Over the past few months I’ve been fortunate to have seen three interesting plays which all have seminal movie versions: Incendies(Scorched), Maurice, and Richard III. I enjoy stage and screen equally, and I find it provocative to see stage and screen versions back-to-back.
Richard III, staged by Sam Mendes last fall at the ACT, has two seminal film productions, the first in 1955 with Laurence Olivier, and in 1995 with stage actor Ian McKellen; plans are also underway to turn Mr. Mendes’ current production into a film. Wajdi Mouawad’s Scorched recently finished its run, also at ACT, and has an award-winning film version by Denis Villeneuve. Finally, there is Maurice, the posthumously-published E.M. Forster novel, of which there is a wonderful Merchant-Ivory film version and which is currently playing at the New Conservatory Theater.
What theater gives us is the immediacy, the temporality, the community with the players which makes the consumption of art and performance delectable and tangible. This is especially true of Shakespeare, who wrote utterly for his audience and patrons. In Scorched, the audience audibly gasped at the revelation of the story’s central truth: we all felt and moved together as one. In Maurice, the audience together felt a certain poignancy and (political) knowingness with the book’s being staged in San Francisco – Edwardian ideas on homosexuality seemed outdated (and often funny) to us. Richard III was a marathon for the ears and the heart – it is difficult not to be swept along by the persuasiveness of Richard’s soliloquies.
What the film versions give is a sense of playfulness and freedom, of being elastic in time and in point of view. In all the film versions, there is a central character moving the narrative forward, but we are also privy to a multiplicity of narratives and views which film somehow makes easier to digest (another famous stage/screen work, Angels in America, also comes to mind). There is in addition the freedom to illustrate with images rather than with words (though to be fair the staging of Richard III and Scorched did wonderful things with lighting and with blood). Sometimes we need silence and darkness – or the pause that a silent image lends- to understand everything that is happening.
Thinking of all this makes me look forward to Baz Luhrmann’s upcoming film version of The Great Gatsby, which has already its Robert Redford version, and which is revived in the (7-hour) stage version of the Elevator Repair Service, currently in New York. The problem of the non-omnipresent first-person narrative, which works wonderfully in the book and in the play, will be a challenging and delicious problem to solve on-screen.