The Wasp Factory: An opera with murder in its heart and a sting in its tale

Iain Banks' cult novel is the unlikely source for a new show at Covent Garden

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

When Iain Banks heard that his first novel, The Wasp Factory, was to be adapted by the Royal Opera, he thought the idea rather unorthodox – or "pretty bonkers". Ardent fans of the novel, which was published in 1984 and has since acquired cult literary status, might agree. As a breakthrough work, its status was rendered yet more sacrosanct by Banks's death in June this year, with the added complication that he wasn't going to be around to give his seal of approval on opening night.

The gloomy story of teen angst, mental instability, torture, murder and sexual identity is not easy to visualise on stage, least of all as an opera. Its gritty realism and psychological interiority offer the opposite of theatrical "spectacle", instead exploring the inner world of its 16-year-old antihero, Frank, against the backdrop of the Scottish wilderness.

Novelists have offered up varying responses to adaptations of their work in the past: some have distanced themselves in horror while others have embraced the transposition and the new readers it can bring. Adaptation for opera, though, is another matter. The Royal Opera's The Wasp Factory, composed by Ben Frost and librettist David Pountney, and performed by three singers, opens tonight. Rather than doggedly reproduce the story, its creators have gone for an audacious reinterpretation.

Among the dramatic alterations is the removal of the final, gender-bending twist. And while its stage designer, Mirella Weingarten, says that she had the original setting of a Scottish island in mind, the opera's landscape is more abstract and visceral. The stage will be covered in mud and leaves, whose smell will emanate out into the stalls, and the characters wear rags. "I needed a strong image for Frank's inner world. The stage became a character… that starts to breathe," she says.

So what were the challenges of such a radical adaptation? And did it win Banks's blessing? Pountney says that Banks's involvement was minimal though he approved of the project. He read the libretto, offered one or two changes (which were made) and then handed over creative control. He was puzzled by the adaptation, says Pountney: "I actually think he found the idea of it being turned into an opera quite strange… I got the impression that he thought it was a pretty bonkers exercise."

He admits that he was nervous when the libretto was sent to Banks. "I was not attempting to be faithful. I was trying to find a way to make it effective in a different genre. I don't think that the concept of a faithful adaptation has any real value, whether the final result is a film script, an opera libretto or, for example, a painting. Banks has left behind a core idea – the exploration of the possibility that a disturbed child could be a serial killer – and any adaptation would have as its primary purpose to find the right way to grasp that core within an entirely different genre."

Neither was Weingarten aiming at faithfulness. In fact, she felt a certain creative freedom in the fact that she did not meet Banks to discuss any "collegiate" vision of the stage production. "We let his manager know all about our processes and ideas... The creative team and I then took the freedom to withdraw and go to the core of that story all by ourselves… If you want to [transplant] this book into a play or musical theatre, it's not going to work. But if it's something else, something different from the book, it adds something", she says. "It is very sad that he [Banks] cannot see it now."

That the production might be deemed to be treading on sacred ground, following Banks's death, does not worry Pountney or Weingarten. "This is an apprehension that no one involved in theatre can afford to have," says Pountney. "We work on 'sacred ground' all the time, whether it be the words of Shakespeare or the music of Mozart. In order to work successfully as an interpretive artist, you have to be ready to treat these works of genius as simply words and music, characters or 'dots' that have been left behind on a piece of paper. Respect is appropriate for existing works, but if that respect inhibits the way you make theatre, or film, or music out of these original ideas, then the result will be inhibited, and that is no way to make works of art that grasp the potential of the ideas left behind to us by a genius like Banks."

Writing in the programme, the cultural critic Paul Morley adds that the effect of this production is paradoxical, in so far as it seems both familiar and startlingly unfamiliar to those who know the book. "These characters, brought into being by Banks… now have a new setting, with a new significance and new memories… We are in a place we have been in before... that is an entirely new place."

As strange as the Royal Opera's project initially seemed to Banks, The Wasp Factory has already received acclaim at the Bregenz Festival in Austria, where it premiered in August. Who knows what Banks would have made of it, but in all likelihood, he would have enjoyed the music. In an interview with The Independent in 2009, Banks said "I'm a sucker for a good tune, anything you can whistle", likening the act of writing a novel to making music, and talking about his ambition to write a symphony. "I'm not suggesting it will become a second revenue stream, but I love doing it. It's very much like writing a novel: there are different themes, individual melodies and threads that appear and interact with other melodies, just like characters."

'The Wasp Factory', Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House, London WC1 (020 7304 4000) to 8 October