Commonplace at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe is the prevalence of theatrical adaptations in one form or another; whether it’s an obscure Japanese love song, a multi-million dollar film franchise or a children’s TV programme, it’s all fair game at the Fringe, and over the years there have been some greatly imaginative retellings of well known (and not so well known) stories from around the world. A Younger Theatre spoke to two practitioners that have taken plays to the Fringe based on pieces of literature.
The Millers Tale: Wahala Dey Oh!
When it comes to adapting a well known piece of literature for the stage, you broadly have two options: develop it in keeping with the original text, retaining the period, location and characters, or transpose it to another world where its narrative and themes are equally pertinent. Ufuoma Overo-Tarimo decided to do the latter with Chaucer, giving it a Nigerian twist in an attempt to add some vibrancy. A labour of love which began in 2006, The Millers Tale: Wahala Dey Oh promises to be a fresh and unique interpretation of one of Britain’s most celebrated writers.
“I chose The Miller’s Tale because of it´s universal appeal to the human foible and felt if properly adapted, I could reach a new audience – not just the academics, but the ordinary people who just want a good story. Having lived in many countries and travelled extensively around the world, I consider The Millers Tale to be a universal story, because it is so clear that while humans celebrate individuality, that individuality is also wrapped up in the universal blanket of ‘types’.”
The production gloriously weaves African music and culture into the story to create a genuine sense of Nigerian tradition: “By employing the African folk tradition of story telling through the use of music, drums and gossip, I hope to put across the spontaneity, vibrancy and energy that typify African drama. In addition, the show is strewn mainly with original songs, composed by me and based on Chaucer’s text.”
It is clear that Overo-Tarimo is passionate about expressing Nigerian identity within the production, speaking of how thoroughly she researched the project in order to do so. For example, characters speak Pidgin English, a vernacular language found throughout Nigeria with many regional dialects and variations. Overo-Tarimo’s first step was to translate the entire The Canterbury Tales into Pidgin English. No small task, but one that was supported by English professors and Chaucer enthusiasts keen to see the end result of this experimental project.
But the language is just one of the challenges her team faced – condensing the text into a fringe production also posed many problems. “For the purposes of the Fringe and time restraints, I decided that physical theatre with its emphasis on the script and the energy of the cast and through clever drumming, lighting and a narrator, the challenge can be met.”
Another consideration when adapting a piece of literature for the stage is whether your intention is to enthrall those enthusiasts already familiar with the story or recruit a whole new audience. Overo-Tarimo plans to take The Millers Tale Wahela Dey Oh! to Nigeria and present it in full Pidgin English after its run at the Fringe. “From the moment I conceived of writing the play, I entertained the idea of recruiting a new Nigerian/African audience to the joys of Chaucer, knowing that the various issues Chaucer highlights in his Canterbury Tales are very similar to those of present day complex Nigerian society and Africa, including hypocrisy and the Church, the contradictory role of women, superstition and fraud. The challenge was to convey the message, humour, and the emotions as well as to entertain without compromising the tale.”
So what can festival-goers fond of Chaucerian theatre expect from her production? “A faithful, convincing, unique, engaging adaptation that gives a new angle on Chaucer’s universal and poignant understanding of human nature.”
The Bloody Chamber and Company of Wolves
Whatever creative choices you make when embarking on a literary adaptation, the most important will always be how to make the story fresh, to present it in a new light and give audiences something to remember. Samantha Guess and 3Bugs Theatre company chose to do this with a heady combination of physical theatre, mask work and interactivity, especially as they were dealing with a source material tackled frequently before: the short stories of Angela Carter. Presenting both The Bloody Chamber and Company of Wolves on alternate nights, 3Bugs focused less on a textual adaptation, instead striving to create a truthful visual world in which to place these famous short stories.
With Angela Carter’s writing being so reliant upon macabre imagery, Guess said that their greatest challenge was to portray Carter’s elaborate descriptions through the dialogue. Limited to a simple set (and the need for a speedy get-out), the production included a lot of narration in order to convey the story: “We have had to create a ‘Bloody Chamber’ that will represent the horror in Carter’s imagination, but with the time limit and various other restrictions associated with the Fringe.”
3Bugs theatre hail from the University of Birmingham, where director Kate Baiden studied the work of Angela Carter in-depth as part of her final year dissertation. “Kate’s Drama and Theatre Arts degree introduced her to the possibility of exploring the stories with a style of acting that wasn’t just naturalistic, and as a result, mask work, physical theatre, story-telling and interactive theatre have all been incorporated into the production.” So the appeal of these stories? “From an academic point of view, Angela Carter’s stories are widely used in school curricula, so they have quite a lot of appeal to students. Generally, the stories combine magic and realism very well, putting the ordinary into the extraordinary – they are quite unique in that way. With regards to previous attempts, all have been adapted very well, and our production of Company of Wolves was of course influenced by the 1984 film version (co-written by Angela Carter).”
No doubt keen theatre makers will continue to look to popular literature for source material, where there is no end of rich stories, intriguing characters and imaginative worlds. A good adaptation will retain all that is cherished and memorable about a piece of literature whilst at the same time finding a new perspective, a new prism through which to look at the world created by the original author. The challenge will always be to please – or indeed provoke – those that are familiar with the source, and yet find ways to enlighten and entertain those who are not.
A Younger Theatre would love to know if you have seen any excellent stage adaptations at the Fringe this year or if there is anything you would like to see translated into theatre. Let us know in the comment box below.
Image credit: The Bloody Chamber by 3Bugs