By the time I belatedly sat down in the Sumner theatre to see Simon Stone’s adaptation of The Cherry Orchard I had other dramas on my mind. Shadowing the reception of MTC’s production was a minor shitstorm around the supposed battle between ‘new writing’ and ‘adaptation’. The Australian played host to said shitstorm, which was kicked off by Rosemary Neil who criticised main stage theatres for favouring the (re)production of imported works and classics over original Australian playwriting.
Essentially, Neil argued that reworking classics is a commercially motivated, lazy artistic practice which kills playwrights. Framed as a question, it might have been a good one, raising productive issues, if not particularly new ones. Unfortunately, potentially fruitful questions were framed in ways that made their posers appear stubborn, hostile, non-reflexive and petulant and, I suspect, The Australian is largely responsible for this.
Anyone who read the coverage would be forgiven if they came to the conclusion that people in the theatre world are hysterical, thin-skinned and bitchy. Instead of a considered intervention, Neil was allowed to have a hissy fit. She singled out Simon Stone and Malthouse Theatre’s artistic director Marion Potts as conspirators in a supposed culture of ‘auteur directors’ (Stone) nurtured by artistic powerbrokers (Potts) at the expense of struggling Australian playwrights. Stone and Potts, villains in The Plot To Sweep Playwrights Off The Stage, had allegedly said ‘extraordinarily arrogant and dismissive things’ about Australian playwrights and ‘offend[ed] against the art of playwriting’, according to Neil.
Though he has directed original works, Stone is better known for taking the likes of Chekhov, Brecht and Ibsen and, so to speak, tearing them a new dramatic arsehole. But, ‘let’s not pretend’, Neil wrote, ‘that this director’s penchant for reworking classics that have a proven track record is as courageous or important as a creating a new, powerful play with no track record’.
Wherever one might have ended up sitting in relation to what is ‘hard’, ‘courageous’ and ‘important’ vis-à-vis theatre, if you were reading The Australian you were in the front row of a soap opera in which the lines were very clearly drawn. Instead of a nuanced discussion of the transformed role of the playwright, for example, or the meaning and value of adaptation, the debate was quickly presented as a ‘generational battle’ by a newspaper trading in the dramaturgy of schadenfreude.
In response to Neil’s jagged invective, artistic director of Belvoir Street theatre Ralph Myers wrote of the changing dimensions of The Playwright in contemporary theatre. He also shared a tragicomic anecdote about Belvoir Street needing ‘to reinstate the final scene of [their] recent production of Death of a Salesman because a disgruntled baby boomer phoned the executors of playwright Arthur Miller’s estate in New York and dobbed [them] in for cutting it’. It’s a telling story but, unsurprisingly, it wasn’t taken in very good humour by the boomers.
In response came an angry letter from playwright Peter Flemming: ‘Sydney theatre has never shown lasting respect to the builders of our theatrical tradition’ and if Myers’ ‘speculation about old playwrights feeling “sidelined by a new generation” were ever uttered by a politician or by any real public figure, they would be thoroughly condemned faster than you could say “Eddie McGuire”’. Personally, I think the moment a sub-editor allowed Flemming’s letter to be published under the title ‘Can Ralph Myers be taken seriously?’ all bets were off.
Now enter Aubrey Mellor (former artistic director of Playbox, now Malthouse Theatre), stage left, who added the not-so-edifying statements: ‘Loose adaptations lack respect for the original work’. And then this slightly unbelievable question: ‘why would the Chinese want to do Antigone when they could write a new play about the man who stood in front of the tank at Tiananmen Square?’ Though Alison Croggon and Andrew Fuhrmann differ wildly on Stone’s Cherry Orchard, on the incendiary, exploitative character of the coverage they seem to agree: for her, ‘inflammatory’; for him, a ‘phoney debate’. Suffice it to say, there’s probably been some awkward moments in theatre foyers in recent months.
Alongside Adelaide critic Jane Howard, Croggon has bothered to do what the newspaper responsible for this shitstorm might have paid a journalist to do – crunch the numbers. Their findings? ‘New plays are still the most popular means of producing new Australian theatre’, accounting for almost 60 percent of main stage Australian productions. And, compared with a decade ago, ‘our main stages produced no fewer new Australian plays than they did in 2003.’ They settled at least one aspect of the debate: as Croggon wrote in the comments section of her article on ABC Arts, the adaptation question is a ‘furphy’.
When I eventually saw the play, the adaptation issue wouldn’t go away. A point made by Andrew Bovell (of Speaking in Tongues, a.k.a. Lantana, fame) and re-spruiked by Rosemary Neil, echoed in my head: Bovell apparently said that the adaptations trend (though it’s not evident there is one) demonstrates that ‘theatre companies are more interested in directorial style than in contemporary issues’. I had assumed – contentiously, it turns out – that it had become commonplace to acknowledge that adaptations of classics were actually extremely fertile territory for the working through of ‘contemporary issues’.
I don’t feel qualified enough to postulate on what Chekov would have thought about the shitstorm surrounding Stone’s Cherry Orchard, but there is a line in Stone’s play that makes me think he would have agreed on the contemporary salience of the adaptation: ‘People shouldn’t go to the theatre. They should look more often at themselves’. Obviously it’s a moment of exquisite irony on Chekhov’s and Stone’s part.
As for us, we’ve been recycling classics for a long time now, across all art forms. It’s time to get over a reflex suspicion of this practice. Of course, not all adaptations will be worthy meditations on the contemporary condition, but the desire of artists to return to classic texts, and the desire of audiences to see them reinvented, I think, speaks for itself.
Dion Kagan is a Killings columnist, academic and arts writer who works on film, theatre, sex and popular culture. He lectures in gender and sexuality studies in the screen and cultural studies program at Melbourne University.