I gave the play a definite left wing bias, that was only hinted at in the original, though the adaptation got many fine reviews, as did the production.

What was exciting was that because I wrote in the style of the original play, my own contributions were not discernible except to the few scholars who were familiar with the play. In 2008 the original play was performed in Stratford-on-Avon. Unfortunately despite some strong performances it remained for me a museum piece, and I think they would have been well served to have done an adaptation. My own, whilst overlong, was far more relevant to the world right now and far more likely to engage audiences. In fact when I did my version with students at MIT many years later I cut it drastically. It is an interesting play, essentially a black comedy about euthanasia and the effects of legislation on society.

Michael Chekhov, when discussing Shakespeare, thought a director and cast should feel free to shape and edit his plays, and at one time I would have thought this an anathema. But as I have come to understand Chekhov’s rules about composition ,( which are shared by other techniques too) and understood that the plays were frequently co-authored, which made for repetition and occasional lack of clarity, along with the fact that there are often pieces which are incomprehensible to a modern audience, I have become much more free about the subject. Also, the obvious practical issues about performing these large plays with a more modest cast  inevitably make editing essential. Chekhov’s idea of form and his suggestion to treat the play almost as if it was a music score is an exciting consideration, and can hone not only the direction but also the whole creative team contribution.

However, there are dangers when distilling the work, of the whole play evaporating. In his short but wonderful book, Evoking Shakespeare, Peter Brook discusses the dangers of modernising a text or setting it in a different time, reminding us that whilst, as directors, we can do what we want, that we are losing something, or at the very least, changing something fundamental, whenever we make these kinds of changes.

So what are the essences of the Duchess of Malfi? A corrupt fetishistic class ridden world, which devours itself , yet is nonetheless desired and admired by the people who work for it, until they realise all too late that when you are sucked into that world, you yourself are inevitably tainted. In this world, that means usually you pay with your life.

Here is a change I have made. For me the issue of class is strong in the play though never fully explored,, and I have accentuated this a little through the character of what was once Delio, Antonios friend. He is a courtier in the original and his rather rakish behaviour In certain scenes sits uncomfortably for me with his main role of confidante to Antonio, The accountant and personal assistant to the Duchess, who eventually becomes her husband. Of course a purist might say that this is what Webster was trying to say, that even the nicest people are corrupted, but his contribution is not coherent enough to really make sense to me.  In the original he seems as corrupt as the others, and I was anxious to seek an energy in the play of someone who was a good person but who was not  tainted by the actions of the court. It is interesting Delio begins and ends the play, and that must be our abiding impression of him as a good guy, the Horatio of Malfi.

In our production the character Delia is being played by an older woman , and I sense she might come from a lower class even than Antonio. This allows us to connect with a Character, an outsider, who has to deal with the horror of what transpires, someone whose fascination for the court is obvious right from the start, in the lines she/he is given. It gives Delia a strong pertinent resonance for the present Day to which we can all relate as we look on at ineffectual and corrupt government elites across the globe. Whilst this is not in the original , we are not not living in the 17th century either, and ultimatately the play has to communicate to us now. Having said all this I have been very careful not to increase the stage time of the character, which would have unbalanced the play . It is all a delicate balance.

The Duchess of Malfi plays in the Black Box Galway February 3rd – 7th