Will 'Swimming With Sharks' proove a hit on stage as well as on screen

'Swimming With Sharks' is the latest hit film to be transferred to the stage. Paul Taylor wonders whether it will be a success where so many other such adaptations have failed
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The Independent Culture

What do these three shows have in common? The first attracted the biggest box office advance in West End theatre history. The second was such a licence to print money that the best seats on Broadway were being sold for $480 (£240) – or $240 a buttock. And the third was the occasion of a massive fuss when some unfavourable reviews stung the artistic director of the National Theatre into an attack on dead white male critics.

The answer is that they were all derived from movies: Dirty Dancing, The Producers and A Matter of Life and Death. The path from the screen to the stage is becoming an increasingly congested one, as producers clamber over each other to capitalise on known quantities and to harness the power of name recognition. This autumn season opened with All About My Mother in an Old Vic production that marks the first time that Pedro Almodovar has allowed one of his films to be adapted for the theatre. And over the next few weeks, stage reworkings will be rife. Christian Slater is about to star in a theatrical makeover of the movie-industry black comedy Swimming with Sharks. Michael Ball will be climbing into a fat suit for the transatlantic transfer of the Broadway musical version of Hairspray. And an adaptation of Desperately Seeking Susan, the 1985 film that helped launch Madonna, will open, with songs by Blondie.

But would "desperately seeking a hit without taking the risk of putting on a wholly original new play or musical" be one way of describing this trend? Does it produce worthwhile work that tests the boundaries of theatre and film, or is it a matter of cash cows being milked of every last drop? And if the latter is the case, why do newspapers collude by giving such shows disproportionate publicity?

The grandmother of this species was Terry Johnson's stage adaptation of The Graduate, which drove the press to an unsightly feeding frenzy in 2000. The reason was simple: the spectacle of Kathleen Turner's Mrs Robinson stepping out of her bathrobe for all of 20 seconds of tastefully lit nudity. And when that garment was passed on to Jerry Hall to shed, one broadsheet paper smuggled its distinguished critic into the first preview so that he could report on... well, how theatre history was signally not being made.

Johnson asserted that comparisons with the movie were invalid – a somewhat disingenuous claim, given that the show nakedly traded on the film's fame, imported a film star to play the main role and included Simon and Garfunkel songs. Equally predictable was the fact that the critics had boned up on the film first and were perhaps overprotective of it. Also true to form, it emerged that the changes were not for the better. Instead, the play demonstrated that what works in one medium doesn't necessarily work in another.

Surely, you get the deepest pleasure from a film or a theatre piece when the medium is used so well that it's integral to the meaning. One of the best recent movies is Michael Haneke's Hidden, in which a Parisian TV presenter is the recipient of menacing "surveillance videos" that show scenes from his private life. Hidden is about many things, and it plays upon the paranoia that comes from living in a CCTV-monitored world. Haneke handles the medium of film brilliantly so that his own shots often mimic a surveillance camera's relentless gaze.

You'd have a tough time trying to re-create those effects onstage. My point, though, is that a challenging exercise like that would be a great deal more creative than, say, mounting a needless stage reproduction of When Harry Met Sally like the one that hit the West End with two imported American actors in 2004. The adaptation even managed to screw up the famous faked orgasm scene by transferring the line "I'll have what she's having" from an old lady to a smirking young man, thus nullifying its comic value.

Of course, some theatrical reworkings of films are as enjoyable as they are commercially successful. Monty Python and the Holy Grail justifies its stage existence as Spamalot by the loopy, self-reflexive twist that the Holy Grail being sought by the Arthurian knights is, in part, a smash West End hit. Even better, the musical of Billy Elliot, despite its so-so score by Elton John, is exhilarating, and sharpens the political content through song and dance.

The majority of adaptations, however, disappoint. All About My Mother, adapted for the Old Vic by Samuel Adamson, is deficient in precisely those qualities that make the film a radiant experience: the warmth of the humour, the strong sense of a growing bond between the women (and would-be women) who have to turn to one another for support. The failure is ironic: with its allusions to Tennessee Williams and Lorca, you might have thought that this film would take to the stage like the proverbial duck to water. And some people reckoned that it did. One critic wrote that "the scenes from Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire and Lorca's Blood Wedding make more sense and seem far more resonant in here than in the movie". But I felt that this was at the expense of the film's invaluable spirit.

It is one of the strange asymmetries in the relationship between cinema and theatre that a stage play can include film footage yet a film cannot include "live" theatre except in filmed form. The exceptions include John Cassavetes' Opening Night (to which All About My Mother alludes) and the films of Almodovar himself.

None of this means that I am pre-judging the shows now on the horizon. I'm a fan of both movies of Hairspray, and the buzz from Broadway on the theatre-musical version could scarcely be more positive. It was nominated for 13 Tony Awards and won eight. As for the Desperately Seeking Susan stage revamp, it's a shame that Deborah Harry appears to have written only one new song. The remainder are from Blondie's back catalogue; the test will be whether they really extend and counterpoint the story. I enjoyed Christian Slater as Randle P McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest when he played the role for two runs in London. This is rather a rum example – a 1963 stage adaptation of a 1962 novel revived as a vehicle for Slater because he has affinities as a performer with Jack Nicholson, who was an indelible Randle in the 1975 movie. But it was a pity that the piece had dated so badly in its Sixties counter-cultural concept of individual liberation and in its streak of misogyny. Let's hope that Swimming with Sharks, in which Slater is to play the Kevin Spacey role, still has bite.

I occasionally think I am against screen-to-stage transfers in principle, especially when I reflect on how frustrating it must be for dramatists working on original plays to see so much theatre space given over to second-hand goods. Then I decide that it would be wrong to police the borders between these two art forms too severely, because there are rare instances where a film has fired the imagination of a group of first-rate theatre-makers. The best example of this in recent years is Festen, adapted by David Eldridge and directed by Rufus Norris. First put on at the Almeida and then in the West End and on Broadway, Festen garnered several gongs in England. The acclaim it received is instructive. It shows how the most counter-intuitive revamps are sometimes the greatest.

The original Danish film of Festen was the first movie to be made according to the principles of Dogme 95, which stipulate among other things that a film must be shot at a real location by hand-held camera and without special lighting. This was ideal for the film, which is sometimes like a home-movie gone wrong as it charts a patriarchal 60th birthday party at which one of his sons accuses his father of child abuse. But the Dogme injunctions represent, in a sense, everything that theatre is not.

With the aid of sound designer Paul Arditti and set designer Ian MacNeil, Norris preserved the film's spirit by means that almost contradicted those used in the film. For example, it led you into its world with the sound of a gushing tap and a girl's laughter rising to a hint of hysteria (recalling the dreaded bath-times of old).

Festen is my comfort when I envisage a future in which the West End is dense with stage musicals of bad films and with the publicity for them: "See this guy poke a piece and sing. It's Puppetry of the Penis with pastry!!!" It's time that producers got a grip. If you give people what they already know, you don't create a theatre-going culture. What you offer, at inflated prices, is glorified karaoke.

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