Clockwork Director talks to Sraffies
Posted on by Bethan

Back in April we reported that Clockwork, one of Philip Pullman’s novels had been adapted into an Opera by Visible Fiction and the Scottish Opera; and would be touring through Scotland in June.

Our compatriots over at Cittàgazze managed to get an interview with Douglas Irvine, Visible Fiction’s Artistic Director, about the project and his thoughts on it.

First of all, could you give a brief presentation of yourself?

I’m the Artistic Director of Visible Fiction, a Scottish company dedicated to bringing arts performances and activities to young people and adults. I’ve also recently adapted and directed a new production of Philip Pullman’s ‘Clockwork’ which has been co-produced by Visible Fictions and Scottish Opera.

How did you come to choose this book for a stage adaptation?

I first read the book about ten years ago and was so delighted by the story, its themes, theatricality, structure, characters and playfulness. I knew that it had potential for production for the stage. However, I didn’t know how it could be staged, what form it would need to take, and why. So I stored it at the back of my mind.
Scottish Opera and Visible Fictions had been talking for some time about collaborating together to create a touring theatre production and a colleague there mentioned the book to me as something I might like to read and consider turning into an opera.

“I know it and love it!” And so our story started…

There were a few adaptations of Clockwork those last years. Have you seen any of them? Did you use an existing script or did you adapt the book by yourself?

No, I haven’t seen any of them. I knew that in order to bring our version to life, I would have to create a version that suited our purposes and so we didn’t use an existing script. I’ve adapted the novella and worked closely with the composer, Dave Trouton, who has created the score.

The book used to be a stage play written for his pupils by P. Pullman when he was a teacher; it presents a theatre-like structure with three parts. Did this help in the adaptation process?

I didn’t know that it was originally a play for Pullman’s pupils… That makes a lot of sense. I’ve adapted often for the stage and to be honest, it didn’t hinder nor help. Pullman’s story is so intricate and beautifully clean – complex and rich with nothing extraneous. It is an example of a master storyteller in charge of his craft – playing with form, structure and narrative.

There were challenges though. I needed the piece to be told within 70 minutes (with no intervals) while making sure the 3 part structure stayed intact. The biggest challenge of adapting it was trying to be loyal to Pullman and all the aspects that make Clockwork so intricate and beautiful but also knowing that nothing could be removed from the story. Like clockwork itself, if you remove a detail from the story it just won’t go!

The story is partly about storytelling. Fritz does not finish his story and is blamed for it. What’s your feeling about it, as a (stage) writer? Any compassion for his fate?

It’s funny but Dave (the composer) and I both understand the plight of Fritz – and Karl too. Undoubtedly as a writer/creator of work I think we do have to demonstrate responsibility for what we do (to a certain extent!) and for the work we put into the collective. But how often do we all procrastinate, leave things to the last minute, struggle with the hard work of creating, yet at the same time love ‘making it up as we go along’. Fritz undoubtedly has my sympathy and so does Karl for this aspect of their respective plights.

There’s a lot of comments from the author about the story in the book. How is this translated in the stage play?

These comments are crucial to the story – adding layers of humour, charming morality comments and context. In our version, meta-characters or storytellers are ever present in the production, guiding our audience through the complexities of the tale(s) and structure – adding wry looks, song and comment, changing character in front of our eyes and manipulating and bringing the story alive for our delight.

You involve puppetry in the show. Most of the latest Pullman’s adaptation used such tools. What is the asset of puppets in theatre? How will you use them?

Puppets are so magical, as a puppeteer literally breathes life into them. Puppets allow us to say and show things in ways that aren’t normally possible – bringing in layers of meaning and mystery that other theatrical forms can’t.
One of the driving forces behind the production (and the story) is the idea about how we breathe life into the inanimate. Just like Dr Kalmenius does in the story, our storytellers bring various things to life – but where Dr Kalmenius uses clockwork, we use a variety of theatrical devices including puppetry.

Can you speak about the set? How do you plan to translate on stage the mysterious landscapes where the story takes place?

That’s hard to answer in the written form! Kenny Miller (the set designer) and I have placed this idea of animating the inanimate at the heart of our production – and so we have created a theatrical world which allows the various influences of form to be celebrated – music, song, puppetry, kamishabai and animation.

Adaptations usually allow their director to give their own vision of the adapted book. How would you describe your personal vision of Clockwork?

I just want to be as loyal to the magic of Pullman’s original as I can be.

Is it different for actors to play in a stage play adapted from a book? Do they tend to read the book in addition to the adaptation?

The cast have all read the original book – it’s always useful to have as much information as possible when approaching characterisation. An actor’s job is to understand a character and their motivations and to portray them as accurately as possible – whatever source that character has come from – and then make that clear for an audience.

Have rehearsals led to some script modifications?

Yes, they have. As things are brought alive in physical form, you realise that certain lines and songs aren’t needed or other things are, or there are better ways of expressing ideas and information. The composer too, while writing most of the score before starting rehearsals, has been adding and changing material.

Did you have any exchange with Philip Pullman?

No we haven’t, though his representatives have been very supportive of us creating our own new adaptation.

Will you use live music or recorded music? What role do you give to music in your play?

We are using live music – cello and keyboard. Since in the story a song is crucial to the plot, music is very important to the piece and is shaping the form of our production. Ballad opera and Singspeil opera have both influenced the whole adaptation with recitative, arias, duet, choral work and spoken dialogue existing side by side.

If you had to sum up the show in one single sentence to have people come and see it, what would it be?

It’s one of Pullman’s most wonderful stories, told in a theatrical and magical way with a moving and playful score.

The interview is available in French over at Cittagazze’s website.

About Bethan

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