Originally written for Exeunt.
Adaptation can be a counterintuitive thing: often, what’s vivid on the page falls flat on the stage. Ted Hughes’ strange prose poem Gaudete was originally conceived as an idea for a film, and its cinematic scope and punctuating moments of high drama make it an intriguing candidate for theatrical reimagining. Theatre company OBRA, though, struggle to animate it in its new setting. Linguistic flourishes fail to transform into dramatic ones.
Like the changeling who replaces the vicar of a seemingly ordinary Yorkshire village in Hughes’ narrative, OBRA’s adaptation is not quite what it strives to be. It wears the clothes of theatre, but it belongs to another place, its limbs composed of poetry just as the changeling’s are made of wood. Neither entirely fits in the world in which it finds itself.
At the centre of Gaudete is Nicholas Lumb, an Anglican clergyman who finds himself abducted by capricious spirits. In his place, the spirits dump a duplicate fashioned from wood, whom we are told interprets the word of the Bible in his own, “log-like” way. This changeling understands Christian compassion as carnal love, swiftly going about impregnating the women of the village and leaving chaos in his wake.
OBRA tell this bizarre story through a combination of Hughes’ text and their own physicality. Against a bare backdrop, the ensemble of eight use their bodies as vehicles for the narrative, conveying everything from raging bulls to grasping corpses. In the absence of set, meanwhile, Yves Marie Corfa’s lighting dissects the stage with surgeon-like precision. Often, pools of light isolate figures in darkness, showing them alone and lost in the huge, bewildering cosmos.
There’s no doubting the commitment and athleticism of the ensemble, but the movement itself is often repetitive, relying on familiar reaching and falling actions during sequences of dramatic action. The choreography oscillates between two modes: small, quiet, contained movements and crescendos of hellish activity. Each of these can be effective in isolation, but the lack of variety makes for a slightly laborious experience.
Laboured, too, is the pace of the show. OBRA take a risk by mirroring the structure of Hughes’ work in their dramaturgy: the first half, at a relatively swift 45 minutes, offers us the ‘Prologue’, while the meat of the narrative is saved for the further two hours that follow the interval. It’s a daring choice, but it doesn’t quite pay off. While the initial post-interval switch from dynamic group narration to small vignettes of village life is striking, the subsequent shifts in tone are handled clumsily, failing to sustain a sense of driving momentum towards the final, grisly events.
OBRA’s approach is most evocative when conjuring the small oddities of the everyday. The company offer exquisitely detailed little portraits of Hughes’ ruffled villagers: the doctor’s wife sucking nervously on her cigarette, or the row of drinkers gossiping at the local pub. I find myself more interested in these ordinary patterns of the worldly, beneath which lurks something indefinably unsettling, than in the jolting lurches into the other-worldly.
Other flaws also niggle. There’s something uncomfortable about the pliancy of the female villagers, all of whom surrender, trembling, to Lumb’s new version of the word of God. Far from problematising this aspect of Hughes’ story, OBRA’s physical interpretation renders the female characters visibly malleable. Their bodies bend and sway under Lumb’s influence, while one troubling sequence shows us an unnecessarily extended scene of domestic abuse.
The main problem with the piece as a whole, though, is its awkward marriage of text and physicality. Much of Hughes’ language is simply preserved, rather than adapted, while its presence on stage is sharply separated from the show’s physical vocabulary. In the second half in particular, most of the words reach us via voiceover, playing over the onstage actions of the ensemble. These disembodied voices can enhance the sometimes hypnotic mood of the performance, but more often they’re simply distancing. At its best, the experience of reading poetry is an enveloping one. But watching OBRA’s adaptation, I never feel truly immersed.