Going off-screen

In a mixed-media world with ever more fluid boundaries between genres such as film and theatre, reinterpreting movies for the stage makes perfect sense. Nick Smurthwaite investigates the design challenges of this transposition

In the quest for box office winners, theatre producers very often turn to titles more familiar from the cinema – Mary Poppins, La Cage aux Folles, Billy Elliot, Calendar Girls, The Harder They Come and, most recently, The Shawshank Redemption, which comes to London’s West End next month.

How does this transition from screen to stage affect the designer’s job? Are they expected to come up with a pared-down version of the movie? Isn’t it creatively stifling to cherry pick scenes from an iconic movie to satisfy an audience’s expectations?

Robert Jones, who designed Calendar Girls, says there was no pressure to deliver a stage version of the film. ‘Nobody wanted to do a naturalistic copy of the film. Tim Firth, who wrote the film, also wrote the play, and he has written more plays than films, so he knows the difference between what works on stage and what works on screen.

‘For the play we narrowed it down to a couple of locations. We wanted the essence of that Yorkshire village community, so I visited the church hall where it all began, which I found incredibly useful,’ he says. ‘It is a very different experience from the film. You get to know the characters better individually, and to care about them more. When the women take their clothes off for the first time, they are doing it live in front of 1500 people. You get a feeling of excitement and collusion.’

For a musical version of the classic Ealing comedy Whisky Galore! at the Pitlochry Festival earlier this year, designer Ken Harrison silhouetted craggy rocks against a miniature Scottish island village. ‘Audiences today are happy to be in on the make-believe and conceits of non-naturalistic theatre,’ says Harrison. ‘If you’re working to a tight budget, you have to find ways of doing things in a minimalist way.’

He says he referred more to the original novel (by Compton Mackenzie) than to the 1948 movie. ‘Theatre is more about the text and the interaction of the actors, so you always need to create a different language for a play derived from a film, and you also have to find ways of making the story relevant to a present-day audience,’ he says.

For an adaptation of Kind Hearts and Coronets, also at Pitlochry, Harrison favoured a bare stage backed by a panelled wall giving way to a series of two-dimensional friezes, evocative of the story’s numerous locations.

One of the biggest problems of film-to-stage transpositions is scale: the camera can zoom in and out, making it easier for the audience to comprehend the tiniest emotional nuance.

‘You’re always battling against that distance and remoteness on the stage,’ says Ultz, who designed When Harry Met Sally and The Harder They Come on stage. ‘You have to find ways of focusing intimately on an actor’s expression. I did a show with French and Saunders, who we are used to seeing in close up on TV. In real life, they’re both tiny, so I had to make them look larger than life by devices such as raising up the stage and exaggerating their costumes.’

With The Harder They Come, an iconic film of the 1970s, Ultz was presented with a different problem: how to make a 36-year-old film seem relevant to the 21st century.

‘Even though, in its day, the film was quite cutting edge, all those years later it seemed a bit kitsch and pantomime-like,’ he says. ‘We had to find a way of making it work for today, so the show became an unabashed exercise in nostalgia for the 1970s.’

The latest film to ‘stage transfer’ is The Shawshank Redemption, the inspiring story of friendship and survival in a tough US prison. Designer Ferdia Murphy, who worked on the original production in Dublin earlier this year, feels that audiences are more likely to have expectations of the characters than the look of the film.

‘I wasn’t seeking to copy the film at all,’ says Murphy. ‘You can only respond to the play as written. One thing I didn’t want was laborious scene changes slowing down the action, so there is one huge cage filling the stage, and every space – prison yard, library, canteen – is created within that cage. We had to suggest the size of the prison as well as create a sense of claustrophobia.’

What does the stage version offer audiences that the film did not? ‘Greater proximity to the actors,’ says Murphy. ‘You’re living the story in the moment with the actors. Shawshank is not a nice place, and yet the story is full of hope and redemption. I love film, but when theatre works there is really nothing like it.’

Ultz defines the aesthetic gap between film and theatre as follows, ‘Film is all about quality control, but theatre is a living, breathing thing. You have to find that energy every night. Design is all about making something feel alive, so your set can’t just be a scaled-up model – it’s got to be something that lives for the actors and the audience.’

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