The Shawshank reinvention


Escaping the film version of ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ is the largest challenge facing a theatrical premiere of the book, writes PETER CRAWLEY

AS ANY INMATE of the prison will tell you, whether he’s serving a life sentence for a crime he did not commit or has simply become institutionalised by its suffocating yet sustaining drudgery, it is impossible to escape from Shawshank. As any producer might recognise, when bringing one of the most famous fictitious penitentiaries to the stage, it’s not a good idea to get too far away from it either. But which Shawshank are we talking about? The squalid, ruthless setting of a relatively obscure Stephen King novella, Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption? Or the significantly altered jail in The Shawshank Redemption, the Oscar-nominated sleeper hit that is regularly counted among the best films of all time? Now that the story is becoming a major motion drama in Dublin, wrought on a grand scale by Lane Productions and directed by Peter Sheridan, and has ditched the novella’s clunky title, one might assume this is the film on stage. Owen O’Neill, one of the stage adaptation’s co-writers, bristles at the suggestion.

“We’re taking the story from the novella as opposed to the movie,” says O’Neill, the familiar, wiry Irish writer, performer and comedian. Today he strikes a surprisingly stern figure, sinking back into the sofa of a hotel foyer, arms folded, slow to smile, while his co-writer, the affable Newcastle comic Dave Johns, springs forward with enthusiasm and sincerity, rarely letting the opportunity for a gag pass him by, and speaking animatedly about a project they have been pursuing for four years. They make a faintly odd couple, which is perhaps why they were well cast a few years ago in The Odd Couple (albeit not as the central characters), performed at the Edinburgh Fringe. There they have also performed in 12 Angry Menand One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest– all of them popular stories with a built-in recognition factor and an easy passage between stage and screen.

Which has not exactly been the case with The Shawshank Redemption. “It was like being in Shawshank prison trying to get this off the ground,” says Johns, who had the original idea and counts The Shawshank Redemptionamong his favourite films. O’Neill, whose tenacity should never be underestimated, tersely recalls shopping the idea around London’s theatre producers, “who were interested, but not interested enough to kind of go, okay, we’re going to put our money where are mouths are. Then we went to Lane Productions with Breda Cashe and Pat Moylan and right from the treatment they were enthusiastic. They went to New York, they got the rights, they really drove it.”

The rights that Lane Productions have procured are from the King estate, which controls the intellectual property rights to the original story. The screenplay adaptation, written by director Frank Darabont, is a more streamlined piece, paring down characters, elaborating on events and in some places significantly altering the original story. The copyright on those memorable elements is held by Warner Bros, making them hard to procure and dangerous to infringe. “But we didn’t want to do that anyway,” says O’Neill. “We wanted to put our own stamp on it. Unfortunately there will be some people out there who don’t go to the theatre and will come expecting to see the film on stage.” He gives a sour chuckle. “I’m assuming that there are people out there like that.” Advance ticket sales have been healthy, which is hard to put down to theatre enthusiasts and novella purists alone.

TO GIVE YOU some idea of the challenges facing O’Neill, Johns and the show’s director Peter Sheridan – all of whom freely admit that they find the expectations around the project daunting – and how much of a stamp the pervasive, persuasive nature of film can leave on its source material, here are some differences between the book and the flick. In Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption,Andy Dufresne, the banker serving life for the murder of his wife and her lover, enters prison in 1948 and leaves in 1975. In the film he’s there from 1946 to 1966. He befriends the narrator, Red, in each version, and Andy still harbours a fondness for shale, quartz, rock hammers and creative accountancy, not to mention large posters of Hollywood cheesecake. He also has an ongoing problem with the brutal “Sisters”. But he never once utters the line, “Get busy living or get busy dying”, which belongs to Red’s narration, nor do his final act or the comeuppances of the film pan out that way in the novel.

And Red, played with such warm, roughened dignity in the film by Morgan Freeman, is a middle-aged, white Irish American in the novella. Freeman, quite far down the wish list during the film’s casting, effectively gave the film its soul, and the faithfully inherited line, “Maybe it’s because I’m Irish,” is the film’s witty acknowledgement of its most daring imposition. When I met with O’Neill and Johns, long before the production was cast, I suggested that if the stage narrator more closely resembled Morgan Freeman than Owen O’Neill, the production would be in hock to Hollywood. Or, to put it another way, what colour is Red? “We’ve left it very open,” O’Neill said. “If there’s a black guy and he’s right for the part, we’ll go that way. If a white guy comes along and he has red hair . . . I don’t think that’s a big issue at the moment.” This week the casting of the leads was revealed. In the role of Andy is Kevin Anderson, the Steppenwolf Theatre actor and star of Sleeping with the Enemy, who looks not unlike a young Tim Robbins. In the role of Red is Reg Cathey, the African-American actor best known for his brilliant performance as Tommy Carcetti’s deputy campaign manager Norman Wilson in David Simon’s The Wire – a part he played with such warm, roughened dignity.

Unable to see a script for the production, I asked Peter Sheridan if he was essentially adapting the film by stealth. “No, definitely not. Definitely not,” he said, explaining that his production had considered all casting possibilities. “But when [Morgan Freeman] played the part, that role became so iconically related to the black, African-American experience, that it was very difficult to think beyond that.”

Sheridan is nothing if not genuine and his reasoning holds a certain sway. “The piece is so much about freedom and getting out of the hellhole of the Shawshank, and in a way the Shawshank represents America. It represents the American state, the American condition. The trajectory of this character is that he needs to believe that he can escape. He needs to believe that he can get beyond the walls of this place. Andy convinces him.” Freeing oneself from one’s bonds is, essentially, the African-American slave narrative. Sheridan even suggests, “in a weird way, Andy’s the black guy and Red’s the white guy”. I ask if he had considered casting it that way. “Well, that would have been an amazingly brave decision,” he says.

This seems like the dilemma shared by both the theatre-makers and their characters, each of whom seem at once confined by expectations while yearning to break free. “On the one hand, The Shawshank Redemption will get people in,” considers O’Neill, “and on the other they will have huge expectations. Inevitably people will be disappointed. Some people will be. I don’t know. I hope not.” It sounds like a prison of his own making.

Frequently, O’Neill and Johns will speak of giving their audience “a theatrical experience”, but are circumspect as to how they intend to achieve it. Requests for examples are met with huddled mutterings about things they can’t divulge. (Although we all know how it ends.) Will Red’s inner monologues be rendered as musical numbers, I venture; will Andy’s escape be suggested through Kabuki dance? No they will not, I am told.

JOHNS MAY HAVE come up with the idea, but O’Neill, who has written several one-man shows, could be said to have invented the model. In 2003 he spearheaded the idea to produce 12 Angry Men in Edinburgh with 12 comedians in the roles, procuring the performance rights when director Guy Masterson had been refused them five times. “I’ve always had a theory that comedians are really good actors and they just need a chance. Without resorting to cliche, I think it’s to do with timing,” says O’Neill. “It’s nice to know that comedians are more than just punchlines,” adds Johns.

The resulting success of 12 Angry Menstimulated a wave of similar ventures, including the now legendary – and legendarily fraught – production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, starring Christian Slater, from which Masterson departed in the 11th hour citing “personal reasons”. Johns and O’Neill are even more circumspect on this matter than whether the Shawshank roof-tarring scene will be played out using Noh theatre methods. “That’s a director’s job,” O’Neill allows. “That’s a director’s job to iron out those little creases.” For his part, Peter Sheridan, who workshopped the script with his writers, sounds unruffled. “I haven’t been thinking about the film at all. This is a stage play. It has to go to different places and deal with different issues. There are obviously things in the stage version that are quite different to either the film or the novella. Like, the rapes are much more present in the stage version of it. They are much more graphic.”

As reassuring as this sounds, Sheridan also stresses theatre’s capacity for metaphor, something the writers hint at when speaking of the play’s climax, and which Sheridan sees as the raison d’être of the show, independent of its commercial considerations or its competing versions. “It has strongly become a story of the redemption that takes place in the interaction between two people within a set environment. They rescue each other. It’s very biblical.

“It’s that kind of core Christian thing underpinning it. In a way, Andy represents Jesus. He represents the saviour who has come into this place to save the other man. It’s a modern version of the mass, at a much more visceral, powerful level for me.” In every version it is, he says, an implausible story, but one we want to believe. “All this stuff at the heart of the Christian message is at the heart of this story.” Or as the novella’s subtitle has it, “Hope Springs Eternal”.

Sheridan will even go so far as to say that the bond between O’Neill and Johns is reflected in the relationship between Andy and Red. Which one is Owen, I ask him. Sheridan bursts into a laugh, then stubs it out with a tight-lipped theatricality. “I’m not saying.”

The Shawshank Redemptionpreviews at the Gaiety Theatre, Dublin, from May 14, and opens on May 19