Monday, August 3, 2009

Thursday's Child

Anica Asks Herself a Few Broad Questions, and Ponders the Answers, with reference to Thursday’s Child, Theatre Royal, Hobart, 30th July

Thursday’s Child is an adaptation of Sonya Hartnett’s novel of the same name, presented by the Sydney-based company Monkey Baa, who are renowned for their theatre programs for young people. It is the story of Harper Flute and her strange, almost non-human younger brother Tin, who digs tunnels under the Flute family’s lives and home. Harper and her siblings are growing up on their parents’ struggling farm during the great depression, and Harper frequently steps out of the action to narrate from her adult perspective, guiding us through the summers of her childhood.

Who is it for?

This is always a valid question to ask of a production. But in this case, the show has been advertised as a production for young audiences, specifically 12 years +. But it is running a public tour, not a schools tour, and therefore must be intended to satisfy “adult” audiences too.

Thursday’s Child walks a restless, wobbly line between the two, never quite fitting on one side or the other. Parts of it are too confronting for a child of upper-primary age. And yet for an adult audience, it is too obvious, too didactic, too “telling” in style. The performances (and indeed the adapted script) lack nuance and layering – emotions are black and white, and shifts between them are sudden and unsupported. I felt frequently patronised, and I think young audiences would too. An audience member at age twelve is old enough to not need special concessions to their understanding of theatrical conventions. They don’t need constant reminders that this is A Performance. But I think this production offers those constant reminders – the characterisations are simplistic and ungrounded, and the interactions lack genuine connection.

There is a mismatch here between the content and the delivery – while the novel (and therefore this adaptation) may be directed at young adults, the performance style seems to be more directed towards a lower to middle primary school age group. This discrepancy is frustrating and infuses the whole production.

How should audiences approach adaptations?

There’s a reason that a book is a book and is not a poem, or a song, or a painting, or a dance piece. Or a play.

More often than not, film and stage adaptations fail to satisfy an audience. If you’ve read the book, you’re generally disinclined to think the stage version did it justice, no matter how strong a production it was. It will rarely live up to the images you’d already created in your own mind. And if you haven’t read the book, then you often find yourself lost – it is so easy for adaptations to inadvertently excise vital (or at least reasonably significant) details, relationships, moments... the dangers are endless.

In fact, though, Thursday’s Child stands up remarkably well. As someone who hadn’t read the book (and chose not to beforehand), the narrative still flowed quite satisfyingly for me. And I don’t now feel the need to read the book, to follow up on anything.

But the problems of adaptation remain. For a start, the dialogue and the narration in this production is sometimes awkward and unconvincing: I suspect this is because parts of it are directly lifted from the novel. And what works on the page doesn’t always work on the stage. The two require different kinds of poetry. Similarly, the six-year time frame is difficult to pull off in the theatre, and this production didn’t quite have me suspending disbelief. The “children” of the family weren’t any different at (for example) 12 than they’d been at 7. I think I would have preferred not to know the details; I would have been satisfied to understand that time was passing, without knowing exactly how much. Why couldn’t the narrative have taken place over an endless, elastic, dream-like summer: a summer of the kind Harper remembers from her youth?

What’s wrong with humming the set?

A director once advised me “you don’t want to go away from the theatre humming the set design”. A clever phrase (he may have borrowed it from somewhere). Translation: the technical elements of a show should never subsume the show itself. It was good advice – in an ideal world, a show works seamlessly as a whole, and nothing trumps anything else. But if one element does just happen to shine, then why shouldn’t it be a “technical” element just as much as an “artistic” element (and let’s not even get started on the problems of delineation there...)?

In Thursday’s Child it was Jeremy Silver’s superb sound design which I came away humming. I don’t mean humming the music itself – Silver’s lovely compositions. I mean humming the sound design, feeling it resonate and stay with me in the cold winter night as I left the theatre. The intangible menace, the sounds of Tin digging, the calm bush-scape, and the incidental wisps of music or effects: all were so extremely capable of finely nuancing the mood. A delight. However, it is a little concerning to find the sound design more memorable than the performances... I think I understand that old advice a little better now...

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