Sir Toby Belch is wearing a gold lamé doublet and matching hot pants, Elizabethan boots and a blonde 60s-style wig. Andrew Aguecheek has long stringy cornflake-coloured hair and wears a watermelon-stained white onesie with suspenders, his feet are bare and his mouth is always open. They stand on the side of the stage behind two microphones, drinking wine, making obscene puns and cracking jokes about French President Emmanuel Macron’s recent ‘Benalla’ scandal.
The audience, packed into the gorgeous, two-hundred-year-old baroque velvet shelving system that is the Comedie Française theatre in Paris, howls with laughter. But something else happens as well. They sit up, they shift their bodies just a little closer to the performers, they shuffle their buttocks as if they want to stand up, they take quick, tight breaths. You notice it most sharply with the kids and teenagers (this is a Sunday matinee).
The one in front of us swivels her tweeny bespectacled head around to the parent/ guardian next to her with a half-scandalised-half-delighted look that says ‘can they do this?!’ They react the same way when Andrew waggles his penis at Malvolio in fury, when Malvolio is trapped in a well with turds schlopping down on him from above, and when at the end of the play the walls behind the stage are literally pulled down.
These kids weren’t exactly bored for the rest of Thomas Ostermeier’s bombastic La Nuit Des Rois Ou Tout Ce Que Vous Voulez (Twelfth Night, or What You Will), but until these moments had perhaps forgotten something that we all forget most of the time.
There are no rules (in art).
We’re in a constant state of forgetting this. And when we are reminded of it, by a piece of great art, there’s a kind of physical feeling, isn’t there? I feel it in my chest, like a little motor’s just been switched on. Like I want to get up and run.
Hopefully, all good or great pieces of art perform this function in some way, but when it comes to adaptation, particularly of the serious classics, it becomes the whole point. For me, anyway.
My name’s Chloë, I’m a TV and theatre writer who (without thinking all that much about it) has come to specialise in adaptations. I’m currently developing a modern retelling of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park for Wall to Wall (Warner Bros.) and my theatre company Monkhead Theatre, which I co-run with director Nico Pimparé, does experimental versions of classic literature. We began last year with a full-length adaptation of Gogol’s unfinished novel Dead Souls and since then we’ve worked on site-specific pieces, setting Julius Caesar in an actual hip-hop festival stage-and-mosh-pit in Senegal and Hamlet in an abandoned suburban house in Paris. Now we’re back in London and although we’re in an actual theatre again, our latest venture – The Interpretation of Dreams – is by no means a more traditional adaptation.
As part of our new semi-regular rapid-response night Collective Intelligence, we’ve invited a range of writers, artists, musicians and performers to collaborate on a collective adaptation of Sigmund Freud’s seminal turn-of-the-century-text about the inner workings of our sleeping and waking brains. This involves bringing our 3 writers, 3 performers, 1 movement director and 1 sound & video artist together on a grey Wednesday to chat about psychoanalysis, dreams and fantasies and to run around improvising pieces at SET Dalston (thanks again, guys). Right now our creatives are all squirrelled away, working on their pieces (due in Friday!) which will be collated along with my material into a full-length show by us, in time for November the 12th.
So, what advice would I give them if they asked me what the four keys to a great adaptation are?
Well, that’s very specific, I’d say, but here they are:
1. Why this? Why now?
Our Collective Intelligence artists didn’t have much of a choice of material. But it’s true that, as corny as it sounds, the material often chooses you. Sometimes you pick an old book up off the floor outside your housemate’s room and read it and, instead of feeling like you’re in a cosy little 19th century drawing room, you feel like you’re suspended upside down at the highest bend of a rollercoaster, watching your own society below. It’s a feeling both exhilarating and worrying.
For instance, we were attracted to Gogol’s flaming satire Dead Souls partly because of how similar the subprime mortgage crisis that precipitated the crash of 2008 was to the protagonist’s task in the novel (collecting technically dead but legally ‘alive’ souls from idiotic landowners in order to fraudulently use them as collateral for a government loan). There seems to be something nauseatingly enduring about Capital’s ability to turn human beings into numbers and profit, and wedded to that was the fantastically specific story of Chichikov, the broke and insecure upper-lower-middle class nobody that pursues this wretched scheme.
And there comes the second key…
2. Embrace/ Incorporate problems.
At Monkhead we’re often attracted to texts that present both a clear modern analogue and a lot of contrast with our current world. Chichikov’s a specific character, formed by Russian society’s complicated relationship with the emerging middle class at the start of the 19th century. We wanted to explore that too. We let the modern world and the old world co-exist on our stage. Anachronisms and glitches abounded. Our characters dressed in 19th century clothes and used Skype and phones. On live video, they left the stage and chatted to the ‘real people’ in the pub below the theatre, asking about local landowners and plagues. We let the audience take it all in, without patronising them by trying to jam a round peg into a square hole for an hour and half. That’s probably a Beckett play…
3. Be Experimental.
People, some more politely than others, have asked what we mean when we call ourselves an ‘experimental theatre company’. One answer is that it associates our work with a certain school of theatre-makers (more German, less British, more multimedia, less text-based). But that’s only half-true. If you ask me what it really means I’d say just remembering that there are no rules, and seeing where that takes you. Letting the creative solution become the play.
We did this with our live video in Dead Souls, our collective creation in Dreams, and our use of two languages (French and Wolof) to represent the divide between politicians and plebeians in Julius Caesar. The great thing about having a classic text upon which to base your play (especially one written by someone long dead) is that you as the writer are freed up from the usual don’t-touch-my-fucking-script-you-don’t-understand! role and instead take on one similar to the actors and director – one of interpretation. Suddenly you’re free to tear things up and start again, in a way that’s so hard to do with your own work.
4. Think Like a Director.
It’s that separateness from the text that is so freeing, and it will also make you a better writer. There are many British playwrights decrying the German/ European style’s disregard for the sanctity of the text (including me, especially when I’m drunkenly arguing with my French co-Artistic Director, Nico). But it might be useful to think about what writers can learn from directors, or from performing a similar role themselves.
In our recent Hamlet et Le Spectre (Hamlet and The Ghost), I reconfigured the early scenes from Hamlet, smooshing together all the parts involving the ghost: Horatio and the soldiers on the battlements where it first appears, them telling Hamlet, and finally Hamlet confronting it. This became a single 20 minute play, set during the late/ early pitch-black hours of a suburban twenty-something house party. We had to come up with creative ways to glue the scenes together – Hamlet’s I.2 scene became an irate phone call with his mum, and the space between Hamlet being told about the ghost and seeing it for himself became an impromptu music jam featuring drums, guitar, piano, trumpet and megaphone.
Those parts were fun, but there’s a deeper satisfaction to making an adaptation really flow, and it’s not just about chopping. It’s the thrill that comes from holding the text’s heart, its problems and your own ideas in your head at the same time, and finding the magical points where they converge.
As I queue for the toilet at the Comedie Française (almost three hours, no interval, wtf), the old ladies behind me chat about the play. They aren’t sure it was suitable for kids, but their attitude seems generally tolerant and amused. They all agree it was thoroughly déjanté. Later I ask Nico what this word means. Crazy, he says, and goes on to tell me that a jante is the rim of a wheel, and déjanté means that the car has been going so fast and furious that the rims have spun completely off.
I certainly don’t believe that theatre should be all destruction and bombast. I don’t think Ostermeier does either. But I do think, in these specific times, that it might be important to make works of art in which things come violently apart. I like to do that with texts I love by old white men, but it could be anything.
There are no rules.
You can watch the trailer for Collective Intelligence #1 The Interpretation of Dreams below…