Screen to stage: Rain Man, Trainspotting and Frankenstein

Time to catch up on reviews, and to start with, three stage plays that all have one thing in common: the stories are all well-known films. One is a straight adaptation from screen to stage, one is a book with an adaptation heavily influences by the film, and one is adapted straight from a book that already has many films to its name. But there was golden rule of adaptations that relevant to all of the stage productions:

Skip to: Rain Man, Trainspotting, Frankenstein

Rain Man

Although it may seem condescending by today’s standards, Rain Man was considered ground-breaking for its day, for its depiction of someone who not that long ago society would have written off as a useless burden. “Rain Man” is Raymond Babbit, but before we can talk about him we must talk about Charlie Babbit. He is the successful owner of a car dealership business thanks to his silver tongue, or rather was – he’s bullshitted one time too many and finds himself owing too much money he doesn’t have. By chance, he gets the news that his wealthy estranged father has popped his clogs, but unfortunately for Charlie his father has not forgotten his side of the grudge and instead left his fortune to a brother he never knew he had: Raymond – severely autistic, can’t look after himself, but with some extraordinary gifts. Charlie wants to get to Raymond so his business can be saved from bankruptcy; what he really needs Raymond to save Charlie from himself.

rain-manThis stage version of Rain Man is a very faithful adaptation of the film, transplanted almost scene for scene. That’s not always easy. Most plays brings characters to one or more locations on stage, but most films follow one or more characters around. Luckily, this story lends itself very well to a being told over a set number of scenes, and also manages to do it without – one of my pet hates – unduly extravagant stage effects to reproduce moments of films that aren’t needed. There is one criticism I’m obliged to make, and that’s bringing in their own proscenium arch. At Northern Stage, this made the play impossible to view from the front side seats, and I had to move in order to see the play. It would not have been at all difficult for actors of this calibre to adjust to the slightly wider stage on the fly, so I don’t understand why they didn’t. That odd decision aside though, were it not for the fact this is film everyone’s heard of, the stage version of Rain Man could almost pass off as something written for the stage all along.

Now for the obligatory perspective of someone with autism, since this is apparently how things are done now. I’ve never subscribed to the theory that only people who are X are allowed to write stories about people who are X – as far as I’m concerned, I don’t care who wrote it as long as it’s accurate. Mark Haddon admitted he did no research on autism when he wrote The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, but I don’t care because that was spot on. Rain Man, too, gets things broadly accurate, and bearing in mind this was written in 1980s which wasn’t exactly a decade renowned for tact or discretion, it does well. I suppose there is the complaint that people who watched the film mistakenly got the idea that everyone on the autistic spectrum is a whizz in the casino, but you can’t write all characters with disabilities to generic depictions with no individual traits, and besides, it’s not the writers’ fault that some people who go to the cinema are complete numpties.

If there’s one thing I’m not keen on – and this is a personal preference more than anything – it’s how Raymond was acted. It’s nothing to do with who you cast – for reasons that would take too long to explain here, I don’t subscribe to the theory that only autistic people should play autistic characters. And, I have to say, the performance was very skilled and very convincing, with mannerisms and jiggles reproduced well, as well as the changes of posture when under stress. But, and this is the big but: not all people with autism – even those who can’t look after themselves – display it so obviously. I’m not convinced that level of “visible” autism is an essential part to Raymond’s character. When I see these performances like this done on stage, good though they are, it sometimes feels as if the company wants to wow the audience with the performance first, and consider whether that depiction of a disability was appropriate for the story a long way second. I don’t find it objectionable – just mildly annoying.

But I don’t want to let a judgement like that spoil the play. With films increasingly relying on special effects to pull in an audience and the bigger theatres increasingly relying on mimicking these special effects on stage, it is refreshing to see a film go back to basics with a strong script in a film playing to the same strengths on stage. It might not achieve the greatness of Curious Incident, where the Stage adaptation was something that work specifically for theatre, but it does do justice to the film, and this won’t disappoint you.

Trainspotting

There is one disadvantage to a faithful screen to stage adaptation: by definition, you are reproducing something that already exists and is still available. Why not – some might ask – just see the original film instead? So one way of avoiding this is to do a stage adaptation that offers something different from the film; or, better still, do something that couldn’t be done on the screen. And, boy, the stage version of Trainspotting doesn’t hold back there. Why watch Renton’s antics on the toilet at the cinema when that very toilet could be right next to you?

0_trainspotting_13778Trainspotting has a special place in the history of moral panics. At the time the film was released, it came under criticism for glamourising the taking of drugs, presumably from people who hadn’t seen it. Anyone who has seen it knows that it spends the first bit of the film explaining why some people think taking heroin is a good idea, and then the rest of it demonstrating why it really really really isn’t. And nothing hammers the point home more than Tommy – a minor character in the film but one of the most important. When he is devastated by a break-up, he persuades Renton to share his skag with him – but whilst Renton and his mates can sort-of handle what they take, it’s a very different matter for Tommy.

Even though Tommy’s story was just  about the most powerful plot thread in the film, I felt Tommy was a very undervalued character, with the posters all showing the line-up of Renton, Diane, Begbie, Sick Boy and Spud. In this stage version, Diane and Spud are cut from the story completely, as is the entire storyline involving the suitcase full of money, but I’m so glad that Tommy’s story got the spotlight it deserved. Other than that, the play uses material from both the film and the book it came from, but Renton, Begbie and Sick Boy are very convincing reproductions of the notorious characters from the films. And not just appearance – a naked Renton shitting the duvet at his sort-of girlfriend’s house would fit very well into the Danny Boyle film. And remember, this is an immersive production – apart from Renton’s aforementioned antics with the toilets, you could be on the receiving end of a wildly optimistic advance from Sick boy or an query from Begbie over what the fuck you’re looking at and do you fucking want some?

I did feel, however, the play got a bit carried away with gross-outs. Yes, you needed this to make the play what it was, but it persisted a little too long and the first half strayed a little into gross-outs for the sake of it. Danny Boyle’s film slowly progressed the story into the more harrowing content such as Sick Boy’s baby and Tommy’s demise; here, it felt more like a jolt from one half to the other. One other small issue is that with one woman playing all the female characters, I got a bit lost who she was playing now. In a piece where an ensemble plays a multitude of characters, it’s always a challenge to keep the audience up to speed on who’s who at this moment, but they did that well with the male characters, so I was a little surprised that the female characters looked similar. It doesn’t spoil the play, but with the script developing some characters who were only incidental in the film, it was a shame that it became a struggle to following which female characters was which.

On the whole, though, this was a very fitting stage adaptation. Irvine Welsh’s summary of “I’m shocked, and I wrote the fucking thing” sums up the play very well. It wouldn’t have been the same without the immersive element, but the play does not lose sight of the message of the book and film – that you have to understand what make people take drugs, but ultimately the price is too high. Northern Stage was on a short tour here, but it runs at the Edinburgh Fringe in August and it will surely be back more more at a future date. See it if you dare – but don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Frankenstein

And finally, to the People’s Theatre. Strictly speaking this isn’t quite a stage to screen adaptation because, although Mary Shelly’s novel has been made into countless films, Nick Dear’s adaptation was written for the National Theatre, no less. I remembered hearing about this – it was the one with Benedict Cumberbatch, Johnny Lee Miller and the direction of Danny Boyle (again). The People’s Theatre, I believe, is one of the first amateur theatres to get performance rights – they’ve often been amongst the first to get rights on new plays previously, because they have actors and resources most societies can only dream of. And they couldn’t wish for a better directing team either – these were the people who did Breaking the Code last year, superbly reinventing an intimate play into a large ensemble piece. The National Theatre couldn’t ask for a better amateur theatre to take this on, and the People’s theatre couldn’t ask for a better theatre to be entrusted with this. There is just one problem – I don’t have the same high opinion of the script.

I’ve seen a lot of adaptations of Frankenstein, from green monsters going “ruuuuaaarrrr” to the faithful but outstanding adaption toured by Blackeyed Theatre. It’s not that changes to the story automatically spoil an adaptation, but for some reason, the way these adaptations muck about with the story almost always changes it for the worse. This version begins the story just as the creature has been created, being chased out of town by fearful villagers and search for his creator. That’s not really the problem though – the play only really starts to unravel when the Creature reaches Geneva and we see Victor Frankenstein for the first time. In the book, he is ashamed of his creation and wants to put it behind him. In this version, Victor is insufferable, obsessed with his creations and cold-heartedly uses those closest to him as expendable pawns in whatever scheme he plans.

There were some new character traits that had promise. The scene in the mountains where the creature idolises his “father” and Victor is unable to resist marvelling at his destructive creation was promising, and the People’s production produced this stand-off very well. Victor being unable to pull the trigger of his gun also had a lot of potential. But there were more changes that didn’t make sense. In the original Victor destroys his creation of a second creature for his first creation to love because of his fear that they will breed and take over the world – here, he’s ambivalent to possible world domination, and instead destroys it when because he discovers his creature could show feelings for another creature and for some reason that’s not acceptable. This is a problem because the Creature’s revenge is supposed to be taking those closest to Victor so his knows how loss feels – without Victor showing any real care for those meant to be dearest to him, this vital piece of the story falls flat. And the addition of the creature raping Elizabeth before killing her made made no sense. This production handled that and sensitively as they could, but the inclusion of this in the story at all was just shock value for the sake of shock value, and really quite tasteless.

There are two things that are particularly frustrating. One thing what this adaptation could have been. It would have been a very clever adaptation to have witnessed the story of Frankenstein entirely through the eyes of the Creature, with the truth over how he came to be and the man responsible slowly coming into play. Instead, by switching story between Victor and Creature from Geneva onwards it becomes a muddle over what it’s trying to achieve. And the other frustration – and the bigger one – is what the People’s Theatre could have done with it. I have nothing to fault with the production. From the acting of the two leads to the seamless integration of the ensemble into the production, everything that made Breaking the Code such a superb production was applied just as well here. But there’s no escaping the fact that a production can only be as good as the writing.

How does this go wrong where the other two scripts go right? The answer, I think, is the thing I’ve said before: everything that matters should stay the same. Rain Man and Trainspotting got this – but this script lost its way as soon as it was decided to change Victor Frankenstein from a caring man to an obsessive sociopath. And that is a real shame, because had the script lived up to the hype, I have no doubt that the People’s would have blown us away. So let’s finish this on a positive – even if the script was a disappointment, the performance was not. Hopefully they will be back next year with a new play, and with a decent play I can be wowed again.

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