A critic recently lamented the amount of adaptations that were finding their way onto British stages. I felt a pang of guilt reading this, having devoted most of my working life to making theatre out of non-theatre sources. In doing so, I hadn’t meant to contribute to a wider national problem. The fact is that I am culturally greedy. There is always so much out there, in every art form and in every corner of the world. In my eyes they’re all ingredients waiting to be used. It’s a little like found art; the excitement of spotting something and drawing out its unknown potential. I find that creating and directing adaptations offers me the best of two worlds. As with new writing, you’re encountering something new, so there is the thrill of trying to make it all work for the first time. Yet, like directing a classic, the material and ideas you are working with are usually robust enough to guide you along clearly.
My first adaptation was of a strange 1930s story by Nathanael West called A Cool Million. I took it to the Edinburgh Festival as a student, and by the time the run was over I had the adaptation bug. The months I had spent with the novel in my lap scribbling on it and imagining its stage equivalent had excited me. I set out on a quest to unearth some of the brilliant non-theatre minds from around the world and see what happened when their work was re-imagined for the stage. I explored and adapted works by Argentinian writer Julio Cortazar, Hungarian filmmaker Bela Tarr and American composer Earle Brown, among others. I directed two plays by Don DeLillo, whose outsider perspective as a novelist brought me a host of fresh insights.
Now as Artistic Director of New Perspectives, a Nottingham-based rural touring company, my love of adaptations allows me to share my wider passions and interests with audiences all over the country, in all kinds of different settings – from village halls to traditional theatre spaces. I began my first season by adapting a little known Lars Von Trier film, The Boss of it All, which ran in Edinburgh and this month transfers to Soho theatre. I followed this by collaborating with writer David Rudkin on reworking his radio play The Lovesong of Alfred J Hitchcock for the stage, and later adapting a Saul Bellow short story. Both productions toured regional and rural venues in the UK, with Hitchcock eventually transferring to New York. I’m currently working with playwright Jane Upton to create a modern double bill of Daphne Du Maurier short stories, Watching the Living. Anyone who thought Du Maurier was creaky and old fashioned could be in for a surprise…
The Boss of it All is the first adaptation of a Von Trier film in the UK and one of his least known works. Perhaps it would have made more sense to choose an iconic film like The Idiots or Dogville. Yet for me, those films didn’t need adapting. They had already found such a clear place on screen, I didn’t see what theatre would add to them. The Boss is driven by a central idea, of an actor being hired to pretend to be the boss of a company. For me it transcended the film form and lent itself immediately to the conflict of reality and artifice that theatre often ends up having to address. And the very fact that this was one of Von Trier’s least loved films encouraged me that maybe theatre was the form it had always been waiting for.
Jack McNamara is Artistic Director of New Perspectives and also runs the experimental theatre company Future Ruins. The Boss of it All runs at Soho Theatre from 2 – 27 July, for more information and tickets visit Soho Theatre’s website.