Some years ago, a Scottish playwright objected to the sheer number of adaptations of novels which were being staged across the country. Such works were valid enough, he agreed, but they should be rare and exceptional visitors to our theatres, since the vitality of theatrical life was determined by those original works which were the product of the mind and imagination of a writer. He also suggested darkly that such activity appealed particularly to so-called men of letters or to theatre directors who, whatever their other abilities, lacked genuine creativity but wished to cling onto the coat tails of more gifted individuals.
At around that time, the Citizens was about to stage Travels with My Aunt, adapted and directed by Giles Havergal, a work which turned out to be a great success and has subsequently been staged in Europe and North America. In a pre-production interview, I asked Havergal to respond to this criticism, expecting to have to stand back with my fingers in my ears as he exploded, but in fact, with a modesty typical of the man, he basically agreed. He did not have, he said, the inventiveness of a playwright but enjoyed the exercise of preparing a work for the stage. However, he had no wish to claim undue credit, and when some overenthusiastic publicity agent advertised the forthcoming play on the great hoarding outside the Citz as ‘the work of Giles Haver-gal,’ he made them remove his name and replace it with that of the original author, Graham Greene.
As it happens there have been several recent adaptations, of varying quality, in Scottish theatres. The Guid Sisters, the Quebecois play written by Michel Tremblay and reworked by Martin Bowman and Bill Finlay, Medea, updated and set in a modern housing complex by Mike Bartlett, and last year the misconceived version of Lor-ca’s The House of Bernarda Alba by Rona Munro. There are different reasons for doing an adaptation, and different levels of re-imagining involved. Bowman and Finlay produced a deft subtle work which can take its autonomous place in the Scottish canon, Bartlett totally rewrote the piece using only the most basic elements of the Greek tragedy while it was hard to see what was behind Munro’s work except a belief that a Scottish audience could only cope with a drama set in their own back yard. In all cases, the new work involved a cross-cultural exchange, with the risk of deformation that such a process involved.
The shift of cultures is not a consideration with The Cone-Gatherers, adapted for the stage by Peter Arnott from Robin Jenkins’ magnificent novel. Since Arnott is well established as one of Scotland’s leading playwrights and has to his credit a string of successful, challenging, deeply thoughtful plays, no accusation of battening onto the creativity of others can be levelled at him. He collaborated previously with director Kenny Ireland on an adaptation of Neil Gunn’s The Silver Darlings, under the general aegis of Aberdeen Performing Arts, an umbrella organisation which is ensuring that the Granite City is finally, after years of theatrical darkness, making confident steps towards occupying a place in the forefront of Scottish theatre-making.
If all theatre is of its essence a collaborative venture in which the crucial cooperation involves in varying degrees playwright, director, actor, designer, the essential cooperation here is between the novelist and playwright-adaptor. Adaptors of a mechanical turn of mind, not only those working for TV costume drama, will basically strip out the descriptive or narrative passages and reproduce a fair copy of the dialogue, while the more creative adaptor mulls over the spirit and essence of the original to identify what is of lasting value and to establish the appropriate means and idiom for conveying it in another medium. He or she is in the position of Picasso reproducing Velasquez. An art student with a brush and pencil will duplicate Velasquez’ Las Meninas as faithfully as is in their power, copying the pose, the tones of colour, the stance and the expressions of the various characters and considering any deviation from the original as a flaw, whereas a Picasso (not that they are ten a penny!), under the guise of imitating, will provide a response, a reaction, a re-reading, a criticism and, crucially, a transformation. Picasso was in awe of the genius of Velasquez but showed his admiration by tearing him apart and reconstructing him.
Arnott admitted ‘to his shame’ that he had not previously been aware of Robin Jen-kins as a writer. He is a quick learner, and has shown himself a sensitive, gifted transformer of his work. Jenkins remains Scottish fiction’s unknown and unsung genius. Periodically readers or critics come across him and proclaim their excited admiration but somehow his reputation is not evergreen. The Cone-Gatherers has the tautness of parable and its power is multi-layered. Set during WWII, in a forest in the Highlands and not in some centre of power, it features two brothers, one of whom is a deformed cripple and the other his affectionate, protective brother. Both are employed to climb pine trees and gather the cones which will be utilised to give rebirth to the forest once the hostilities are done. On the estate, they run up against the snobbishness of the patricians, particularly Lady Runcie-Campbell, and the incomprehensible malevolence of the keeper, Duror.
For such a short work and one which can be read purely as a tale, The Cone-Gatherers is intriguingly complex. A spiritual novel as well as a novel of social tension, it stands in the heart of the Scottish tradition in its obsession with evil and its account of evil’s tendency to pursue and crush innocence. Many works detail man’s inhumanity to man, but this one also protests as strongly as do the novellas of James Hogg at God’s incivility to man. The forest has aspects of the Garden of Eden, but is also a place which exudes a dark sense of danger and menace. Calum is a handicapped retard with an innate hatred of suffering and a love of animals worthy of St Francis. Duror’s wife is paralysed and reduced to a bedridden, cruel caricature of the woman she had been, and there is a transcendental thread to the clash in Lady Runcie-Campbell between her Christian beliefs and her sense of superiority and growing dislike of the brothers, especially Calum. To her dismay, her son Rodrick develops an affection for the disabled brother, but she disapproves of this fellow feeling, or charity.
An adaptation of this quality is a personal re-reading, and Arnott’s version highlights the social, perhaps at the expense of the transcendental or spiritual. The sense of uneasy conscience inside Lady Runcie-Campbell is less strong than in the original, while the sense of caste is overwhelming. The plebeians, particularly Neil (an assured performance by John Kielty), are motivated by class-based resentment. Their treatment by their betters rankles, justifiably so for the landlords live in a mansion with fifty rooms while the brothers are compelled to reside in a damp hut, and are on one occasion contemptuously forced out into the rain by her haughty Ladyship (Jennifer Black, to the manner and manor born) after they had taken refuge from a storm in the summer house. The framework of the drama is moral, but the morality is secular rather than dictated by a sense of the religious. The central problem is one of justice versus injustice rather than of the clash between faith and instinct, although sufficient echoes of Jen-kins’s outlook remain. ‘There’s a kind of innocence we just can’t afford,’ declaims the Lady of the manor, and while she is referring to what she regards as the naivety of her son Roddie (played with grace and spirit by Helen MacKay) and his unwillingness to pick up the aristo’s burden, behind it there is the memory of the clash as seen by Jenkins.
The principal innocent is Calum, a performance of delicacy and conviction by Ben Winger as the undeserving object of Duror’s inexplicable loathing. In Jenkins, Duror is a Iago figure, but Arnott’s rewriting makes him a lonely and isolated man, suffering on account of his wife’s affliction, at least as it impacts on him. He is endowed him with at least the outlines of humanity so that his plight arouses more compassion than Jenkins had allowed. The transformation into a somewhat more smooth operator is completed by a masterly performance by Tom McGovern, who never snarls like some cartoon villain but speaks in measured tones, and shows fawning deference to his employer. So what drives him? No complete answer is possible, but Duror’s actions in the final calamity in the play seem to speak of a mind unhinged by some malady rather than by the force of wickedness. Modern secular culture provides no insights for dealing with or depicting personal wickedness, even from a Hitler or an Anders Breivik.
The standard disadvantage of theatre over prose fiction is that it loses the discursive passages, but here this is overcome by the use of a chorus. This is not a superficial, story-telling device, but a Greek-style chorus, with passages of probing insight or lyrical loveliness. The collaboration between the creative spirits involved in the production ensures that while the vision behind the play is dark, the production has a beguiling beauty. Hayden Griffin’s set of hanging ropes suggests a forest which could be an innocent Eden before, or a menacing environment after, the Fall, while subtle lighting makes it either interior or exterior locations.
Under Kenny Ireland’s sure guidance, this stylish production is a venture in what was once called ‘total theatre,’ where dialogue, song, dance and imaginative lighting effects are coordinated into the narrative, most spectacularly in the central, decisive hunting scene. The gentle Calum is compelled by the conniving Duror and by her indifferent Ladyship to participate in a deer hunt. At the kill, he lunges on to the dying animal to offer comfort, but is pushed aside by Duror who cuts the animal’s throat, in prey to some wild frenzy which leads him to imagine the deer is his ailing wife. The scene employs the techniques of ballet, with the deer played by the elegant, alluring dancer Maxine Hamilton, whose steps beautify the chase and whose fall has poignant grace.
The final tragic climax is a consequence of the growing hatred of the clearly deranged Duror, all rationality and humanity gone. Jenkins seems to allow that the tragedy leads to a conversion in Lady Runcie-Campbell, but Arnott’s ending is more pitiless, making it clear in an epilogue that she has learned nothing and self-servingly blames the war for the private disaster on her estate. Perhaps that is the nature of modern tragedy, where catharsis is impossible. This production justifies, if justification is required, the value of adaptation.