The Pickford Film Center regularly offers this format: live-taped broadcasts from the National Theatre in London, of plays performed on the stage there. I was originally skeptical about the concept; would it translate? The answer is yes, and I will be seeking out more.
I was interested because I have fairly recently read (listened to) Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. This adaptation for the stage by Bryony Lavery was astoundingly good – on which more to come; this is mostly a rave review – but I don’t know why I’m always so surprised at how much they change from the original. (This is why they call it an ‘adaptation.’ I know the compression/acceleration is necessary, but I’m always taken aback and disappointed. When will I learn?) In this case, most notably from the start: Jim is parented not by his mother but by a grandmother, both of his parents being dead; and Jim starts out as a gender-bending youth, and then becomes clearly a girl. The former, the grandmother for the mother, remains inexplicable to me. She provided some comic relief; maybe the mother from the original, rather a serious, even dour character, was deemed too sober. But I didn’t find the grandmother so much better as to justify making the change.
Jim as a girl, though, was totally amusing and fun, and provided another element. She’s every bit as boyish as the Jim we know and love; it is mainly just a poke at the original, and an inclusion. I dug it. And the gender-bending confusion here and there is good fun. Maybe it’s strange, that the apparently huge change of the protagonist’s sex bothers me less than the substitution of one female relative for another, but there it is.
This format, of stage-on-film? Completely outstanding. I loved that it captured the best of both worlds: the theatricality of the stage with the informality, convenience, and affordability of the big screen. The music & sound effects were great. And the set! My word, this is the finest set I’ve ever seen onstage: the stage itself was round, and the set lifted up from a flat to a multi-story, and also rotated on demand, so that there was no need for darkened figures hurrying to replace scenery while the audience was distracted: they simply turned the stage around, the actors meanwhile performing in our view, and changed what was behind (or took it underground to change it there). Transitions were perfectly seamless, adding to the drama rather than taking away from the momentum of the play, because there was such a sense of movement, of action. I am blown away.
Jim herself, portrayed by Patsy Ferran, was possibly even more astounding than the astounding set. She was delightfully expressive and sort of puckish, and pulled off that gender confusion early on. Lavery’s adaptation keeps Jim as the narrator of the story, so she speaks directly to the audience lots throughout. I loved the emotion and delivery: action, drama, adventure, humor.
As for some complaint about the “feminist twist”: I have to disagree with the Spectator blog. I don’t feel that the play was feminized aside from the change of Jim’s gender; she goes on no feminist tirades; she’s not a particularly feminine girl by any means. It was more of a nod than anything else, and takes nothing away from Stevenson’s original. The tone of that original is unchanged, except in that this version is a little funnier – which has nothing to do with Jim’s nominal gender. If we’re going to take issue with the fact that the play is not precisely the original novel, I think we have bigger beefs than Jim’s gender, frankly: the ending is changed, for example.
This play was even better than the original book, to which it is not completely faithful – for the best.