It might be argued that adaptation can be a pointless endeavour. Why not just write a brand new play? But there is something in the energy of a re-imagining that appeals to playwrights and to audiences.
Why is this? I feel that we are excited by adaptation because it gives a very particular insight into the ‘new’ playwright’s creative force. We don’t just experience their thoughts, their fascinations, but also how they feel about the work of another artist.
As theatre is a sequential and responsive art form, this can feel very immediate and important: great plays continue to interest us, because the energy of their creation remains in the DNA of the text. And writers, of course, respond to that.
Gary Owen’s version of The Cherry Orchard, commissioned by Sherman Theatre, sets the play in Pembrokeshire in 1982. This is a place and time when the old ways are in decline – the wealthy are being challenged and social mobility under Thatcher’s ideology seems both possible and imminent. It’s a very British play. However, what struck me on my first reading of Owen’s very bold, very original new work was, illogically, how much I wish Chekhov could have read it.
I think he would be intrigued, because his themes are there and his energy is there. Owen’s The Cherry Orchard has taken the creative heart of the original and exposed the things about it that he most responds to, and that feel the most pertinent now.
As an audience, we are being given the chance to engage with the creative energy of more than one person, and to be given the opportunity to see two artists at work. This makes for an exciting premise: even if the audience hasn’t seen or read the original, the energy of something being ‘taken on’ and interrogated will be there.
Adaptation is an overt challenge to the idea that there is anything such as a ‘sacred text’ – we can do what we like. We have a responsibility as theatremakers to both honour and interrogate our collective work, and certainly plays that have earned ‘classic’ status.
Simon Stone’s Yerma at the Young Vic, for example, expanded the play’s core theme and made it brutally relevant to our modern gaze. We recognise the subject matter, but we are made to think about comparatively and make new links.
The work of exceptional playwrights is never dead. It can always be replanted. Here in Cardiff, on the afternoon of our second preview, I am proud that this play contributes a new version of The Cherry Orchard to the canon of Welsh theatre, and puts the voice of the country’s most exciting writer on the same stage as Chekhov.