The Leap from Screen to Stage needs to be bolder
Published on the Guardian Theatre Blog, 21.09.2009
To bleach or not to bleach? It was apparently the question on Anna Friel’s mind during rehearsals for the forthcoming stage adaptation of Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
Truman Capote’s novella describes Holly Golightly as having “boy’s hair” with “tawny streaks [and] strands of albino-blonde and yellow.” That, of course, is not the Holly Golightly we know – the one bluetacked to bedroom walls the world over, the one with cigarette holder, pearls and tiara. In short, the Audrey Hepburn one: elfin, chic, doe-eyed, gamine – and most definitely brunette.
While Sean Mattias’s production has taken pains to identify itself with Capote’s text rather than the 1961 film, it would appear a blonde Golightly was a sticking point of the process. Friel recently told the Glasgow Sunday Mail, “We think this will throw people, who’ll say, ‘That’s not Holly.’” In other words, the worry was that the screen icon might prove inescapable.
Though recent production shots show Friel in a blonde wig, the decision seems to have been a late one and the question remains as to whether audiences will accept a Holly Golightly that doesn’t correspond with their preconceived ideas born of the film. Similarly, though it has no counterpart in the book, Moon River will appear in Mattias’s production. Why? Because, as a hallmark of the film, audiences expect to see it.
Likewise, though The Shawshank Redemption, which opened earlier this month, bills itself as an adaptation of Stephen King’s original text, it’s design and aesthetics owe a great deal to the screen version. A quick glance at the production stills show that the inmates’ uniforms, light blue shirts with darker trousers, are almost identical to those of the film and both Kevin Anderson and Reg E Cathay bear uncanny resemblances to Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman respectively.
With the West End beginning to resemble the shelves of Blockbusters, questions about the value and necessity of cinematic adaptations are being asked with regularity. Both Breakfast at Tiffany’s and The Shawshank Redemption attempt to sit on the edges of this discussion by deliberately avoiding their screen counterparts. However, the pull exacted by the corresponding cinematic image makes them interesting and revealing cases. Where theatre follows film, it cannot shake off the imagery that precedes it, such that it becomes constricted to the point of suffocation.
Why do people go to, say, Dirty Dancing: The Classic Story on stage if not to have their expectations confirmed? Surely not to discover the story or to find some new interpretation? No, rather to see Baby Houseman held aloft and to hear Johnny Castle insist that nobody puts her in a corner. We went to Spamalot for the Knights that say Ni and soon we’ll be pottering along to Ghost: The Musical for nothing else but the ceramics lesson.
Perhaps the silver lining here is of having new audiences introduced to theatre; perhaps one could argue that such adaptations follow in the tradition of Shakespeare reworking those stories known to his audience for the stage. Or maybe they can be dismissed as commercially successful spin-offs, to be judged on how faithful they are to the audience’s preconceived expectations, rather than bold new pieces of work.
Photograph: Uli Weber