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  • Adaptation in Contemporary Theatre: Performing Literature by Frances Babbage
  • Richard Jones
Adaptation in Contemporary Theatre: Performing Literature. By Frances Babbage. Bloomsbury Methuen Drama, 2018. Cloth $75.00. 270 pages.

Adaptation in Contemporary Theatre: Performing Literature manages to occupy a very small niche yet simultaneously to have relevance across a wide [End Page 169] spectrum of subdisciplinary interests. On the one hand, this study focuses almost exclusively on European, mostly British, work from the twenty-first century. Moreover, as the subtitle suggests, the field is further delimited to include only adaptations from explicitly literary sources (i.e., not films or earlier plays). The book instead concentrates on the process of taking source material which is in the literal sense neither aural nor visual and rendering it into a new form, which is both. The dozen or so productions Babbage specifically highlights serve as catalysts for more broadly-based and theoretical concerns, such as the extent to which "fidelity" to the source is a dominant (or even relevant) consideration, and the gains and losses associated with the literal enactment of the simply descriptive. Babbage further explores the differences in hermeneutic access to adaptations for which an audience is likely to know the original texts, at least in outline, and those which are likely to be a first exposure to the material. The result is a book that deftly negotiates the intersection of theatre historiography and translation theory.

Babbage pays particular attention to site-specific and immersive productions created by and for particular companies. Thus, for example, a popular success like Simon Stephens's stage adaptation of Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is mentioned only in passing, whereas the utterly unreproducible twenty-four-hour-long Hebbel am Ufer adaptation of David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest receives much fuller treatment. Babbage's discussion of literary texts deemed "unstageable" parallels that of translation theorists as regards "untranslatable" authors (e.g., Racine): in both cases, the resulting work is incapable of reproducing the entirety of the aesthetic effect of the source, but the goal is to identify and retain the essence of the original. The act of performance is, of course, inherently one of adapting one aesthetic object-a text, whether intended to be mediated by performance or not—into another, the theatrical production. In this regard, Babbage is clearly more interested in the performance text than in the dramatic text, and while she does not disparage adaptations that privilege narrative fidelity, and indeed acknowledges "how frequently 'story' is emphasized in that [adaptation] practice above other factors," these are not her primary interest (79; emphasis in original).

Instead, she argues that "adaptation seeks ways to manoeuvre (that which it regards as) the substance of a book in its complex transmission between author and reader-spectator, and between the context of origination and a new space of reception" (65-66). Later she argues that "adaptation implies a movement between texts and forms with no imperative for the source text, or texts, to drive the work that results" (138). Such a process almost inevitably seeks to bring the spectator to the same understandings that a reader of the source text would experience, rather than attempting to transmit a point-by-point (or even general) narrative line. In this regard, it is unsurprising that even the chapter subheadings about individual adaptations highlight the production company (Complicite, Punchdrunk, etc.) over [End Page 170] any new specifically literary authorial voice. Of course, several of the spotlighted productions were scripted, if indeed that is the correct term, either by the director or as an essentially devised piece by the company as a whole.

There are moments when the book detours into the only marginally relevant, and others that offer a surfeit of detail, rendering what is already a dense and sometimes difficult read even more opaque. Babbage sidesteps the ethical issues of, for example, playing out a staged "murder" which could be seen enacted not merely by spectators who recognized the fictiveness of an immersive theatre event, but by members of the general public. More explication of the way approaches to source material might differ according to a variety of factors...


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pp. 169-171
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