Remake and remodel: literary adaptations and the Fringe

This article is from 2017

Remake and Remodel

The Odyssey

The adaptation is not necessarily just a new version of an old favourite

Adapting a novel or film for the stage is a dangerous strategy: at worst, it can be an unnecessary repetition of a popular work that irritates its fanbase by challenging their interpretation or adds nothing new to the material. The recent fuss about casting Noma Dumezweni as Hermione in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child reveals that a passionate audience can also be conservative, while the plethora of jukebox musicals suggests that adapting pop hits into a theatre show can be a sign of creative, if not financial bankruptcy. Nevertheless, theatre-makers don't resist the temptation to translate their favourite literature into performance, and the Fringe offers a wide range of adaptations that attempt to go beyond the obvious retelling of familiar narratives.

La Pelle's Factory have a 'modern, deconstructed and misbehaving retelling' of Edgar Allan Poe's The Black Cat, written by Mufaro Makubika, which promises to 'updates the themes and make changes to the plot'. Le Pelle's Olwen Davies and Ollie Smith come from a background in improvisation, and used Makubika's script for their own end. Far from simply performing the story, they explain, 'we pull texts apart and comment on them whilst simultaneously "acting" them.'

Aware that some audiences might not be familiar with Poe's short story, Davies and Smith have researched various film versions to ensure that their metatheatrical approach is accessible: 'It's the same as watching a film: you'll have a different understanding if you read the book first, but it isn't incomprehensible if you didn't,' they say.

Rejecting what they call 'actorly' theatre, and letting their personalities slip into the performance, they see The Black Cat as a way to collaborate with Poe's dark tale, but without falling into the trap of over-intellectualising, 'We also aren't afraid of being silly. Contemporary theatre gets a reputation of being overly serious. We've found ways of countering these presumptions with dark humour we've woven into the performance.'

If The Black Cat uses techniques from improvisation, Theatre ad Infinitum apply Lecoq physical theatre to Homer's epic poem The Odyssey, while playwright Annie Lux, director Lee Costello, and actress Margot Avery were inspired to develop The Portable Dorothy Parker by an edition of the waspish writer's selected works: its editing and publication becomes the platform upon which they explore her life, writing and, of course, famous quips.

'We open the show with Mrs Parker at her venomous best, tongue sharpened to a point,' they explain. 'We also used Mrs Parker's most famous lines as the first of her works to be quoted: "Men seldom make passes/At girls who wear glasses."' But from this introduction, the production delves into her life, revealing a more sympathetic and complicated individual. Once again, the shift from adaptation as simple retelling to an interpretation of the text offers a rich and intriguing theatricality.

Remake and Remodel

image: One-Man Apolcalypse Now
While he talks of adding 'a dark hilarity' to his One-Man Apocalypse Now, Chris Davis explains that 'the idea of performing a movie like Apocalypse Now with one person is silly. That's a given.' Yet he uses the source to expose how art and reality often interweave. 'At times it is a faithful adaptation, but then veers off into my own personal history,' he says. By taking such an iconic film, Davis is able to comment on his own life. 'Audiences laugh a lot: however, underneath the laughter is a sadness that deals with my relationship with my father. Fortunately, these themes are also found in the actual movie, specifically between Martin Sheen and Marlon Brando.'

Other approaches revitalise novels in the light of contemporary concerns. Elton Townend Jones admits that the impetus to adapt science fiction classic The Time Machine came from pondering the Brexit referendum result and the Trump election, 'all of which I knew, as the play's author, were going to happen'. Picking up on HG Wells's interest in social Darwinism and the potential collapse of civilisation predicted in the novel, Townend Jones recognises theatre as the 'the perfect platform for storytelling that is personal and intimate, exciting and exhilarating, emotional and intellectual, but also capable of investigating contemporarily relevant themes of politics and philosophy without getting too partisan.' This Time Machine asks questions not of Wells's Victorian sensibilities, but whether society – and its anxiety about change – has developed in the past century.

Townend Jones makes a strong argument that adaptation – something that his company, Dyad, has majored in throughout their nine years of creativity – enables a level of engagement that is often associated with contemporary, issue-based writing.

'The themes in the book and perhaps even more so in the play are incredibly relevant to our current situation in the west,' he concludes. 'We hope that these themes will resonate with how we engage with the world; what it is we put into the world to make it a better place for not only ourselves and those we love but those we don't know.'

It is this kind of vision that drives successful adaptation: the same kind of desire to communicate that drives most successful art. At its best, adaptations perform the same function as new work, interpretations of classic scripts and devised performance, and the familiar material is merely another aspect of a comprehensive and intelligent approach to theatre-making and the public discussions of important ideas.

The Black Cat, Underbelly Cowgate, 5–20 Aug, 7.20pm (also Underbelly Med Quad, 13 Aug, 1.15pm), £10--£11 (£9--£10). Previews 3 & 4 Aug, £6.50.
Odyssey, Pleasance Dome, 5–28 Aug (not 9, 15, 22), 1.15pm, £10.50--£12.50 (£9--£11). Previews 2–4 Aug, £7.50.
The Portable Dorothy Parker, Gilded Ballon at Rose Theatre, 5–28 Aug (not 14, 21), 4pm, £11--£12 (£10--£11). Previews 2–4 Aug, £6.
One-Man Apocalypse Now, Sweet Grassmarket, 3–27 Aug, 4.20pm, £8 (£6).
The Time Machine, Assembly Roxy, 5–28 Aug (not 15), 11.10am, £12--£13 (£11--£12). Previews 3 & 4 Aug, £8.

The Black Cat

  • 3 stars

LaPelle's Factory in association with LittleMighty and In Good Company A renegade retelling of Edgar Allan Poe's twisted tale. Two performers dismember the process of adaptation by reimagining a macabre classic with the cheekiest of glints in their eyes. An enigmatic writer adapted Poe's original story and handed scripts…

The Portable Dorothy Parker

  • 3 stars

Grove Goddess Productions and Fringe Management New York City, 1943. Dorothy Parker – member of the legendary Algonquin Round Table, known for her biting wit ('brevity is the soul of lingerie') – sorts through her poems and short stories, reminiscing about her famous friends (Lillian Hellman, F Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest…


Theatre Ad Infinitum Ad Infinitum bring their multi award-winning reinvention of Homer’s timeless Greek myth back to Edinburgh Fringe after touring the world for eight years. One actor. One hour. One man’s epic quest to reunite with his family and seek his bloody revenge. Passionate, highly physical and poignant…

The Time Machine

  • 4 stars

Dyad Productions In this age of uncertainty, where shadows of tyranny, intolerance and war darken human progress, how much time do we have left? If civilisation fell today, what would become of us? In Rebecca Vaughan and Elton Townend Jones's reinvention of the HG Wells classic, a Victorian explorer travels through time…

One-Man Apocalypse Now

Chris Davis Imagine Apocalypse Now performed by one actor in 60 minutes, recreating some of the most famous scenes from cinema history through Chris Davis' unique theatrical lens. Backed by the soundtrack of the movie, Davis explores the heart of darkness through movement, sound, dance, comedy, drama, lunacy, philosophy…