There is no doubt at all that in the last few years The National Theatre has transposed some very successful books into equally successful (outstandingly successful, some might say) plays. War Horse and The Curious Incident of a Dog in the Night-Time spring immediately to mind, not least because they both moved to the West End with sell-out runs.
War Horse, a book for young children by Michael Morpurgo was first published in 1982, much has been written about its aegis since then, especially since the play reached the stage with the magical puppetry of The Handspring Puppet Company, whose unforgettable horses cantered, snuffled and trotted around the stage with unbelievable accuracy, such that one simply forgot for a moment that they were puppets. Mr Morpurgo set about the writing of the play version with some trepidation, it appears, as well he might; but was utterly confounded and delighted with the result. So that it became an unqualified success, admired as much for its artistry as for the poignancy of the story, a story which may have passed many people by if they did not have suitable aged children at the time the book came out. I remember reading it to mine with tears choking my voice almost from the first page. Black Beauty for boys, I thought at the time.
The Curious Incident of a Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon was also a successful transfer to the stage, though very different from the book. The magical lighting added to the suspense, though I feel that the aspects of autism which were so central to the book were slightly lost. Nevertheless, I think it introduced a lot of people to the author who maybe hadn’t read the book, though whether they went back and read the original is a bit doubtful.
The recent play at the National, Behind the Beautiful Forevers was for me a more problematic play. Based on a book of the same name by Katherine Boo, the play lost a lot in this adaptation even though it was written by David Hare. [I have a bit of a problem with David Hare who seems to have been jumping on bandwagons recently and rushing into print on many topical subjects that have barely left the current affairs programmes before he has put them on the stage. This is all very well and maybe all very accurate but I felt uneasy (and still do) when I went to Stuff Happens, it may have been very accurate but somehow remained mildly sterile, lacking any historical distance – the whole Iraq War debate was still (and is still) raging. I felt the same disquiet about The Vertical Hour]. With Behind the Beautiful Forevers I felt that there was an emotional vacuity in the play. The book was written as a result of Katherine Boo’s personal involvement in the slum dwellers who lived beyond the wall on which the “Beautiful Forever” tiles were advertised. The people living in this squatters’ slum were much more than cyphers, they had relationships well beyond what was portrayed in the play. They had back-stories, their current circumstances and the exigencies of living on the edge, at the mercy of police brutality and veniality; at the mercy of the weather and at the bottom of society – rag pickers, garbage sorters living on the detritus of a much wealthier and prosperous elite, living literally cheek-by-jowl with the evidence of wealth – smart hotels and smart cars and living right beside the most flagrant example of wealth: the airport. All this and more one felt at a visceral level when turning the pages of the book. Largely lost in the play. I doubt whether anyone in the audience who had not previously read the book could have come to anything like a real understanding of the degradation oddly coupled with the sense of personal pride that lived side by side in that slum. In the attempts at betterment, conducted by the two girls in the latrine one did get a feel for the desperation, though nothing of the foul nature of the meeting place and when Manju commits suicide one did suddenly glimpse their sense of utter hopelessness. But when all was said and done, although there was much to commend in the acting it seemed to me to fail on all counts where it really mattered.
Treasure Island, which is still showing at the National, was a huge pantomimic success as long as you were not disconcerted by its departure from the original story. Adapted by Bryony Lavery, who took liberties with sex as well as story, it was a translation that worked in spite of itself. The production was magical, the sets and the versatility of the staging was breath-taking: from local inn to ship to island all accomplished with brilliance and imagination. So it was good to look at, the radio-operated parrot was a triumph. Would Robert Louis Stevenson have recognised it – maybe?
Written in 1883, the pirates, buried treasure and parrots in Treasure Island became the matrix for many another piratical adventure story, not least the pirate in Peter Pan (1904-4). At the time of writing piracy in the Caribbean was no longer a problem, though there were still wreckers on the coasts of England and Scotland. But as recently as the 1830s there had still been a flourishing trade in gold from Latin America on its way to Europe and big profits to be made from hijacking rum and other sugar exports at sea. The play almost entirely loses the thrill of the book but gains in other ways from the bravura of the acting.