'Gatz' is great, but 'Metamorphosis' has altered too much

 

CULTURE SHOCK:Two adaptations of prose classics - 'The Metamorphosis' and 'The Great Gatsby' - at the Dublin Theatre Festival took radically different approaches, with different levels of success

ABOUT A QUARTER of the shows at this year's Dublin Theatre Festival are performances based on prose texts. From classics such as The Great Gatsby, The Brothers Karamazov, The Metamorphosisand Heart of Darknessto Joan Didion's memoir The Year of Magical Thinkingand Samuel Beckett's novella First Love, texts that were not written for the theatre are being staged.

This raises the question implied by Myles na gCopaleen in this paper when he announced that he was embarking on a novelisation of The Importance of Being Earnest. Why should theatre be invaded by prose texts when the reverse process would seem so obviously absurd? The answer, of course, lies in the nature of contemporary theatre and the increasing primacy of directors and performers over writers. Choosing a "text" rather than a "play" gives permission for the work to be forged in the rehearsal room. The idea of faithfulness is dispensed with from the start - the only way to be faithful to a book is to read it. The text becomes a springboard, a point of departure.

There are, however, problems with this notion. A text that is rich enough to be inspiring is highly likely to be a well-wrought work of art that cannot be easily dismembered. There is a problem in particular with the authorial voice, the tone and timbre of the telling that, in the best prose, are inextricable from the narrative. How do you fillet this out without leaving a mere parody of the original? Two shows at the festival come up with very different answers.

One approach is exemplified by the Vesturport Theatre/Lyric Hammersmith production of Kafka's Metamorphosis, adapted and directed by David Farr and Gísli Örn Gardarsson, with the latter playing the central role of Gregor Samsa. Their basic decision is, in effect, to pretend that Kafka does not exist. The author's voice ("Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams to discover that in bed he had been changed into a monstrous verminous bug") is entirely lost and the story is fully dramatised. This is the most usual approach, and it is the one that usually fails. It fails because the task itself is very difficult - to create in another form a piece of work that is equivalent to, and as good as, the original.

Being as good as Kafka is hard, and Farr and Gardarsson are certainly not up to it. They lose the calm, matter-of-fact narration, the internal thoughts of Gregor and the light metaphorical touch. To replace all of this, they have to invent essentially a different story, that of Gregor's family. His parents and sister are given cartoonish, melodramatic dialogue (with cartoonish performances to go with them). And the light, elusive metaphorical element of the story becomes heavy-handed.

A potential lodger who discovers Gregor and runs off screaming about "vermin" reduces the mysterious metaphor to a heavy-handed fable about Nazism.

Where the show does work is when it leaves aside these awkward fumblings with literary adaptation and becomes purely physical and visual. Gardarsson's own performance as Gregor is light on dialogue and relies on movement that begins with power and dexterity and grows into a strange elegance and a genuine poignancy. The last 10 minutes, as we move towards and through Gregor's death is beautifully achieved, and the final visual imprint is stunning. It suggests that if you're going to leave the author out, the story needs to be translated, not into dialogue, but into imagery.

The other approach, however, is not to leave the author out at all. Gatz, the Elevator Repair Service version of Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, is an extreme experiment with this method. So much so that it seems, on first glance, to be hardly an approach at all. The show consists, in essence, of Scott Shepherd reading the novel from cover to cover - an act that, with intervals, takes 7½ hours of the audience's time. Yet Gatzis actually a startlingly original piece of theatre, one that makes you think about the nature of performance and narrative, of showing and telling, of the world inside our heads as we read, and the world that goes on around us as we do so.

What director Michael Collins has done with Gatzis to accept the strength of the book - that it is a great story, told in mesmerising prose. Instead of using that story as a springboard, he uses it as a solid floor. He lets Fitzgerald look after the basic task of keeping us interested and entertained, and then asks what the theatre can bring to the table. What it brings is literally something else - design, movement and context that are not rooted in the book but rather occupy their own, radically different space. The setting is not the glamorous world of the Gilded Age, but a scruffy, down-at-heel office sometime in the last 20 years. Ben Williams's sound design (one of the best I have ever heard) relies not on the tinkling of champagne glasses and the laughter of pretty flappers, but on a grungy urban soundscape.

The real brilliance of the piece, though, lies in the extraordinarily precise syncopation of these two worlds. Their relationship shifts over the course of the evening, as we move from straight reading to the office workers gradually inhabiting the characters of the book, to a complex, rhythmic and impeccably timed dance between page and stage. The result may be exhausting, but it is also exhilarating, and it makes conventional adaptations seem curiously pointless.