(Amber McMahon and Deborah Mailman and the chorus of NIDA 2nd year
students in The Lost Echo, pt 1. Photo: Heidrun
When Andrew Upton adapted Maxim Gorky's play The
Philistines for London's National Theatre in 2007, his text
not only had a thoroughly modern idiom but included new speeches
and a different ending. The Guardian review praised
the "sparklingly colloquial new translation" and gave the
production, directed by Howard Davies, five stars.
In a Guardian blog, however, John M Morrison railed
against the changes saying that he suspected Gorky "would have
asked to have his name removed" and that "the National Theatre
might have been wiser to credit Andrew Upton as the author and give
the play a fresh title...how about: Piss Off, You
Davies and Upton are unrepentant. "It goes into a weird mulch at
the end. It doesn't work," says Davies. "We sat down and said,
'well, do we have the licence to make it work?' and we were very
cheeky with it. And I think he made it a better play."
We return to the classics, of course, because they still have
things to say to us - but some need massaging for contemporary
"It's great to do some plays as written but not all plays remain
immediately relevant," says Upton. "First of all translation
changes everything and so the fabric of any piece is in question.
The production must be able to breathe and so I make whatever
changes necessary to let it live."
There has been much spirited debate online and in the media of late
about the many bold adaptations currently on our stages. A Belvoir
forum about Simon Stone's version of The Wild Duck drew a
packed crowd keen to discuss the production, which retained Henrik
Ibsen's characters and narrative spine but which was completely
rewritten and restructured. Stone conceded that were it not
for brochure deadlines, he would probably have given it another
name - as he did when he adapted Ibsen's Little Eyolf as
The Only Child.
Talking to The Australian, theatre critic John McCallum
said that he had been warned that Stone's version was a new play
and not Ibsen. "I didn't expect to see The Wild Duck and I
went along and I did see The Wild Duck. Simon delivered
the experience the play should deliver and too often doesn't when
it is done too respectfully on a modern stage."
Sydney Theatre Company Associate Director Tom Wright, who has
worked on many adaptations and translations including The Lost
Echo in 2006, believes that the way a director stages a
production is "the ultimate act of adaptation" and just as
important as the text used.
"I think you could make a fair observation of the Australian stage
that it's got more internationalist in its outlook in the last 15
to 20 years," he says.
Benedict Andrews, who like Barrie Kosky has worked extensively in
Berlin and other European cities, agrees. Andrews likens a play to
"Maybe that play gets buried for a long time, then somebody digs it
up," he says. "I just think there are various techniques for
digging it up. That might be to commission an adaptation, Simon's
work on Ibsen, or for me to say I'm interested in this play but
there are certain things in it that are anachronistic now and so I
will do an adaptation."
"Adaptations from outside of our own culture feel like a Xerox of
something that is happening elsewhere," says Wright. "When English
adaptors adapt particularly the older realist classics like Ibsen
or Strindberg they tend to emphasise class consciously, which is
there. Australians have a more ambivalent attitude to class and
Upton's 2004 adaptation of Ibsen's Hedda Gabler therefore
emphasised the heroine's internal, psychological struggle rather
than the social pressure on her.
Andrews' version of The Seagull was set in an Australian
shack on the coast.
"It's meaningless for me to fantasise about Russia, let alone
pretending to set it in 19th century Russia," he says. "The play
has to, on some level, convince you of the texture of daily life
and real speech in order to earn what might be called its
metaphysical aspect: that whole other dimension that Chekhov
"I've worked from a literal translation but I've created something
that is absolutely and distinctly my voice. I'm trying to make the
words sit in the mouth and be very alive and I will take liberties
in order to get a playable text. But I'm not trying to smash the
play to pieces. It has an Australian idiom to it that I think suits